Ask Dr. Blank: What are some positive teaching strategies to help children to learn better?

 

This question is an important one since it is essential that we “help children to learn better.” Fortunately, given the explosion of information in cognitive and neuro-psychology, we have much of the information that is needed to achieve this goal. Schools, however, continue to rely on outmoded, unproductive methods that steadily work against effective learning for all.

So instead of starting by proposing “positive teaching strategies”, I am going to start my response by focusing on one of the most powerful of these negative forces currently operating in today’s schools. Specifically, I am going to talk about the question-based strategy that governs so much of classroom exchange.

Basically in thousands of classrooms across the nation (and across the globe), the teacher asks a question (e.g., “how much is 2 and 2?”) and one of the students is called upon to answer. If the answer is correct, the teacher then moves on by asking another question aimed at another student. Of course, one might ask, “Since the student already knew the information, what has been gained by this interchange?” The answer is “Essentially nothing except for having administered a test item which enables the teacher to make judgments about a student’s “abilities.” Often it is a judgment that simply reinforces the view that the teacher had already had of that student.

On the other hand, if the answer to the teacher’s question is incorrect (as it often is), the teacher generally turns to another student and repeats the process until a correct answer is finally offered. The reaction of the student who failed the question is frequently one of shame and hopelessness. They have been embarrassed in front of their peers and they know, despite whatever is said to the contrary, that the teacher is viewing them as in some way inadequate.

This question-asking culture is the system you almost certainly encountered in your own school days and it is the system that continues today. If you can’t recall your school experiences, look at any movie that has teaching scenes in it (e.g., Stand and Deliver, Stanley and Iris, etc.) and you will see the question-answer pattern in clear form. Justifications are frequently offered for the system, but upon examination, they prove to be far from accurate. For example, it is commonly claimed that questions are good “because they make the students think.” Such questions do exist but they are few and far between. Most of them are of the “how much is 2 and 2 variety?” and those are far from thought provoking.

Once you examine the process, several features become apparent. First, many of the questions involve memory, such as “Who was the first president of the United States?” or “What were the main causes for the Civil War?” These questions are predicated on the assumption that the students have, in their memory banks, the information being requested. Many do not. Further, these questions are essentially test items, not teaching items. Testing rarely proves to be a good method of teaching for a host of reasons including the fact that they generate tension and often failure. That makes them a recipe for “giving up,” and not a recipe for wanting to learn.

As with so many well-rehearsed cultural practices, question asking has its roots in the past. Specifically, when schools first started, supplies were scarce. Often there was only one book in a classroom. To ensure that the students had learned what was in the book, they had to memorize its contents and the teacher would question them to ensure that this, in fact, has occurred. It was never a great or exciting technique, but it “handled” the scarcity issues of the time. Now, even though the situation is markedly different, question asking continues, causing many, if not most, students to experience boredom, tension and failure.

The abandonment of this single “strategy” alone would transform the educational scene. There would, of course, have to be new methods put in place. One of these could be well-designed discussions where the climate is such that students are not fearful about making “mistakes.” For these discussions teachers would need to have solidly organized information that they can use to guide the discussion in a productive manner. Many other methods are available as well. The key is to recognize the dominant and negative role that question asking plays in classroom exchange and move steadily to replace it with more motivating and enlightening methods.

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Marion Blank

Marion Blank

Dr. Marion Blank is a world-renowned psychologist and expert on the development of literacy and language in children as well as the creator of the “Six Skill Integrated Method” for teaching children to read. Prior to creating the Reading Kingdom online literacy program, she created and directed the Light on Literacy Program at Columbia University. She has authored dozens of peer-reviewed articles and books and developed numerous award winning teaching and assessment programs. Dr. Blank is also a recipient of the Upton Sinclair Award which honors individuals who have made a significant contribution to education.
Marion Blank