Teaching styles can be as varied and unique as individual teachers themselves, but any type of successful teaching relies upon a thorough understanding of students and the various learning styles. In this respect, scientific understanding of the process of learning and the brain not only informs many educators’ teaching methods, but is in fact fundamental to successful teaching.
There are many models for teaching based on scientific research, such as the popular Bloom’s Taxonomy, cooperative (facilitative) learning, cognitive, constructivist and connectivist approaches. Not being a trained educator, I cannot claim to fully understand the theories behind these educational methods. However, as a student, I have been taught by many educators who make use of scientific evidence about learning to inform their methods of teaching and I feel they have been highly successful at their jobs.
Almost all of my secondary school education was based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, which sees students develop from basic remembering and understanding of facts to being able to apply, analyze and evaluate the facts, and ultimately to create their own ideas. While all students must start with learning the facts, not all students can reach the analyzing, evaluating and creating levels (what are commonly referred to as the higher-order thinking skills). Using an understanding of each learning level and other scientific evidence on students’ learning abilities, teachers can often separate students into various learning levels and teach them accordingly.
In the New Zealand education system (NCEA), the three main categories of Bloom’s Taxonomy (remembering, applying and creating) roughly equate to the three possible grades you can get in an assessment or exam (achieved, merit or excellence). Although the NCEA system is sometimes criticized by educators, it is still the most comprehensive educational program in use and is heavily influenced by the systematic approach to learning prescribed by Bloom’s Taxonomy. Therefore, not only do teachers actively use scientific evidence about learning to inform their teaching methods, the actual curriculum and assessments are also based on scientific research into learning.
Other forms of teaching I have experienced include constructivism and connectivism. Constructivist approaches are where students use prior knowledge, or gather information themselves to construct their own knowledge. This is a widely used approach in research-based and rather more subjective courses. The teacher’s role is not so much to teach facts out of a textbook, but to guide students to finding the textbooks themselves and extracting what information they need from it. The science behind this teaching model is that students tend to learn better when they do things for themselves, because the brain is more active searching for and interpreting information than when it is simply rote-learning. Indeed this is mostly true, but it can also lead to students not gaining a full understanding of the material and being clouded by their own prejudices.
Connectivism is a relevantly new approach that addresses the use of technology to help facilitate learning. All older approaches to learning were based on the model of teachers and students in a classroom environment working from whiteboards or textbooks, but scientific research in the last few years shows that that is no longer the only environment in which learning can take place. Connectivism takes into account the development of technology as a tool for learning, such as online courses, the use of online databases for researching, and better communication systems. It also sees the skills gained from use of technology as an important part of the learning process, such as decision making (like using the correct key words in a database search), time management and being open to a diverse range of sources and opinions. Although many criticize connectivism as not an actual new and fully sufficient approach to teaching, its use is spreading as new generations of students are ever more attached to their laptops, iPhones and the internet.
For example, all my university lecture notes and learning resources are available online and I can regularly email lecturers with questions, so I could very well study my entire degree at home if I wished. However, this approach would not allow me to reap the benefits of being in a study environment where I can converse, question or debate with my peers, and it basically cuts out the role of the teacher altogether except as the person who posts the course material online. Thus, although scientific evidence shows that young people are more likely to use technology to help them learn, teachers are not fully relying on this to inform their teaching methods because technology alone is not sufficient to replace the experience of teachers or the assistance of peers.
Writing on scientific evidence as a basis for teaching methods, I am reminded of a lecture I heard recently on culture and its effect on communication. The lecturer taught us that teaching based on scientific research and proven facts is a somewhat Western concept. Other cultures in other countries rely on a different system of beliefs to teach, for example the predominant idea in many Asian cultures is that you are to listen to your elders as they are always right. Other models of teaching can be based on intuition or qualitative judgments rather than scientific evidence. Thus, although here in New Zealand (and I would assume in many Western societies), I have found that educators do rely upon scientific evidence to inform their teaching methods, it is worth knowing that this may not be the case in all cultures all over the world.