Strategies often come in the form of a pre-packaged "method", which includes research-based approach along with clear design and procedure for using in class (Richards, 1986). In other words, research says _____ increases student learning, so we're going to do that by doing A and B, and the expected outcome is C. A "method" can form an entire curriculum or even set the context for a school (i.e. "Montessori method" or "Suzuki method").
Methods are nice - they tell teachers "we've done the research and the work to make you a tool - go take it and teach!" It allows teachers to focus on their immediate classroom needs. The trouble with teaching by methods, however, is that teachers are limited to the artificial walls created by whoever designed the method. If teachers only understand the methods and then hold themselves to the methods, two problems arise: First, they miss opportunities to meet the needs of their students which might be served by a different method that they have either rejected or are not familiar with. This leads to the second problem, where teachers modify the method in order to meet the needs of their students. However, this modification can fundamentally alter the method to a point where it is no longer achieving the goals intended. They may be achieving some goal, but it's like the game of "telephone" - the end result is often some sort of message, but it isn't the original message that was intended. While this might seem good on the surface (look! He's learning better now!), it is problematic because the "original message" was research-based and the final message received is not. Thus, we may no longer be teaching with "research-based" methods. Obviously, the researchers did not work with our kids and adjustments will always need to be made - this is why we hire professionals to lead our classrooms. So, how can we know that our real-life decisions in the classroom are really what is best for our students beyond a set methodology?
Moreover, we need to use this research to evaluate every method or strategy that we might employ. This not only includes taking a critical look at any pre-designed methods, but it also breaks down those artificial walls to allow teachers to create new methods based on the needs of their students while adhering to research on student learning.
So, how do we do this?
First, we have to understand the principles established by extensive research. These are at the core of our teaching philosophy, and so each teacher must carefully research, consider, and eventually adopt the principles they feel are most appropriate for their classroom. Although we should come to some consensus about what these principles are, teachers teaching by someone else's principles that they do not fully understand and endorse will likely lead to a misapplication of the principles and ineffective teaching.
In the short-term, a teacher who is only ready to teach by methods can "borrow" principles, as we implicitly do each time that we agree to use a method. Moreover, principles should be constantly reviewed and adjusted based on new learning - both in the world of research and in the teacher's own professional development.
I am working on a post which more fully articulates the following principles that I have developed for my own instruction (second language acquisition), but here is a brief summary:
Language acquisition and the rate at which it occurs are determined by the natural order of acquisition, internal syllabus, and the amount of quality input that students comprehend. Of these, we can only control the amount and quality of comprehensible input that students receive. Thus, a language teacher’s top priority is to maximize the amount of comprehensible, compelling, and rich input that students receive. Accordingly, my principles include the following:
- CI is most effective and efficient: What comprehensible input are students receiving? Are there any components that are not comprehensible input, such as output, grammar instruction, correction, etc.? To what degree are they used and for what function? Are they necessary? Is there a modification that could be made to increase the amount of comprehensible input? What effect will this activity have on the affective filter?
- Compelling: Will this be interesting enough to my students to be compelling? Why or why not? Am I providing this input because I want to teach the students something, or am I providing this input because I know the students will be interested in it? How will I measure and respond to student interest level?
- Rich Language: What language am I using and why? In what ways might I be limiting my language and why? How will I ensure that what I'm saying is comprehensible?
- Navigate meaning through interaction: What behaviors will show that my students are comprehending the input? What will they do when they understand? What will they do when they don't understand? How will I measure and respond to these behaviors?
- Flow: How will the lesson flow? What interruptions to flow might occur? Are there any elements of the method that will inhibit flow? What is the intent of those elements and could they be adjusted to increase flow? How will I handle those interruptions?
- FVR: What are the actual effects on reading for students? How to students feel about reading during this activity? Are they more or less intrinsically motivated to engage in independent and voluntary reading? Will this eventually lead to students engaging in FVR? Why or why not?
- Assessment: Is the assessment authentic or contrived? Is it based on what students can do with their proficiency with regard to comprehension and communication? Is the assessment contextualized? Are students being graded holistically or on specific skills? Does the assessment format and resulting feedback honor what students can and cannot control or influence (can: behaviors; cannot: acquisition)?
As we learn and grow, however, not only are obligated as professionals to not only move toward the upper tiers of Bloom's taxonomy, but we must also expand the scope of our vision and begin to look at practice. Transcending the methods requires us to analyze and evaluate the practices themselves, and then effectively create new ones, both through modification and invention, that address the needs of our students and circumstances (which include the needs of the teacher!). We cannot do that unless we let go of methods and teach by principles.
Herman, E. (2016). Acquisition classroom memo 4.
Richards, J.C., & Rodgers, T.S. (1986). The nature of approaches and methods in language teaching. In J.C. Richards & Rodgers, T.S. (Ed.), Approaches and methods in language teaching: A description and analysis (pp. 14-29). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.