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What Were We Thinking? 4 Teaching Strategies That Are in the Past

What Were We Thinking? 4 Teaching Strategies That Are in the Past

If your teaching style looks something like this, it may be time for a makeover.

If yesterday's teachers were airplane pilots, today's teachers are air traffic controllers, directing fleets of planes through the world's busiest airports. Schools have evolved from being quiet, passive learning environments to the bustling, hands-on classrooms of today—and teaching strategies have advanced with them.

Looking back at some past teaching methods might leave many of us wondering what were we thinking? Was anyone really learning? Here are a few approaches that are now in the past.

1. Classroom Lectures

Today's students should thank those of us who spent years sitting through hours of teacher-delivered lectures. It might be hard to imagine now, but teachers used to spend their entire day talking, which meant students spent most of their day passively sitting and listening. While people once thought this was the best way for students to learn, today's research shows the exact opposite.

Further reading: The 5 Best Teaching Methods I Used This Year

Researchers have found that active learning results in higher student achievement, better engagement, and longer retention of material. Research has also concluded that student success is much less dependent on what instructors do (i.e., give a lecture) than on what they ask their students to do.

Judy Dodge, an educational consultant and author, explains that teaching strategies have changed due to a better understanding of the brain and how learning actually occurs. "The more parts of your brain you use, the more likely you are to retain information. If you're only listening, you're only activating one part of the brain, but if you're drawing and explaining to a peer, then you're making connections in the brain," she said.

While lecturing is still common in college-level classes, studies have shown that it's still not effective. In fact, a study of undergraduate students in traditional lecture classes found that they were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes using active learning methods.

2. Round Robin Reading

For struggling readers, the only thing more humiliating than being assigned to the "Turtles" reading group is the public shame of round robin reading. Previously common in classrooms at every level, round robin reading (also sometimes called "Popcorn") is when students read aloud together one by one. Each student typically reads a paragraph at a time and then passes it off to the next student to read.

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Veteran teacher Susan Antonelli says that round robin reading doesn't improve a student's reading fluency, and it inhibits opportunities for students to perform higher-level thinking tasks such as making connections, predictions, or inferences.

Additionally, round robin reading has been found to cause anxiety for students who struggle with reading aloud, behavior problems for students who stop paying attention once their turn has ended, and an overall lack of comprehension because most students only pay attention to the section they're reading. As an alternative, a 2006 study found that whole-class choral reading led to enhanced decoding and fluency.

3. Busy Work and Worksheets

OK, I admit it, I've killed more than my fair share of trees. As a first-year, self-contained special education teacher with 12 students working at 12 different levels, worksheets were my primary method of keeping my students busy and engaged. While worksheets aren't completely obsolete, we've definitely been rethinking their purpose.

Jennifer Gonzales, a former teacher, says there are two types of worksheets: "busysheets" and "powersheets." She defines busysheets as "low-level recall stuff—filling in blanks with words, choosing from multiple-choice questions, labeling things," and powersheets as "note-taking sheets or data collection tools that directly support student learning." Gonzales says all worksheets fall onto a continuum, and teachers must really consider the purpose of any worksheets they assign their students.

Teacher and author Mark Barnes feels even more strongly that worksheets are bad for students and teachers. He believes worksheets make students dislike learning and that they undermine teaching: "These assignments turn average teachers into weak ones and undermine the efforts of potentially brilliant teachers. Worksheets are crutches, used primarily as tools to teach, and this creates a vicious cycle of bad education."

4. Copy, Copy, Copy

When I was a new teacher and it came time to teach my students spelling, I did what I saw other teachers doing and what I had done myself: I had students copy dictionary definitions and write their spelling words 10 times each. Copying wasn't limited to spelling and vocabulary, as I knew teachers who taught students the U.S. Constitution, math facts, and class rules through copying as well.

Further reading: 8 Essential Teaching Tips from Someone Who Has Seen It All

The problem with this mindless, passive activity is that it requires no engagement with the content or higher-level thinking. It involves limited senses and can be incredibly difficult for some students—creating another barrier to actual learning. Copying words or definitions closely resembles punishments of the past that involved writing sentences such as "I will not chew gum in class" over and over.

Research now indicates that students need practice interacting with words and content to really learn it. Much like listening, copying is a passive activity that might keep students busy or quiet, but does nothing to engage higher-level thinking that leads to actual learning.

Today's busy classrooms look very different from the quiet, passive classrooms of the past. These are just a handful of teaching techniques that are much less common than they used to be. No longer are teachers just dispensing information—they're now directing active learning.