For as long as I’ve been writing about education many commentators have argued that teaching should seek to balance teacher-led and student-led activities. Although this is often presented as self-evidently obvious, it rather begs the question. But what’s so great about balance? Should we seek balance for its own sake or because it’s intrinsically valuable? Despite balance sounding, well, balanced, no one would argue that we should seek to achieve a balance between effective and ineffective activities so to argue that teaching should include bother teacher-led and student-led activities we really need to make the case that both are inherently worthwhile.
This has been on my mind again because of a recent discussion with a colleague where we explored the idea that teacher-led lessons are more demanding for teachers and that maybe one reason for balancing activities would be allow teachers some down time in lessons where they can catch their breath whilst students get on with something independently. This was an angle I hadn’t considered previously. I’d always taken the view that teacher-led activities (reading aloud, questioning, mediating classroom discussions, using mini whiteboards to ensure participation in thinking and writing and the other activities outlined here) were not only more effective, but also easier than student-led activities (small group discussions, project work, extended individual reading or writing tasks etc.1) Like many teachers, I’ve found the faff involved in trying to make student-led activities work rarely – if ever – repaid the effort. But, as long as behaviour is good, I can see that most of this effort would be in planning and designing resources to facilitate the activities in advance .
To be clear, I’m not arguing that lessons should never contain such student-led activities (some become more or less important in different subject and with students of different ages) rather that the balance should be disproportionately in favour of teacher-led activities. To make that argument I think it’s helpful to weigh three different indices: workload, effectiveness and equity.
Workload implications will vary widely and the trade-off seems to be between effort in lessons versus effort before lessons. The effectiveness arguments are well-trammelled and you either accept the evidence or you don’t. I’m very sceptical about hard to see benefits and claims such as these:
Student-led learning is incredibly beneficial for both students and teachers. For students, this education style makes learning fun by giving them creative freedom and empowering them to have control over their own learning. It also instils values such as intrinsic motivation, self-discipline, and curiosity. For teachers, it means more time to help students individually and to make sure the class meets long-term goals.
This seem utterly detached from reality. There may be students who find student-led lessons fun, but they’re certainly not a majority. Whether such activities instil “intrinsic motivation, self-discipline, and curiosity” is an empirical claim. For it to be accepted you’d need to find a way of measuring increases in such intangibles and then design an experiment to demonstrate it to be true. So far, this threshold is yet to be met.
However, I think the most important of these lenses is the final one, equity. My argument here is that the more socially advantaged and the higher prior attaining a student is, the more likely they are to benefit from being time to discuss ideas and engage in independent work. At worst, they are less likely to be negatively affected and are often successful despite engaging in student-led activities. But for students who are less socially advantaged, lower attaining, diagnosed with SEND or marginalised in any other way, the more likely these students are to benefit from teacher-led activities where fewer assumptions are made about prior knowledge, cultural capital or social capacity. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that these students are only likely to be successful if given a classroom diet of mainly teacher-led activities. All children are likely to benefit from teacher-led activities, but disadvantaged children will benefit disproportionately.
This, I think, is the crux of the matter: student-led activities are, albeit inadvertently, gap widening, whereas teacher-led approaches are more likely to be gap narrowing. When trying to determine the correct balance between different approaches it’s very easy to say that lessons should balance teacher-led and student-led activities but much harder to argue that lessons should balance gap narrowing and gap widening activities.
The ultimate aim is – of course – that students are independent, but (as I argued back in 2013) teacher-led activities are the most reliable mechanism for getting them to that point.
Now, you might want to take issue with any, or all, of the conclusions above but I still think this enables us to weigh up the potential costs and benefits to choosing teacher or student-led classroom activities. If you’re going to include student-led activities, how will ensure they don’t end up widening the advantage gap?
There are certainly many alternative takes that caricatures the idea of teacher-led activities and make up lots of nonsense about the supposed virtues of student-led approaches.
Honestly, I’d argue the opposite to be true for most of these categories. My approach to teacher-led lessons goes definitely design the classroom around students’ needs, with fast-paced interaction with failure always recognised as “teachable moments” and centred on the belief that all students can be successful if instruction is gapless. It’s particularly ironic that the student-led side of the graphic above includes the caption “Teachers lead, coach and inspire learners.” Of course teachers should be responsible for meeting students’ needs (the alternative is to not take responsibility which is, er, irresponsible) of course classrooms should be controlled (again, the alternative is to be out of control!) and of course teachers should focus on teaching subject content (what would happen to disadvantaged students if they didn’t?)