Classroom Methodologies

Let’s all own up to this fact: The educational field is full of buzz words, overly used terms, tired expressions that have droned on for decades in faculty meetings to the detriment of the spirit and heart and mental freshness that would otherwise be enlivening the minds of our schoolchildren.

On these pages I’ll list the main terms associated with different teaching methodologies used in preschool through grade twelve education and give short definitions for them.  Then, over time, and here’s the purpose of these Teacher Talk dropdown menu items, I will be adding contemporary (those who are alive and still working in the classroom) teacher explanations or renditions of these terms so as to give them new life and perhaps offer newfound joy to teachers seeking renewal or rejuvenation.

TEACHERS: Provide me with your definition of any of the terms below—be creative, unique, outlandish, but in all cases, be utterly honest—by sending to enlivenminds@yahoo.com. Or, you can submit comments and suggestions in the comment box below. As I gather definitions, I’ll be happy to share them on this page.

Some of the drop-down categories in the Teacher Talk column are included here as well, but these concepts [like STEM; differentiation; inclusivity, etc] have risen far above the realm of pure methodology and have taken on lives of their own, governing school identity, educational philosophy, corporate marketing, and have become marquee “innovative” approaches to teaching and learning—in short, they deserve their own category and teacher input. Because these concepts have dominated the school talk for years, the popularity and high use of these terms have contributed to a lot of confusion. Therefore, this enlivenminds site will be focusing on those concepts in more detail.

I won’t be espousing one methodology over another, as all these approaches have their place—even several of them, and possibly all of them, can be deployed in the classroom within a single class period. No one approach is monolithic or superior or the sine qua non of instructional practices, and no teacher can be categorically pegged to one methodology (Like, she’s a student-centered teacher—really? Do you really mean that she is never ever teacher-centered?). One more thing about this short list: You’ll find sites that list a huge number of “methodologies,” way more than I have here, but I have found that what they are including in this term “methodology” are actually classroom tactics, curricular organizing strategies, facets of educational philosophy, or assessment approaches that are byproducts or derivatives of one or more of these main concepts below.

The Main Methodologies (Briefly) Defined

Brain-Based Learning

This is the engagement of strategies that are based on brain research. Essentially, teachers using this method will be pulling from contemporary research on the brain and how it learns best. Such strategies as communicating relevance of a lesson, spaced learning, mindfulness approaches, bridging concepts—this list is huge. There is no single true example of brain-based learning; teachers who practice this method are simply pulling from what brain research is saying and incorporating these studies into how they teach.

Collaborative/Cooperative Learning

This approach will arrange the classroom into small groups who work together on a common task. They may be working on a multi-step math problem, designing an ideal schoolhouse, or brainstorming arguments for a debate. In many cases, each of the collaborative team’s members will be assigned a specific role to play within the group, designed to achieve full and equal participation. Teachers who are effective with this approach will mix and match students based on observations of strengths and traits exhibited by individuals.

Competency-Based Learning

This approach is a recasting of the school’s structure—so that teachers are measuring learning only, without reference to a fixed duration of a course, trimester, semester, or what have you. Basically, a student’s progress to the next grade level happens only when that student proves that he/she has mastered the knowledge and skills (competencies).  In true competency-based learning, you wouldn’t find one teacher delivering instruction in this manner, while others choose a different methodology—that’s because competency-based learning requires an entire school or division of a school to embrace this all at the same time.

Differentiated Instruction

This highly overused term refers to the opposite side of the one-size-fits-all approach to teaching.  The thinking is that presenting a lesson entirely by way of a lecture—in other words, 100% teacher-centered instruction—is not fair to all students because students learning differently. The actual implementation of DI can become more intricate and challenging, the more the teacher is attempting to meet the different needs in the classroom. Still, with excellent training and guidance, DI is very possible. I prefer the originating term that eventually became differentiated instruction—I like the term “complex instruction,” because that’s essentially what it is.

Flipped Classroom

Sounds like a classroom run amok. This is a very trendy phenomenon these days—it’s about switching home and school: students are introduced to content at home in the evening via podcast, video, or powerpoint, say, and then practice the lesson at school (as if school is taking place at home and homework is now done at school). The rationale behind this approach is to locate the students where they can receive the most help and have access to the most helpful resources while they are trying out the lessons. And that happens at school, say the flipped classroom advocates. Meanwhile, the introduction to content can be done at home—since that’s the simple step one in the learning process.

Game-Based Learning

Sometimes you’ll see the concept “Serious Games” but really game-based learning can apply to all these games (almost exclusively these days we’re talking about audio-visual, computerized games) which aim to accomplish some instructional goal. Game-based learning typically will be centered around competition (with oneself or with peers), and the features that make these games “serious” are the ones that address cognitive skills, critical thinking skills, content retention, among a host of other academic skills. These games are becoming more and more sophisticated and captivating, with brilliant visual and sound quality. Accordingly, advocates see the potential to activate “flow” and achieve great lengths of concentration in student users.

Inquiry-Based Learning

In this approach, teachers focus chiefly on delivering questions designed to inspire students to search for the answers, but teachers are also expecting questions from students in order to help accelerate or deepen their inquiry into a topic. The main idea in the inquiry-based approach is to incite curiosity and generate hunger to discover new things. Teachers will frequently develop ways to model inquiry and also model the enthusiasm necessary to want to know more. A typical format is for students to develop questions they want to answer, then devote the work to searching for and answering the question, then presenting to the rest of the class. Ideally, students will then have an opportunity to reflect on the entire process.

Kinesthetic/Experiential Learning

I combine these concepts because at root, they are both about physical movement. On the one hand, with experiential learning, the student is learning by doing—that’s simple enough. That can happen in or out of the classroom. Kinesthetic learning recognizes that students may process information best when they are physically engaged. The standard frontal, lecture-style teaching just doesn’t work for the kinesthetic learner. Their brains just won’t fire up unless they are moving. Among the tactics: classroom exercises; stand up / sit down routines; allowing students to do small movements like squeezing a nurf ball or tossing a tennis ball in the air and catching it whenever someone gets the answer right in class. Creative teachers who know their students well often deploy fascinating ways to keep their students in motion without disrupting the class.

Multiple Intelligences

This mindset and teaching approach has been steadily active in educational strategy since Howard Gardner’s book of 1983. Essentially, Garner’s book points out that human beings don’t just have one type of measurable intellectual capacity, such as the standard IQ. Instead, there are intelligences that span eight (in his accounting) intelligence spheres or modalities: verbal/linguistic; visual/spatial; bodily/kinesthetic; logical/mathetmatical; intrapersonal; interpersonal; musical; and naturalist. The classroom practitioner of a multiple intelligence approach would allow students to express their knowledge in individual ways, reflective of one of these modalities, and the practitioner would also be delivering material through a variety of means during the same lesson in order to reach all intelligences in a given classroom.

Personalized Learning

Quite similar to differentiated instruction, personalized learning also is referring to designing curricula and lessons to meet the needs of each individual student in the classroom. The way I see its distinction from differentiated instruction is that personalized learning, alongside what you will see in the differentiated classroom, will be much more predominantly focused on the individual’s interests and strengths and motivational elements—this takes time to cultivate in the classroom, but the success of this approach depends on the extent to which the teacher reaches out to learn who these students are in the classroom—their activities beyond school, their family profiles, where they are from, their summertime experiences, their sports or arts or performance involvements, etc. Observing a classroom conducted with personalized learning in mind will reveal a very close and easeful relationship between the teacher and students.

Project-Based Learning

This concept refers to a method where students, and often student small teams, are working for an extended period of time on a challenging problem to solve. It is becoming more common to see entire schools dedicating their instructional approach to project-based learning. The curriculum planning process with this method will consider those projects that are personally meaningful for students and of course will also accomplish an educational aim. The main problem or question or challenge that generates the project will need to be well thought out in order to elevate the project’s relevance to students, will be interesting to them, and will have aspects of the research that appeal to individual strengths and interests.

Personalized Learning

Quite similar to differentiated instruction, personalized learning also is referring to designing curricula and lessons to meet the needs of each individual student in the classroom. The way I see its distinction from differentiated instruction is that personalized learning, alongside what you will see in the differentiated classroom, will be much more predominantly focused on the individual’s interests and strengths and motivational elements—this takes time to cultivate in the classroom, but the success of this approach depends on the extent to which the teacher reaches out to learn who these students are in the classroom—their activities beyond school, their family profiles, where they are from, their summertime experiences, their sports or arts or performance involvements, etc. Observing a classroom conducted with personalized learning in mind will reveal a very close and easeful relationship between the teacher and students.

STEM

Anyone clicking into my site will already know that STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, with the occasionally added A to make STEAM which represents art. The central idea is that these subjects are taught in an inter-disciplinary manner. Several major corporations, along with national governmental programs, have invested heavily in the teacher training of STEM, which does require serious training to do it right. This method of learning will combine standards-based, inquiry-based, and real world problem-solving while also enlightening students to careers that are emerging in STEM fields.  Click into STEM on this Teacher Talk drop-down menu to learning more about STEM.

Student-Centered

This concept is an over-arching term that refers to almost any means by which students are actively engaged in learning. Some educators like to use just these two terms, student-centered and teacher-centered, to cover all classroom strategies, and thus considering all the other methodologies outlined on this page as just facets of student-centered learning. But teachers can and do construct student-centered approaches that dabble in many of these methodologies, and that’s of course what they are all meant to offer—a means to achieve active learning and effective instruction. The term student-centered, within the professional community of educators, will also refer to a teacher’s mindset that is focused mainly on learners as opposed to being primarily concerned with teacher benefits, working conditions, and employment obligations.

Teacher-Centered

Because teacher-centered instruction often gets contrasted with student-centered, the take on the teacher-centered approach is typically quite negative. But teacher-centered, or direct instruction, whereby the teacher is lecturing or essentially leading the delivery of content, no matter what style that delivery is made (podcast, frontal lecture, powerpoint, etc), certainly has its place in the classroom, although it will become more prevalent the higher the grade levels. Another concept teachers like to use to explain those segments in the class period when teachers need to explain a concept or introduce the next lesson are called “whole class instruction.” There is a place for this whole class approach frequently throughout K12 education, but to dominate every class period with this approach will likely be ineffective and spawn passivity and boredom.

Workshop Model

This model, created and popularized by Lucy Calkins and colleagues at Teachers College at Columbia University, is a class structure that trains students to be responsible, active, and engaged learners. Typically, it is implemented with a three-pronged classroom structure: mini-lesson, work time (the workshop portion of the class), and then debriefing. The work time, which might be about 60% or so of the full class period, is the center of this approach: while students are reading, writing, thinking, problem-solving during this phase, the teacher is actively checking in with every student, and commonly the teacher will reach everyone by pulling together three to five students at a time to the teacher’s desk (in the standard workshop model, the workshop table will be a half moon table with a cut-out segment on the other side for the teacher’s position) and will devote about four or five minutes zeroing in on each student’s progress.

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