Recently, several provinces announced their back-to-school plans for this fall. While there are some variations, the common theme is that students will return to in-person learning, albeit with some restrictions.
Ontario plans to have all K-8 students in school on a full-time basis while most high school students will start out with a mix of in-person and remote learning. Schools will be required to keep students in cohorts and place desks as far apart from each other as possible in order to follow physical distancing guidelines.
Predictably, many teachers and their union representatives took to Twitter to denounce the reopening plan. Along with complaints that the government wasn’t spending enough money to hire additional teachers, critics argued that it would be nearly impossible to teach effectively while following the distancing regulations.
After all, they suggested, teachers don’t just stand in front of the classroom and lecture students like a sage on the stage. Rather, they act as a guide on the side, moving around the classroom helping students with their inquiry projects. Instead of putting students in rows facing the front, teachers use flexible seating that allows students to sit wherever they feel most comfortable. Students also work in collaborative groups where they share ideas and complete projects together.
These are well-known aspects of the progressive education philosophy. This approach de-emphasizes the teacher’s role in directly instructing students and encourages students to figure things out for themselves. Obviously, this type of classroom setting isn’t going to work very well in the COVID-19 environment. Things like flexible seating and collaborative groups make it difficult to follow physical distancing guidelines.
However, there is a simple solution to this problem—set up classrooms in a more traditional way. Put the desks in rows with students facing the front and have the teacher do most of his or her teaching at the front of the room. Make sure teachers set and enforce classroom rules and provide students with lots of opportunities to do individual practice work at their desks. Not only do traditional classrooms make it easier to follow health regulations, they are better for student learning.
There is no shortage of evidence to support this claim.
For example, Jeanne Chall was a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the Harvard Reading Laboratory for more than 30 years. In her final book, “The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom,” Chall examined the research and compared the effectiveness of progressive student-centred education with traditional teacher-centred education. Her conclusion was clear.
“Traditional, teacher-centred schools, according to research and practice, are more effective than progressive, student-centred schools for the academic achievement of most children,” stated Chall. Not only that, teacher-centred education was especially beneficial for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In contrast, teachers in progressive student-centred classrooms are expected to adapt their instruction to the individual learning styles of each student. As Chall pointed out, this is a highly inefficient way to teach because each student receives only a small amount of direct instruction time each day. In addition, it is difficult to give additional time to academically weak students while also providing individualized instruction to all the other students.
Over the years, a great deal of research has been conducted on what effective lessons look like. Teachers need to clearly explain new concepts, model how to solve problems, give students multiple opportunities to practice, and make sure students have mastered a new skill before moving on to the next level. In other words, they should make regular use of traditional, large-group, teacher-centred teaching methods.
Then there are the health benefits. Traditional classrooms are far more conducive to physical distancing than progressive classrooms. Putting the teacher at the front of the room helps the teacher maintain a 2-metre distance from students for the majority of class time. In addition, seating students in rows and facing them in one direction reduces the likelihood of COVID-19 being spread from student to student. Less group time and more individual work time also makes it easier to keep students apart from each other.
Obviously, when it comes to COVID-19, there is no such thing as a risk-free classroom environment. There is always the possibility of the virus spreading, even when students follow stringent distancing regulations. However, there is no question that it will be easier to keep students apart in a traditional classroom setting than in a progressive classroom setting. Not only will this keep students safer, it will help them learn more too.
For teachers who have always wanted to set up their classroom in a more traditional way but were prevented from doing so by progressive school administrators, the COVID-19 pandemic has given them the opportunity to do so. If more teachers embrace traditional teaching methods, it might even lead to a significant improvement in student achievement.
That would be a good thing for everyone.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.