'Initiative fatigue' puts teachers off new methods

June 20, 2003

Primary school teachers rely on traditional methods to teach English and mathematics, and have ignored government guidelines on interactive classroom techniques, according to new research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Official guidelines to improve the teaching of literacy and numeracy encourage teachers to increase time spent in class discussion and dialogue with children and to reduce the time they spend explaining and using highly structured question and answer sequences.

However, the project found that most teachers had no clear idea of what ministry officials call 'interactive whole class teaching' is and had received little practical guidance on how to implement the teaching methods policy-makers recommend. 'Officials assume that it is enough to hand down advice to teachers, but the truth is that their behaviour in the classroom is ingrained,' says Dr Frank Hardman, who led the research. 'It's like turning round a tanker.'

The researchers, from the University of Newcastle, used video recordings, classroom observations and questionnaires to intensively study the teaching strategies of 72 primary teachers from all over the UK. The project findings suggest that during both literacy and numeracy hours most teachers ask easy questions designed to elicit specific answers rather than open questions to prompt classroom discussion. Probing questions and dialogue with an individual child are rare; the researchers found that 70% of exchanges with pupils lasted only five seconds and were limited to three words or less. It was very rare for children to ask the first question.

Teachers who took part in the Newcastle study welcomed the opportunity to evaluate their classroom methods. 'Some of them thought they were already using interactive techniques and were surprised by our feedback,' says Dr Hardman. 'Less than a fifth of our sample had seen training material published by the DfES and none of them had incorporated the ideas into their classroom practice. Most teachers said they would like to use our feedback as a basis for exchanging experience with colleagues and for coaching in interactive methods.'

The research casts doubt on the effectiveness of 'top-down' initiatives such as the National Literacy Strategy and the National Numeracy Strategy. 'These initiatives have made an important contribution to raising standards by helping teachers measure children's achievement,' says Dr Hardman, 'but they do not appear to have reached the deeper levels of teaching practice. Teachers are bombarded with demands and advice and many of them suffer from 'initiative fatigue.' Our findings suggest that monitoring and self-evaluation need to become a regular part of in-service training. Such a bottom-up approach could help change traditional patterns of behaviour in the classroom.'
For further information:
Contact Dr Frank Hardman, phone: 0191-222-6628, e-mail: F.C.Hardman@ncl.ac.uk
Or Lesley Lilley or Anna Hinds at the ESRC on 01793-413119/ 413122


1. Dr Frank Hardman is at School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU
2 The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating o social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to usiness, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £76 million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at http://www.esrc.ac.uk
3. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at http://www.regard.ac.uk.

Economic & Social Research Council

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