Should We Teach Math and English the Same Way?

Because we teachers are a busy lot, we sometimes want simplicity and clarity:

I’m honestly too busy to sort through all the options and variables; just tell me what to do.

In fact, when I went to my first Learning and the Brain conference in 2008, that was exactly my plan.

The researchers would tell me what to do.

I would do it.

VOILA: brain-based teaching.

The more time I spend in this field, the more I doubt that logical chain. In fact, I frequently warn people against that kind of thinking.

4 students sitting at a table discussing something visible on a laptop

My regular mantra:

“Don’t just DO this thing. Instead, THINK this way.”

In other words, we teachers always have to translate research-based advice to our own context.

Today’s News

I recently came across a study looking at twelve different instructional activities in English and math classrooms.

In this study, “instructional activities” include …

… open discussion among teacher and students,

… use of whiteboard by teacher

… students working in groups

… one-to-one teaching

… students copying from the whiteboard

And so forth.

The research team asked: do students benefit from the same instructional activites in both disciplines?

To answer this question, researchers had observers keep track of teachers’ instructional activities. These observers — during more than 2500 visits! —  recorded whether teachers did these 12 activities “none or very little,” “some of the time,” or “most or all of the time.”

And, they then looked at the students’ scores on national exams in English and math. (This study was done in England, where most students take the GSCE when they’re 16 years old.)

So, what did they find when they put all those pieces together.

Fascinating Results

First, this research team found that teachers do different things:

Some teachers spend much of class time using traditional direct instruction, including lecturing and the use of textbooks, while other teachers devote more class time to students working with their classmates or individual practice.

For instance: one third of teachers use “open discussion” most or all of the time, but one quarter don’t do so at all.

Second, those different instructional activities matter.

In math classes, students benefit from a) practicing on their own, and b) teachers’ checking for understanding.

Students who engage in these activities “all or most of the time” score significantly higher than those who do so “some of the time.” (In this case, “significantly higher” is a bit hard to describe. Probably the easiest way to say this is: both statisticians and the students themselves would notice the difference.)

In English classes, however, students benefit from working and talking with each other (and the teacher).

So, to answer the question in this post’s title: at least according to this study, we shouldn’t teach all disciplines in the same way.

What This Finding DOES Mean

If you teach math or English to high-school students in England, I think you should give this study a careful look to guide your classroom practice.

That is: I’ve given an introduction — but the study includes A LOT more information that could be practically helpful to you.

Even more important:

If you don’t fit in that teaching category, this study means that research-based teaching advice always requires translation and adaptation.

Students benefit from different instructional activities in math and English. And, presumably, in other disciplines as well.

That is: you might go to a conference session that highlights the importance of mind-maps. (I’m picking this example at random.) That session shows research about its effectiveness in helping students learn.

However, this study clearly reminds us that we might need to adapt that advice to our own classrooms.

High-school English teachers might have students create mind-maps together; remember, students benefit from “working and talking together.”

High-school math teachers might have them create mind-maps solo; students benefit from “working on their own.”

More generally, this study might prompt you to ask some direct questions during that mind-map session. Was the research done with students in different grades? In different school or community cultures? Studying different topics? With diagnosed learning differences?

In other words: this specific research finding reminds us of a general lesson. We should be curious about and open to research-based suggestions. AND, we should check and be sure the research aligns with our teaching context before we make drastic changes.

What This Finding DOESN’T Mean

The flipside of my last point is: this research should encourage you to adapt your teaching practices only if your classrooms look like these classrooms.

Do you teach history? This research might not (or might) talk directly to you.

Do you teach second grade? Ditto.

Perhaps you teach in a different cultural context — say, Korea, Cairo, or Kansas.

Perhaps your school has a specific teaching philosophy (a Montessori school; a military academy) that rules out these approaches.

In other words: don’t just DO what this research tells you to do. THINK about your teaching practice with these ideas in mind — and see if they fit and make sense in your world.

Burgess, S. M., Rawal, S., & Taylor, E. S. (2022). Teachers’ use of class time and student achievement (No. w30686). National Bureau of Economic Research.

category: L&B Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *