Teaching styles

What sort of teacher are you?

I think it is worth reflecting not only on what we teach but how we teach it. When I was at school and when I first started teaching there was much less emphasis on examinations. In fact, I studied many subjects such as History and Geography at school without ever taking a public examination in them. I may be making the wrong connections but I think this began to change after the Oil Crisis in 1973. The knock-on economic effects of this were huge including a stock market crash in 1973-74. Before that time it was relatively easy for educated people to find jobs. People tended to go to university because they enjoyed studying and learning rather than because it was providing training for a particular career or profession. During and after the oil crisis many firms made workers redundant. Applications for university courses which led directly to a profession increased considerably. As a result the grades that students required to get on to courses such as Medicine, Law and Veterinary Science became much higher and competition increased enormously. This put pressure on students to achieve high grades and consequently a much bigger emphasis on teaching towards examinations.

Contrast these two quotes which were written 120 years apart:

“When Prof. Ayrton and I were appointed the first professors of the City and Guilds of London Institute we found ourselves in complete agreement that we would have nothing to do with teaching for examinations.
I am proud to say that the programmes of the Guild’s Colleges have never been disfigured by references to examinations as objects to be kept in view by students.”

Henry E. Armstrong, Science Progress,1886

"For arts subjects, questions have become more predictable and specifications much more tightly prescribed, while for science A-levels, long questions have given way to fragmented and easier ones and candidates are led through questions. Opportunities for analysis, creativity, extended argument and problem-solving have all declined. The exams have made our schools duller places."

Anthony Seldon[1], Spectator Jun 18, 2005

During the last thirty years or so the whole emphasis of education seems to have become more and more exam orientated. Teachers tend to be caught in the middle of all of this. We have a responsibility towards our students to help them achieve the highest grade they are capable of but at the same time we also have a responsibility to give them a high quality education - in other words to get them to think critically and place their subject in as wide a context as possible. We have to follow the syllabus and teach its contents. The IB is proud of its Learner Profile and the 'Hexagon' but the way our Chemistry syllabus is currently set out actually encourages us to go more down the examination-led route. Consider the following (nonsense) information and questions about traxoline.

Let’s now rewrite this into an IB Chemistry syllabus mode (we'll call it Topic 12) with objective command terms and teachers notes:

12.1. Define Traxoline (Objective 1)

Traxoline is a new form of zionter

12.2. Describe how Traxoline is montilled (Objective 2)

Traxoline is montilled in Ceristansta. The Ceristanians gristeriate large
amounts of fevon and then bracter it to quasel Traxoline.

12.3. Discuss the importance of Traxoline (Objective 3)

Traxoline may well be one of our most lukised snezlaus in the future
because of our zionter lescelidge

Now we will rephrase the questions using command terms as they might appear on an examination paper:


1 Describe Traxoline.

2. Identify where Traxoline is montilled.

3. State how Traxoline is quaselled.

4. Suggest why it is important to know about Traxoline.

The point is that you (or a student) can now answer the questions simply by quoting from the teacher’s notes without actually understanding anything at all about traxoline. Just think how many examples of Chemistry there are exactly like this on the current syllabus.

You need to decide which sort of teacher you are going to be. The two extremes are Teacher A and Teacher B shown below. Take an honest appraisal of yourself. Where on the scale do you currently lie?

Are you going to simply do all you can to prepare your students for the exam by the Teacher A route or are you willing to take a gamble and actually try to educate your students? A student who has been taught by the teacher B route may actually do better in the examinations as they are relying on understanding rather than on memory and practice. More important than this though is that they will enjoy the subject much more and perhaps go on to become a really great scientist. They will also look back and value you as one of the teachers who had a real affect on their life. As Richard Zare at Stanford University in California says,

“Students don’t become brilliant scientists by being excellent at doing the same things other people do.
They become brilliant scientists by being excellent in doing different things than other people.
…and we will never be able to measure that in standardized tests.”

Richard N. Zare, Stanford University, CA (Chemistry and Engineering News, 2005, p3)


  • 1. Anthony Seldon is currently the Master of Wellington College, a British school which now offers the IB.