Teaching Styles and Pupil Progress
Neville Bennett


Bennett's book provide's a seminal analysis of the effect of teaching styles on the performance of students, and is an important example of the contribution research can make to sound educational decision-making.

As the legendary Jerome Bruner notes in the book's forward:

The gap between doctrinal positions in teaching and the evidence required to support or refute them is notorious. ... if educational practice is to achieve any rationality, and is to be freed of its addiction to passing fashions, we shall need a more regular assessment of how yesterday's enthusiasms are faring in the cold light of today. Neville Bennett's book sets out to do this. ...

Bennett's book ... is that rare kind of study that sets itself the explicit task of disentangling educational means from educational objectives, and it proceeds with a dispassionate skill to combine conceptual subtlety with empirical open-mindedness. The result is a powerful, disturbing book that is bound to reverberate in educational and political debate over the coming years. ...

The main findings can be summed up quickly. The more formal the teaching, the more time pupils spend working on the subject matter at hand. ... For though it may come as no revelation that students in the more formal classrooms improved considerably more in reading and in mathematical skills than the less formally taught, it is much more revealing that pupils in informal settings did not do any better on their creative writing than their more formally instructed fellows. ...

The scholastically less able boy is hindered least by the informal classroom, ... the ones who suffer most in scholastic performance in informal class teaching are the ablest students. Inadvertantly, informal classrooms are academic levelers, ... [they] also hurt most the less well-adjusted student who, it was thought, would be most helped.

While Bennett's data largely speaks for itself, his comments about fads in education, and the general state of educational research warrant particular note. Consider Bennett's quote of Benjamin Bloom's 1972 School Review article, "Innocence in Education:"
In education we continue to be seduced by the equivalent of snake-oil remedies, fake cancer cures, perpetual motion contraptions, and old wives' tales. Myth and reality are not clearly differentiated, and we frequently prefer the former to the latter.
Bennett gives similar quotations from two other researchers, and then documents how fads have ping-ponged across the Atlantic. In England, the philosophy of "progressive education" (which today is known in the US as "developmentally appropriate practice") was advanced by major reports in 1931 (the Hadow Report) and 1967 (the Plowden Report). The emphasis in Plowden on "child-centered" and "developmentally appropriate" education are clear from the quote Bennett takes from that report:
The school sets out deliberately to devise the right environment for children, to allow them to be themselves, and to develop in a way and at the pace appropriate to them ... It lays special stress on individual discovery, on first hand experience, and on opportunities for creative work. It insists that knowledge does not fall into neatly separate compartments and that work and play are not opposite but complementary.
Bennett then connects the methods advocated by Plowden with "open education" in the United States (which admittedly was inspired by the informal teaching style in British schools):
Open education is an approach to education that is open to change, to new ideas, to curriculum, to scheduling, to use of space, to honest expressions of feeling between teacher and pupil and between pupil and pupil, and ... characterized by classroom environment in which there is a minimum of teaching to the class as a whole, in which provision is made for children to pursue individual interests and to be actively involved with materials, and in which children are trusted to direct many aspects of their own learning.
Bennett concludes his introductory chapter by noting that although the rush to adopt innovations without proper research is allegedly for the good of students, "it is a strange logic which dictates that we can afford to implement changes in organisation and teaching which have unknown, and possibly deleterious, effects on the nation's progeny."

Subsequent chapters of the book address the prior research literature, research methodology employed by the current study, and the results of the study. Of particular interest are the achievement results for reading, math, and English, which are examined first as a function of the student's pre-test scores and later as a function of the student's personality.

Pre-Test to Post-Test Gains for Reading, Math, and English

Bennett's data show that formal teaching styles generally outperform informal styles, particularly for boys and girls of average to high scholastic ability.

The only exception, boys of lower scholastic ability, may account for the popularity of informal methods in schools struggling to meet minimal standards for student performance.

The following three charts (for reading, math, and English, respectively) the gain in test scores (from pre-test to post-test) is graphed as a function of the initial pre-test scores (which appear along the horizontal axes). The data is clear: not once do both lines representing gains by boys and girls in informal classrooms (denoted by short dashed lines) exceed the gains made by boys and girls in formal classrooms (denoted by solid lines).

Personality Types and Differential Gains for Reading, Math, and English

To assess the impact of teaching styles on the achievement of students of differing personalities, Bennet and his colleagues analyzed student's personality tests to define the following categories of eight personality types:

  1. Stable and extroverted with a reasonable conception of their own ability
  2. Introverted and anxious with a poor view of their own ability
  3. Similar to Type 1, but with lower self-concepts and poorer attitudes toward school
  4. Anxious, but with favorable self-concepts and positive attitudes toward school
  5. Extremely introverted, low self-concept and timid
  6. Anxious, positive toward school, sociable and conforming
  7. Contentious, non-conforming, unsociable with a poor opinion toward school and schoolwork
  8. Stable, extroverted, motivated, sociable, conforming with a favorable self-image

The differential gain in achievement experienced for each of the eight types (horizontal axis) is charted below. Again, formal classroom instruction is the best fit for the majority of students, followed by a mixture of formal and informal instruction. The results clearly show that informal methods are likely to exacerbate the very problems with pupil adjustment they purport to solve.

Conclusion

In the conclusion of his work, Bennett notes that "pupils in formal classrooms engaged in work related activity much more frequently, the differences being most marked among pupils whose initial achievement level was high." By way of contrast, he then quotes a warning from an advocate of the "integrated day:"
The integrated day can be outstandingly successful; and it can be dismally bad. It is unfortunately a fact that when it does not work the results can be almost totally unprofitable for the children, and demoralising and exhausting for the teacher. It is probably no exaggeration to say that with a more formal structure somebody is almost certain to learn something on the way, whereas with a disorganised Integrated Day it is perfectly possible for no child to make any real progress at all except that which comes about more or less by accident.
Finally, in his concluding paragraph, Bennett notes:
If the key to effective progress lies in the direction and planning provided by teachers, then perhaps another 'ought' is for teachers, and the teachers of teachers, to submit their practices to critical scrutiny. To question critically the bases of one's accepted values and practices can be a disturbing process, but it is an essential one, not only for teachers, but also for the children whose education is the teacher's prime responsibility.
Bennett's book exemplifies the critical scrutiny that teachers, parents, legislatures, and the courts should demand of the schools.