Should We Be Teaching or Facilitating Learning?

Models of Education

What do you picture when you think of education? Do you envision students sitting at their desks taking notes while a teacher lectures? Or do you see students working in groups, having discussions, asking questions, conducting experiments, and exploring nature? Depending on your background, including your own educational background, you probably have a presupposed idea of what you think education is “supposed to” look like.

While there is no single right way to do an education, it is helpful and important to be familiar with the different models of education so that we can understand the benefits and drawbacks of each. As parents, we want to know how our child is learning and how to best support them. As teachers, we understand the value of questioning and evaluating our own methods and making adjustments when needed in order to best support our students’ learning.

photo of young girl exploring together


teacher giving out instructions not to cheat


Most teaching methods fall under a “teaching-centered” or a “learning-centered” philosophy. Many of the more traditional methods are teaching-centered, which is basically teachers delivering knowledge and facts. Learning-centered methods focus on nurturing student discovery and critical thinking, helping students naturally make connections and take ownership of their learning.

What is Direct Instruction?

One model of teaching, Direct Instruction, focuses on well-planned lessons with specific teaching activities and learning milestones. This method was developed by Wesley Becker and Siegfried Engelmann in the 1960s. Direct Instruction teaching methods are used to improve the academic performance and behavior of students. This method of teaching is used in many schools across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

Direct Instruction is based upon several principles, including the idea that the teacher must control all aspects of instruction in order to eliminate confusion. According to this method, it is considered ineffective to allow students to develop their own learning methods without the correct guidance and support. Lessons can be more interactive and not limited to a lecture format, but they need to be fully developed and explicitly taught.

For more on the background of this model of education, check out this episode of The State of Education podcast, and then head over to this article from One-Room Education for more in depth information about the subjects covered in the podcast episode.

Facilitating Learning

Facilitating learning shifts education from knowledge delivery to student development. This does not mean that educational standards need to be lowered or that the curriculum needs to be watered down. Students are still taught basic facts, but learn critical thinking skills as well. They are taught how to go beyond the basics and learn how to learn.

In recent years, technology has impacted the way that teachers interact with their students. Students have access to a variety of resources they can use to discover information. This often leads teachers to take the role of a facilitator, helping students learn how to learn and discover what they love to learn about. Teachers guide students as they discover information and help them to understand what they find.

To this effect, it is important to ensure the sources students and teachers use are credible. Some ways to do this may include checking the author of the source to determine if they are reputable in that specific field and determining the target audience and goal of the source to be aware of any biases. Consider the date of publication to make sure that the information isn’t out of date. Scholarly databases, such as JSTOR and EBSCO, often contain peer reviewed and research backed journal articles proving to be reliable sources. You can often access these databases through your local library for free. 

As important as it is to teach students to evaluate the references they use or have relied on, it is also critical for teachers and parents to evaluate their teaching methods to determine why they use that model and if it is still effective. The shift to facilitated learning, often referred to as student-centered learning, can be a challenging one for some teachers and parents if explicit teaching is the method that was learned and how they were taught themselves, or if they have a background in it. Facilitated learning requires us to develop our own problem solving and critical thinking skills in order to foster an environment where students and children are open to discuss, discover, and collaborate.

How Can I Facilitate Learning?

There are countless ways to facilitate student-centered learning. One way to shift your mindset is to switch from thinking about what needs to be taught to what needs to be learned. What do children need to understand and know how to do? Offering choices, like allowing children to have a say in what, when, and how they learn, helps keep them more engaged.

Implementing a variety of methods can help parents and teachers determine which is most effective for their students or children. It also introduces children to multiple strategies and processes that they can apply to many areas of study and real life situations. Case studies, observation, team-based activities, and PBL (Project or Problem Based Learning) are a few of the many approaches that facilitate student-centered learning.

Examples of Learning-Centered Methods

Project Based Learning (PBL)

Project Based Learning (PBL) uses real life situations and problems to help students develop their critical thinking and problem solving skills. In solving the problem, children have to develop a plan, conduct research, make decisions, check other students’ ideas, and work as a team.

PBL gives students some control in their education. They can share their ideas and discover what is important to them. They are more active participants in their education, and learn the skills necessary for handling real-world situations they will encounter as they mature.

Thematic Units

Making use of thematic units is another way to integrate learning. Thematic units demonstrate that information isn’t learned in isolation. One unit can cover science, language arts, music, math, history, and art all at the same time. 

Specific skills, such as literacy and fine and gross motor skills, can be targeted through various activities. This is also an opportunity for students to have more of a say in what they are learning about, since many skills can be targeted through almost any area of interest.

A unit on pumpkins can include reading books about pumpkins, researching interesting facts or moments in history (such as the world’s biggest pumpkin), measuring pumpkins or counting seeds, planting pumpkin seeds, baking pumpkin pie (which includes all the skills needed to follow the instructions on a recipe), and so much more.

Choosing themes that relate to the seasons and holidays throughout the year also lends itself to outdoor nature exploration and community visits.

Teaching or Facilitating Learning?

Now that we’ve covered a little bit about the difference between direct teaching and facilitating learning, reflect on these questions: With which model are you most familiar? Which do you gravitate toward? As a teacher, do you tend to employ a teaching-centered or learning-centered philosophy? As a parent, what type of education do your children experience in school?  If you homeschool, which method do you utilize?  Let us know in the comments.

If you feel unsure about how to approach education, evaluate the level of engagement of your children and students. Are they making connections between the subjects and real life? Consider that it might be time to make a change. If you would like to incorporate new techniques, try starting small, and adding one new activity at a time.

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