The Three Modes of Teaching

Following a recent discussion after reading Lee Donaghy’s blog, ‘Building ‘abstract generalisations’ to help yr 8 write like historians’, I started to wonder if some of the disagreements we have on teaching methods are to do with a ‘misalignment’ of terms. By which I mean that we seem to have different meanings for the names we use to describe different teaching methods and confuse or conflate one with another. This seems to be particular true of ‘inquiry’ and ‘discovery’, which are often used interchangeably. To my mind they are quite different, since Discovery is about giving space to the students to find out things for themselves, whereas Inquiry is about working collaboratively with students to find out things together. Fundamentally they come from different theories of learning, Discovery is based on Piaget’s theory of Constructivism, while Inquiry is based on Vygotsky and Bruner’s theories of Social Constructivism. The similarities of the two names might be part of the cause for the confusion.

With that in mind, I started to wonder if it would be possible to create definitions we could all agree on. Ones that name the parts that constitute the different modes we generally use in the classroom (to a lesser or greater extent), which we could then refer to when discussing their merits. This blog represents an opening contribution and I am very much open to debate. Please let me know what you think.

(Note: I’ve chosen to represent the three modes of teaching in the form of a Venn diagram because after reading Lee’s blog I thought there were some significant shared elements between what he might call Didactic teaching and what I would recognise as Inquiry. However, it might be that a Venn does not turn out to be the best way to represent the three modes and I am happy to change. Once again, I welcome your thoughts.)









Didactic (metaphors: ‘Delivery’, ‘Transmission’) –

  • Teacher led
  • Formal
  • Instructional
  • Teacher is the instructor – ‘the sage on the stage’
  • Information comes from the teacher or a resource (text book, etc)
  • Emphasis on knowledge acquisition and memory
  • Testing to ensure information has been remembered
  • Questions come from the teacher
  • Questions are largely closed, single answer

Inquiry (metaphors: ‘co-construction’, ‘social construction’) –

  • Teacher led
  • Formal and informal
  • Teacher is the mediator – ‘the fellow traveller’
  • Sometimes involves group work
  • Starts from the students’ knowledge-base
  • Collaborative
  • Involves a question
  • Investigative
  • Teacher works with the students to explore possible answers
  • Teacher doesn’t always have an answer in mind
  • Information comes from the teacher, resources (text, pictures, diagrams, etc), and the students
  • Questions come from both the teacher and the students
  • Questions are mixed, both open and closed, and can have multiple answers

Discovery (metaphors” ‘discovery’, ‘exploration’, ‘construction’) –

  • Student led
  • Informal
  • Teacher is the facilitator – ‘the guide on the side’
  • Often involves group work or students working alone
  • Starts from the students’ knowledge based
  • Individual and collaborative
  • Teacher provides resources and opportunities for students to find out things for themselves
  • Resources are organised by the teacher
  • Information comes from texts, pictures, diagrams, and other resources provided by the teacher
  • Questions are open, multiple answer
  • Emphasis put on student autonomy


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  1. Chris Chivers March 10, 2017 at 4:52 pm #

    Hi Tim,
    This is an interesting reflection.
    As I said in my tweet response, I’d reflect on the element of talk within the different relationships, the opportunities to use “self-talk” or reflection and the chance to rehearse developmental thinking within the relationships, ie, who’s doing all the talking and what is the quality of interactive discussion?

    Each of your circles have their, often very personal, “stereotype” interpretations, which are developed into dichotomous myths, to suit the purpose of the arguer.

    In many ways, I’ve looked at your model and wonder if the centre of the model is a form of discursive teaching, reaching into each of the areas to suit the evident needs of the developing learners That would describe my personal approach, which touched none of the extremes, but selected from available material, supported by the available resources, adapted to the classroom context.

    You describe the “toolkit”; perhaps consider the dynamics in practice?
    Be well,

    • Chrismwparsons March 10, 2017 at 8:18 pm #

      Thank you Tim – I think this is a wise and necessary step forward. In particular the inclusion of the Venn Diagram overlaps.

    • Chrismwparsons March 10, 2017 at 8:19 pm #

      Chris – that is a beautifully perceptive way of seeing the middle ground.

  2. sangram dinde April 20, 2017 at 5:28 pm #

    Dear Sir after going through your blog on the modes of teaching i felt like gaining education power is becoming much easier and through simple way.if at all applied these modes in teaching learning process can be fruitful and path breaking moment for students as a learner and also teacher pupil relationship can be built strongly which will give birth to confidence level of both Teacher as well as student.


  1. The Three Modes of Teaching – Ed Blog Reader – A digest of interesting writing on educational issues - March 9, 2017

    […] Originally posted on Imaginative-Inquiry: […]

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