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Teaching styles

‘Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.’

Anonymous but often attributed to Benjamin Franklin

Topics on this page:

  • What is teaching style?
  • Teacher-centred or student-centred?
  • Teaching style as a political seesaw
  • Steering a middle course
  • Novice and expert learners
  • The participation dimension: styles of geography teaching and learning
  • Observing teaching styles
  • Reading

What is teaching style?

This is the way you teach geography. It is determined by your approach in the classroom, the way you relate to students and the geography content you are teaching. An effective teaching style will engage students in the learning process and help them to think geographically.

No two teachers are alike, and as you develop as a teacher you will learn what works best for your personality and philosophy and will develop one or more styles of teaching that are your own and are appropriate to achieve your ultimate goal – student learning. Try to develop a repertoire of strategies so that you can match the needs of the students and the intending learning.

Note that the DfE frameworks require that new teachers ‘provide tasks that support pupils to learn key ideas securely’. But the DfE does not suggest particular teaching methods to use. Nor does Ofsted recommend specific teaching approaches. It is for teachers to use their professional judgement to determine what is appropriate for particular students and what they are expected to learn.

Teacher-centred or student-centred?

As you read education literature, you will find there is a clear distinction made by some writers between teacher-centred and student-centred approaches to teaching. The first is rooted in behaviour theory, the other in constructivism. There are significant differences in the way these approaches are perceived and described by educationalists and others.

Teacher-centred puts the teacher as the expert in the classroom. It is often simply described as ‘whole-class’ teaching. Some see this ‘chalk and talk’ as old fashioned, while others praise it as effective instruction that maintains high standards. Student-centred learning focuses on the learner.

It has been described as ‘independent autonomous learning’ and some see it as unstructured, with a lack of rigour and low expectations, while others praise it as investigation-based learning, involving problem solving, concerning critical thinking and encompassing geographical enquiry. 

In reality, teaching does not fall into such neat alternatives and there is both truth and fallacy in the various views. Even good strategies can be misused; it all depends on whether a teaching method is deployed well or badly.

Teacher-led learningStudent-centred learning
Teacher decides what is to be learntStudents have a say in what is learnt
Teacher delivers the curriculumStudents explore the curriculum
Teacher is the subject expertTeacher is the facilitator
Students receive knowledgeTeacher provides learning opportunities
One-way transmission of educationCo-construction of knowledge
Learning outcomes are predetermined and fixedLearning is shared by teachers and students and learning activities are flexible
Focus on summative assessmentsContinual formative assessment
Power rests with the teacherStudents are empowered

The above table shows Teacher-led and student-centred learning from Rawlings Smith (2017). As you explore good teaching and observe experienced teachers, you will realise that good geography teachers employ teaching styles that encompass approaches from both columns in the table. Both teacher-led and student-led can be appropriate pedagogical tools.

Explicit teaching and instruction lie at the heart of good geography teaching. The principle is simple. The teacher fully and clearly explains geographical ideas and concepts to students; therefore, it is teacher-led. But it also has to be student-centred because the teacher is questioning students and checking for understanding. Good teachers are continually intervening to check understanding, provide support and ensure they are constructing knowledge accurately.

Enquiry-based learning, or geographical enquiry, is a different approach in that students are asked to pose questions and work in an open-ended, investigative way. Therefore, it is clearly student-centred; at the same time the teacher is highly involved in leading the planning, and then managing and debriefing the learning. A geographical enquiry will include elements of explicit instruction when a teacher explains or models something to students.

Teaching style as a political seesaw

Rawlings Smith (2017) explains how the teacher-led/student-centred learning dichotomy and debate developed in English education as a result of political interventions:

‘New Labour’s educational discourse implied that teacher-led learning was outdated and irrelevant compared to student-centred learning with its progressive and personalised approach to education. Under the coalition government the tide turned, with calls for a return to didactic teaching methods and the encouragement of teacher talk as being vital to introduce students to the language of geography and develop their geographical understanding (Roberts, 2013). When used appropriately, teacher talk, rote learning, recitation and knowledge recall all merit a place in the classroom. Indeed, Ofsted’s lesson observation framework was amended after concerns were raised about the inspectors’ support for too narrow a range of preferred learning activities (Burns, 2013). The message for teachers in a changing political landscape is simple: providing both teacher-led and student-centred learning opportunities will give students the best chance of success.’

Try to avoid seeing this as a ‘seesaw curriculum’, as described by Elliott (2011). He likens curriculum policy making in this country to a form of bipolar disordered thinking: it is either ‘subject-based’ or it is ‘learner-centred’ and teachers’ teaching styles are encouraged to swing from one to the other at regular intervals.

It is also wrong to assume that drawing on a specific learning theory dictates a specific teaching approach. The recent policy to adopt cognitive load theory does not suggest that teachers have to follow a narrow form of classroom practice and only use direct instruction to implement this. Teachers should always decide what is the best way to support learning and what is the appropriate classroom practice for the context.

Steering a middle course

Good geography teachers should make their own professional judgements, and should not follow political whims. After all, as Rawlings Smith (2017) concludes, both teacher-centred and student-centred approaches are essential for good geography teaching; one is not opposed to the other, they are complementary.

Explicit teaching and instruction establish a framework of geographical knowledge and understanding of key concepts and skills. Geographical enquiry and activities such as decision-making and mysteries require students to reason and think critically, to make judgements based on evidence and reach conclusions; but to do this successfully they require a framework of knowledge.

Good geography teaching includes all of these different elements and taken together they create a curriculum and a learning experience for students that is deeper and richer than can be achieved by just one teaching approach.

  • Refer to Pedagogy Focus: Teaching Styles. This TES article (2018) illustrates the wide range of teaching approaches that are attributed to teacher-led and student-led teaching. You will find references to these throughout these pages.

Tom Sherrington realistically sums up the debate about teaching style when he comments:

‘I would argue that teacher-led instruction cannot reasonably be framed in opposition to student-centred learning because successful learning is always inherently student-centred. Teachers cannot be said to have undertaken successful instruction unless their students, as individuals, have secured successful learning – and this requires their active involvement, their mental engagement, their conscious effort and active schema-building.’

Teacherhead Post, December 8, 2019

Novice and expert learners

novice learner is one who has little background knowledge or experience within a particular topic in geography. This is not necessarily age-related. A level students may be completely ignorant about some aspects of the subject or specific skills, so they are novices in that respect.

In contrast, an expert learner is one with well-developed schemas representing large amounts of background knowledge and experience within a particular topic in geography. It is best considered as the degree of expertise a student has in the topic, rather than seeing them as an ‘expert’. Primary pupils can become ‘experts’ by this definition after they have studied a geographical topic in some detail for several weeks.

The recognition of students as novice or expert learners in a topic is relevant for the style of teaching that is appropriate. Explicit teaching and instruction with plenty of practice is more effective for novices than for experts. Novices require high levels of guidance during the early stages of learning, whereas for experts, such detailed guidance is unnecessary, or redundant; it has even been shown to be counter-productive. 

Ofsted (2019) has concluded that explicit instruction often works best with novice learners, but as they become more expert, enquiry-based approaches work better; this is known as the expertise reversal effect.

The participation dimension: styles of geography teaching and learning

Margaret Roberts has devised a helpful framework to analyse styles of teaching and learning in geography – see The participation dimension. This identifies three styles that differ in the amount of student involvement and participation in the lessons as these brief summaries show.

  • A closed style: the teaching is formal and gives information. The teacher decides how resources are to be used by students and the form of response. The students follow instructions and complete tasks. The teacher has predetermined the right answers and summarises these at the end of the lesson. The most frequent methods used by the teacher are exposition, worksheets, note-giving, individual exercises and extended reading.
  • A framed style: the teacher decides the geographical focus and structures a lesson within which the students can contribute their own ideas, views and interpretations. The teacher provides questions or problems to be solved in activities where students interpret and evaluate ‘evidence’. The students can reach different conclusions. The common methods are exposition with discussion eliciting suggestions, individual or group problem-solving. There is a discussion of outcomes that the teacher adjudicates.
  • A negotiated style: the teacher identifies the general theme of a lesson but the direction of the lesson depends on the students’ ideas and contributions. The teacher guides the students on methods and suitable sources of information, but the students decide how to gather information, analyse it and draw conclusions. In this style, the outcomes are not always predictable. The methods used are brainstorming, group and whole class discussion, research planned and carried out by students, student presentations and student evaluations of their success.

From your lesson observations, identify elements that illustrate these different teaching styles. Can you relate different styles to the teaching content or to the students’ level of expertise in the topic? Discuss your findings with geography mentor. Could you place the lessons in one category or not? Probably not, because many geography lessons display different elements from each of these categories in different parts of the lesson.

Ask your mentor to arrange observations of three or four lessons so that you can see teachers using different teaching styles. Analyse each lesson using the participation dimension framework. For each lesson, make detailed notes, using the headings in the left-hand column of the framework. You should consider:

  • the context: as discussed with the class teacher
  • the lesson introduction and questions: Carefully record the language used by the teacher. Does this reflect an approach that is closed; framed or negotiated?
  • the resources and information: How are these presented and introduced to the students? How do the students use them?
  • student activities: Do the students follow instructions or do they devise their own analysis and interpretation? Do they discuss their ideas and conclusions? What learning takes place during the lesson activities?
  • student contribution: Do they spend most of the time listening to the teacher or working individually? Are students given opportunities to contribute at length to the teacher’s questions or in discussion? Are their opinions and ideas welcomed and listened to? Are the students given the opportunity to be creative?
  • summaries: Does the teacher summarise what has been learnt in the lesson? Are there different opinions that the teacher adjudicates? Do students discuss what new ideas they have learned and how they found out the information?

Return to the Participation dimension framework again later in your training and when you are an ECT. Use it to consider the teaching styles you are using. When you evaluate your lessons, pay particular attention to considering how the teaching style you adopt influences students’ learning outcomes.

  • Ask your geography mentor to observe one of your lessons and use the framework to record what they observe. Use their feedback to reflect critically on your own practice.

As you develop as a teacher it is important to reflect on the ways in which your teaching style changes and adapts to new situations. Also, you should consider the range of factors that impact the choices you make about which teaching strategies to use.

Teachers’ decisions about the teaching style are influenced by the context in which they work, the students that they work with and the resources available to them as well as their own preferences.


  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 70-1.
  • Ofsted (2019), Education inspection framework: overview of research, Ofsted p. 22
  • Rawlings Smith, E. (2017) ‘Post-16 geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 19.
  • Roberts, M. (1996) ‘Teaching styles and strategies’ in Kent, A., Lambert, D., Naish, M. and Slater, F. (eds) Geography and Education: Viewpoints on teaching and learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Roberts, M. (2010) ‘Geographical enquiry’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • TES (2018) Pedagogy Focus: Teaching Styles, December. This article provides a useful summary of different terms for teaching styles.


  • Elliott, J. (2011) ‘The Seesaw Curriculum: it’s time that educational policy matured’, Forum, 55, 1, pp. 15–29.