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An introduction to K – 12 teaching methods

June 21, 2018

Principles, pedagogy, and strategies for classroom management vary from teacher to teacher. However different, all teaching methodology is deeply rooted in traditional styles. Teachers adapt their teaching methods based on educational philosophy, classroom demographics, subject areas, and the schools at which they teach.

During various stages of childhood and development, a student’s success in the classroom is largely dependent upon his or her own motivation, interest, persistence, and ability to understand and manage his or her emotions.


Since the 1980s, experts have identified different teaching methods that speak to the key areas of school readiness and the various stages of students’ cognitive, social, and emotional development. “Approaches to learning,” “executive functioning,” “habits of mind,” “grit,” “soft skills,” and “noncognitive abilities” have been used to describe these considerations of student development in the educational setting.

As Clancy Blair and Adele Diamond state, “In sum, learning occurs through a process of engagement and participation in a relationship with a caring and trusted other who models the process of and provides opportunities for self-directed learning. In acquiring the capacity for self-regulated learning, social-emotional skills that foster the relationship and executive function skills that promote self-regulation are quite literally foundational for learning.”


It is generally understood that the first step necessary in determining which teaching methods are best for you is identifying your own strengths and weaknesses.

Teacher-Centered Approach vs. Student-Centered Approach

The teacher-centered approach views the teacher as the active party in the teacher-student learning relationship, as the teacher passes information to students, who passively receive it. Students are then assessed in various ways, such as through testing and performing different kinds of tasks. The teacher is the expert and authority of the classroom and teaches directly to the students.

On the other hand, in the student-centered approach, the teacher and student are seen as equals when it comes to the responsibility of teaching and learning. The teacher facilitates the learning and understanding of the material. Measures of student learning aren’t only formal tests but also more informal assessments, such as group projects, student portfolios, and seminar-style participation. Teaching and assessment are closely tied together as a metric of success in a student-centered classroom where cooperation is delegated.

High-Tech Material Use vs. Low-Tech Material Use

The classroom has drastically evolved throughout the past several decades because of technological advances. The high-tech method to teaching takes advantage of the abundance of digital resources available to aid students in their educational progression.

Teachers encourage children to use tablets, computers, and the web to further their studies and completion of assignments. Teachers have much more access to obtain assignments from their students and to learn new ideas for their curriculum. Many teachers even use gamification software for their students to learn new critical thinking skills.

Digital education enables teachers and students to be located anywhere in the world, and it sometimes removes the element of having a physical classroom altogether. Online coursework is one of the many high-tech teaching methods.

A downside of high-tech methods, as opposed to low-tech, is the way that students get used to having technology to bolster their learning. For instance, young kids who learn to write with an automatic spell-checker aren’t as keen to spelling and ultimately may have weaker writing skills than children who learn to read and write in a low-tech classroom.

Though there are many advantages to utilizing technology in the classroom, many teachers opt to stick to traditional approaches to education. There are many studies that show a low-tech teaching classroom a student’s ability to learn.

Students also have a stronger memory if they take hand-written notes rather than typing them out on an online program.

If technology isn’t as heavily emphasized in a classroom, kinesthetic learners may have a higher likelihood to thrive, since there is more flexibility for movement and interaction during learning exercises. Teachers should not only allow but encourage students to speak and move around the room.

Expeditionary learning, also known as “learning by doing,” provides students with hands-on experience and will enable them to better apply what they learn at school to the real world, as opposed to learning a lesson online and in the virtual realm.


Kindergarten through third grade is arguably the most critical time during a child’s education, and the way children of this age are taught largely shapes their understanding of the world.

Social-Emotional Learning Method

When a child is in kindergarten through third grade, the child is developing his or her cognitive and social-emotional competencies. “SEL,” or “social-emotional learning,” is a common teaching method applied among this age group. Its core elements include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills. These characteristics that are actively built upon support a child’s progress in subjects such as math, literacy, technology, and social studies.

The level of a child’s SEL skills predicts the level of performance later on in his or her education. For example, a child’s early ability to self-regulate his or her emotions is tied to a higher skill level in math in the later years of the child’s academic career.

Although children have natural tendencies to be more interested in learning and attentive to developing their skills, teachers help build children’s competencies. Teachers can intentionally model enthusiasm for learning, persistence, and interest in subjects in order to evoke curiosity from their students.

They can also allow their students to make decisions that increase their participation in the classroom, which ultimately grows confidence within the children. When students are rewarded not only for their high achievements but also for their hard work, it will likely result in higher levels of work over periods of time.

Pillars of the K-3 “Approaches to Learning” Teaching Method

The “approaches to learning” teaching method derived from experts discussing cognitive and social development in young children in the 1980s. It focuses on tailored learning strategies for each age group and three pillars of specific tactics that serve as guidelines for teachers.

There are three key areas of teaching methods that K-3 grade teachers should focus on to best develop their students:

  • Engagement
  • Problem-solving
  • Initiative and creativity

Methods for Teaching Engagement

engagement A kindergarten teacher, specifically, can do the following to see his or her classroom engaged and flourishing:

  • Define classroom routines, responsibilities, and behaviors to set expectations
  • Develop individual relationships with students to garner higher engagement
  • Provide students with tools to help themselves pay attention
  • Model the practice of sustaining focus and resisting distractions
  • Create scenarios in which students can make their own decisions and that promote participation
  • Set children up for success by doing short lessons, enabling them to focus for the entire time

As children move up through first, second, and third grade, strategies for teachers to encourage engagement and participation among their students are centered around activities that shift their focus from one thing to another, showing students lessons on how to persevere through challenges and difficulties, expanding expectations for focus, and practicing self-evaluation.

Methods for Teaching Problem-Solving

In addition to engagement, problem-solving skill development is critical during this stage of child development. Kids who understand from an early age how to work through the scenarios that life presents are better-suited to face adversity when they’re older.

Language and cognitive skills are closely linked to highly developed problem-solving skills. In the same way, mathematical and logistical thinking stems from being able to predict what is likely going to happen. Most importantly, the ability to plan and solve problems helps individuals to thrive socially. The teaching method of emphasizing problem-solving is connected to the belief that mindsets are grown.

In other words, some education professionals think that one’s mindset is “fixed” and cannot be improved upon, while others disagree and believe intelligence and abilities can be grown and developed through positive experiences in both school and the realm of work. In the growth mindset, failures or disappointments are seen as opportunities to learn and to be more readily prepared in the future. This mindset is preferred when executing the problem-solving method of teaching.

Teachers can apply teaching methods that focus on developing problem-solving skills, such as creating a routine for students to follow that also allows room for students to form their own conclusions on how to execute a task, and emphasizing individual planning in their styles of teaching.

One tactic for fostering impeccable problem-solving skills in a K-3 classroom is allowing time in each day for children to build individual and group plans. This will allow their skillsets to take root and grow in a social setting, which will translate well into logistical topics, such as mathematics. Another method is to provide alternate choices for a student to execute an assignment or task, allowing the individual to take the initiative to strategize accordingly.

Helping children through social problems they encounter at school can also allow them to learn to navigate social settings. This includes both sides of the spectrum: beneficial settings that uplift them and frustrating scenarios that reinforce growth. Posing questions in a game-like fashion can also engage students to access their logistical thoughts and allow them to explore how a scenario can result.

Teachers can observe problem-solving skills developing among their kindergarten students by encouraging students to do the following in their classrooms:

  • Plan their own involvement in short- and long-term play, as well as in learning activities
  • Apply familiar behaviors in new situations
  • Make and follow multistep plans for completing tasks
  • Apply different strategies to solve both academic and social problems with adult assistance
  • Regulate their own emotional responses to frustrating situations
  • Return to learning activities after becoming frustrated or angry

Among first through third-graders, teachers will observe students doing things such as developing new ways to remember information, adapting problem-solving strategies for new situations and contexts, evaluating original plans to make changes as needed, and applying results of previous plans toward future planning.

Methods for Teaching Initiative and Creativity

This area of focus within teaching is to encourage independence among individual students and to trigger creative thinking in new situations. Indicators of a child’s initiative and creativity progress are the challenging of oneself, the commitment to growing one’s learning, and becoming innovative as a learner in the classroom.

What makes the ability to take initiative so important from an early stage in education is how it separates an employee from his or co-workers when the motivation to grow comes from within. Those who have been responsible for society’s greatest leaps and bounds forward are those who have harnessed creativity and initiative, such as in the science, medicine, technology, and business sectors.

Teachers can support the development of initiative and creativity in their educational atmosphere by offering choices and letting children take initiative to circulate thought and arrive at a conclusion. Though rewarding achievement is important for students to understand that they have met expectations, it is also beneficial to reward the attempts made by children to think innovatively and outside of the box.

Children who are fueling creativity and initiative will demonstrate the following:

  • Curiosity through asking concrete questions
  • Attempts at new things with adult encouragement
  • Participation in the classroom and taking on leadership opportunities in group settings
  • Frequently bringing concepts from diverse areas of study together
  • Complex language to connect ideas

Teaching to 4th-6th

Teachers feel a heavy weight on their shoulders for the curiosity and ambition of fourth- through sixth-graders, particularly as these students enter middle school. A preferred method of teaching among this age group is known as the “differentiated instruction approach.”

This approach addresses student needs and tailors teaching styles to their learning preferences while also conforming to the intense demands of today’s standards of testing and systematic metrics of success. Encompassing process, strategy, and approach, among other elements that are supported by best practice and research, are signature perspectives of the differentiation approach.

Fourth- through sixth-grade teachers favor the differentiation approach because they can use a multitude of processes to meet the learning requirements of a more diverse student body and population. The strength of this popular teaching method is that it provides a variety of ways to meet the needs of many learners.


As a teacher, this teaching method requires planning ahead. In order to drive students to success, you need to set your expectations for your students ahead of teaching a lesson. One easy way to do this is to follow the KUD method: “Know, Understand, Do.” Before starting to teach each lesson, you need to decide what you want your students to know, understand, and do. It is a simple framework to remember the most important aspect of teaching this age group: setting expectations.

Another important tactic is to tier your lessons. In other words, when teachers tier their assignments, they make adjustments in their lessons to meet the needs of multiple students. Tiering lesson plans can challenge students and their ability levels. The tactic here is to make sure that all tasks, regardless of the tier level, are challenging and engaging to all students in the classroom. Assessments can be altered according to the level of complexity, pacing, amount of guidance, number of steps, and level of independence required.

The steps to implementing the differentiation approach are as follows:

  1. Develop the basis for your tasks, including concepts, skills, and essential understandings that you want all students to obtain and reach.
  2. Consider how you will cluster group activities among your students. Although you can create multiple levels of tiers, keep the number of levels consistent with your groups of students. It’s best to have the same number of tiers of the exercise as you have groups. For example, if you have two groups working at grade level and one working just below, then you should have three tiers in total.
  3. Choose which part of your lesson plan you are going to tier. You can choose from challenge level, complexity, resources (e.g., materials and reading levels), process, or product.
  4. Create the tier for the students who are learning at grade level.
  5. Next, design a similar task for struggling learners to create a tailored environment to set them up for growth and, ultimately, success.
  6. Once the first two tiers have been established, develop a third tier for more advanced students who have already mastered the on-grade tier or competency being addressed. This should require a higher cognitive ability to form conclusions.

For children going through a transitional time, such as moving up through elementary school and into middle school, the differentiation approach and its tactics will guide your classroom’s success.

Teaching to 7th-9th

This next transition period for students is just as integral as the previous. Students enter into adolescence and can encounter new emotions, social situations, and intellectual challenges. They also enter a period of their life where their performance has direct repercussions, as colleges are officially watching their grades.

Statics show that ninth grade has the highest number of students who fail among all grades, creating what is known as “the ninth-grade bump.” Being held back can be detrimental to students’ confidence and perception of themselves, viewing themselves as failures. In order to thrive in ninth grade, seventh- and eighth-grade experiences must build students up to be prepared for high school.

With proactive tactics in your teaching toolkit, you can develop a purposeful plan to strengthen students’ skillsets throughout seventh, eighth, and ninth grade. Teachers can isolate both strengths and weaknesses among students in their curricula, identify high-impact instructional and support strategies to keep this age group engaged in their studies, and always be actively creating next steps for their students to achieve goals.

The most important tactic for this age group is to identify weaknesses and tailor your attention to them. This will provide students with the confidence they need to have a smooth transition as they enter adolescence and find themselves in new situations, both socially and academically.

Teaching to 10th-12th

Because this is the last stop for students before beginning their post-high school graduate careers, it is critical that teachers strategize for success in their classrooms.

As the previously mentioned teaching methods can be applied to high school, particularly the differentiation approach, individual strategies that you apply to your educational setting may reap more rewards and see your students succeed.

One of the most important tactics to apply as a teacher of 10th- through 12th-graders is to be enthusiastic about what you are teaching. If you aren’t engaged in what you’re talking about, teenagers will not be either. Their attention spans are also shortening, so having lesson plans and lectures on the lighter side will be in your favor as a high school teacher.

Class discussion, also known as the Socratic seminar method, allows students this age to thrive by being given the opportunity to express their own opinions and thoughts. It also gives them their first dose of public speaking, something they may encounter much more frequently in a university setting. Collaborative work, reading and writing assessments, and problem-solving are all great strategies to implement in your teaching in order to have an engaged classroom of teenagers.


Regardless of your preferred teaching method, the most important thing to do as a new or experienced teacher is to read your classroom and tailor your teaching style to your students and the ways they best learn. Individual students respond better to some methods than others.

What is essential to every child’s development and ability to thrive in his or her education is a positive learning experience. By paying attention to an individual child’s strengths and areas in need of improvement, teachers can ensure progress.