We must cease ideological objections to evidence-based practices. There are elements of effective instruction proven to result in increases in student learning and in all students learning at high levels. They can and must be present in any and all lessons, regardless of grade level or content area.
It is critical to note that the levels of rigor, depth, and student involvement present in a well-designed lesson will not be possible if we continue to race through content. We must allow time for students to engage with content if they are to learn at the level of mastery necessary for success next month, next year, and in life. We will not achieve this goal if we attempt to “cover” all the content in a textbook or if we attempt to “cover” all standards as if they are equally important. The organizations tasked with designing assessments for the new standards have identified certain standards as more essential than others; we must do the same. While determining essential standards, and “unwrapping” standards are beyond the scope of this chapter, these practices are essential habits of teachers and schools and are prerequisites to designing and delivering effective instruction.
There are seven common-sense elements of effective instruction, which have never been more important than they are today. The order in which these elements occur is not as important as that they occur:
• What are we learning? (learning targets)
• Why are we learning it? (rationale)
• I do it (teacher modeling)
• We do it together (guided instruction)
• You do it together (cooperative learning)
• You do it alone (independent practice)
• How did we do? (assessment)
What Are We Learning?
A key factor in the success of a lesson is the focus of the lesson’s learning target or objective. Lessons with objectives that are too broad or ill-defined have little chance of success. Lessons necessarily have a finite amount of time in which they are completed. When teachers attempt to help students master an inappropriately large chunk of content, frustration will ensue. When the sheer quantity of content that the class attempts to address in a lesson is too broad, teachers may move too quickly, have too little time to check for understanding, leave out explorations into greater levels of depth or complexity, and/or neglect to meet with small groups of students who require different types of support. Effective instruction and high levels of learning are impossible if a lesson’s objective lacks focus. Students must have a crystal clear understanding of the focus of the lesson, and references to the lesson’s objective must be made throughout the learning process; teachers should periodically refer to the objective and ask students to summarize their emerging understanding. One way of checking the focus of a lesson’s objective is by determining whether a simple exit slip assigned at the conclusion of the lesson could adequately, if informally, assess student learning, and therefore the success of the lesson.
Why Are We Learning It?
The teacher must also make clear connections to students’ existing schema and to the world outside of classrooms and schools. The time it takes for teachers to plan for these connections, and the time within the lesson itself that connects to schema and the application of a lesson to students’ current and future lives, are critical. Teachers can and should connect the lesson’s objective to lesson from prior years, units, weeks, and days; teachers can and should also describe how a lesson’s objective will help prepare the class for future learning. Teachers will wisely place some of the responsibility for making connections on students themselves; ask students to think, pair, write, and share. Learning will be inert and abstract unless teachers and students make connections.
I Do It
Teachers must model the behaviors of an expert learner. Through enthusiastic and animated metacognitive modeling or think-alouds, teachers demonstrate for students the ways in which learning occurs. Students have the opportunity to observe a model learner—the teacher—as the teacher models critical thinking and problem solving. In the “I do it” phase, the quantity and quality of teacher talk is critical; teacher talk should be limited and should focus on demonstration and modeling. Students must clearly see and hear the thinking that is required to learn. Despite the temptation for the teacher to pause, to ask students to pair, and to address student questions, this element of effective instruction must be brief and uninterrupted. Highly interactive engagement with the lesson’s objective is coming.
We Do It Together
Next, teachers and students solve problems together, at first with greater levels of teacher guidance, but with less teacher voice as checks for understanding reveal increasing levels of student knowledge. Students have frequent opportunities to talk with one another. The pace and progress of the lesson are based on evidence: Do checks for understanding indicate that students are responding to the teacher’s instruction? If students are not responding to instruction, the teacher takes responsibility for adjusting the type of instruction provided before asking students to work at greater levels of independence.
Student voice, student activity, and student engagement must be more present in classrooms than is currently the norm. The literature (Cuban, 1993; McDonough & McDonough, 1997) on Teacher Talk Time suggests that teachers talk for approximately 80% of class time and recommends that this practice be flipped, with students engaging, talking about, and practicing with new learning 80% of the time. Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey (2008) describe a framework within which students are talking (to each other, to the teacher, or to themselves, through oral rehearsal) during at least 50 percent of the lesson.
Monitoring students’ understanding is critical throughout the lesson. It can be completed informally by randomly calling upon students to answer questions and explain their thinking during each step of the problem-solving process. It can be completed more formally midway through a lesson by using student white boards or clickers to determine our success as teachers at helping students master content, and to determine the readiness of the class and of the individual students to be released to greater levels of responsibility. Checking for understanding must be followed with immediate, specific corrective feedback whenever errors are captured.
You Do It Together
Students should be provided with structured cooperative learning opportunities. Reciprocal teaching (Palinscar & Brown, 1984a; 1984b) and literature circles (Daniels, 2002) represent research-based and proven sets of procedures for organizing student interactions, and students should have time to work in groups on common problems in any lesson This can begin with a few simple tasks; for example, groups of four students can individually complete a math problem before sharing results with each other. If all students are in agreement, one student explains the method of solving the problem, explaining the how and the why, to other group members. If there are different answers, students representing the different solutions take turns presenting their solutions and errors are identified and analyzed. In reading comprehension, groups of students could identify and contribute a cause or effect in relation to a key event in a story. These comprehension groups could then present their analysis to other small groups or to the entire class.
“You do it together” can be differentiated; different groups of students can be given distinct tasks that represent students’ zones of proximal development. Or, a teacher may determine that some students are not yet ready to be released to this level of responsibility. They may benefit from more guided practice, or more “we do it together.” Therefore, the teacher can serve as the leader of a group of students who have these needs.
You Do It Alone
Based on an evaluation of student success during the “you do it together” phase and an understanding of student needs, teachers should assign independent practice. Homework has been a topic of some controversy, but this need not be the case. Teachers must have evidence and confidence that “you do it alone” assignments, including homework, can be completed independently by students without assistance. Students will likely work on independent practice tasks both in and out of class. These tasks should serve to reinforce tasks completed during the school day, cementing learning and assisting in the transfer from short-term to long-term memory (Anderson, 2000). If evidence exists that students are not ready to successfully complete the planned homework independently—or, said another way, if there is a lack of evidence that students can successfully and independently engage with tasks related to the lesson—an alternative “you do it alone” task should be assigned, or no task should be assigned.
How Did We Do?
The success of a lesson can only be determined by the extent to which students have learned the topics, concepts, or skills that the teacher has taught. In other words, was the objective (“what are we learning?”) met? A simple exit slip or ticket out the door, completed on a self-adhesive note, notecard, or piece of scrap paper, can answer many important questions, including the following:
• How effective was the instruction in the lesson?
• Does the class need to revisit these topics, concepts, and skills during subsequent lessons?
• What types of errors do students seem to be making?
• Assuming the instruction was effective for most, which students are not yet responding to instruction?
As is the case with all assessments, students should be involved. One idea is to ask students to self-assess (either before the “how did we do?” question is answered, or after, or both) their progress toward meeting the objective on a one to five scale, including a simple strategy they will employ to continue their learning.
Effective instruction, as measured by student learning, will be more likely to occur when teachers plan and implement a lesson that includes the elements described above. How we teach is more critical than what we teach in ensuring that all students learn.