Conference Countdown
Atlanta, Ga.
April 2-4, 2016
  • membership
  • my account
  • help

    We are here to help!

    1703 North Beauregard Street
    Alexandria, VA 22311-1714
    Tel: 1-800-933-ASCD (2723)
    Fax: 703-575-5400

    8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. eastern time, Monday through Friday

    Local to the D.C. area: 1-703-578-9600, press 2

    Toll-free from U.S. and Canada: 1-800-933-ASCD (2723), press 2

    All other countries: (International Access Code) + 1-703-578-9600, press 2


  • Log In
  • Forgot Password?


ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

2016 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

Learn. Teach. Lead.
Get the tools to put it all together at this can't-miss education conference—with more than 200 sessions and five inspirational keynote speakers.

Learn more and register.



ASCD respects intellectual property rights and adheres to the laws governing them. Learn more about our permissions policy and submit your request online.

Policies and Requests

Translations Rights

Books in Translation

Premium Member Book (Aug 2011)

Simply Better

by Bryan Goodwin

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Guaranteeing Challenging, Engaging, and Intentional Instruction

Imagine two students in early autumn. Like millions of other students across the United States, they enter new classrooms, where the usual first-day-of-school routines unfold. They find their way to their assigned seats or maybe scramble to sit next to friends, neatly arrange their new pencils and notebooks, write their names in their textbooks, and look up at their teachers, ready to learn.

At this moment, the two students are identical, performing exactly at grade level. Over the course of the year, though, a silent tragedy will befall the first of these two students. It's an all-too-common tragedy, one that happens to thousands of students each year. This student will steadily fall behind his peers. By the end of the year, he will be a half year below grade level. If his newly acquired academic deficits are not addressed, they may never go away. Worse, they may begin to snowball in subsequent grades as his confusion leads to frustration, apathy, and eventually dropping out of school.

Meanwhile, an altogether different experience unfolds for the second student. During the year, as the autumn leaves fall and then winter snow covers the ground, eventually melting around budding flowers, her learning accelerates. As she leaves school in early summer, this student has leapt a half year ahead of grade level. For her, school and learning have begun to "click" like never before, and new learning opportunities are unfolding. Though she was once unsure if she'd be able to attend college, it has now become her personal goal.

What happened to these two students to make their lives take such different turns? One simple variable: their teachers.

As Stanford economist Eric Hanushek (2002) has determined, the difference between a good and bad teacher can translate into as much as one year's worth of additional learning for a student per year. Highly effective teachers—those in the top fifth of all teachers—help students learn, on average, the equivalent of a year and a half of learning in a single year, while those in the bottom fifth only impart an average of a half year of learning.

Recently, the Los Angeles Times analyzed performance data of more than 6,000 elementary school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District to estimate the effectiveness of their teachers. It found that "highly effective teachers routinely propel students from below grade level to advanced in a single year" (Felch, Song, & Smith, 2010). Overall, students in the classrooms with the most effective teachers—those in the top 10 percent—ended the year 17 percentage points higher in English and 25 points higher in math than students stuck with teachers in the bottom 10 percent.

The effects of bad teaching tend to linger long after students leave their classrooms. In a groundbreaking study, William Sanders analyzed the achievement of more than 100,000 students and found that the residual effects of poor instruction show up years later in diminished student achievement scores (Sanders & Rivers, 1996). He also determined that students who have the misfortune of receiving a string of ineffective teachers for three years in a row scored as much as 50 percentage points lower on statewide assessments than those students who benefited from a three-year string of effective teachers.

Unfortunately, this scenario is common. Researcher Robert Pianta and his colleagues (2007) closely examined the educational experiences of 994 students from across the United States in grades 1, 3, and 5 and found that 9 percent of students received poor-quality instruction and emotional support in all three grades. (Conversely, only 7 percent of students spent all three years receiving high-quality instruction and emotional support.) And which unlucky students were most likely to receive poor instruction? Disproportionately, they were low-income students. In other words, the very students who stand to benefit most from high-quality instruction tend to be the ones most disadvantaged by poor teaching.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that teacher distribution and teacher quality are variables that can be changed. Thus, one of the most important ways that school systems can change the odds for students is to ensure that every child receives the benefit of a great teacher, every year, and in every classroom.

What Makes a Teacher Effective?

There's little mystery as to what makes one teacher more effective than another. After reviewing hundreds of meta-analyses on teaching effects, John Hattie (2009) concluded that "the current mantra, that teachers make the difference, is misleading" because "not all teachers have powerful effects on students"; indeed, he notes that "it is teachers' variability in effect and impact that is critical". Hattie concludes that "it is teachers using particular teaching methods, teachers with high expectations for all students, and teachers who have created positive student–teacher relationships that are more likely to have the above average effects on student achievement". Decades of research suggest that the following teacher behaviors, which serve as the touchstones for this chapter, distinguish highly effective teachers:

  • Highly effective teachers challenge their students. Good teachers not only have high expectations for all students but also challenge them, providing instruction that develops higher-order thinking skills.
  • Highly effective teachers create positive classroom environments. One of the strongest correlates of effective teaching is the strength of relationships teachers develop with students.
  • Highly effective teachers are intentional about their teaching. Good teachers are clear about what they're trying to teach and then master a broad repertoire of instructional strategies to help students accomplish their learning goals. They know not only what to do to support student learning but how, when, and why to do it.

Setting High Expectations and Challenging Students

In 1965, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, in a now famous experiment, told a group of teachers that some of the students in their classrooms had been identified by a special Harvard test as being on the brink of rapid intellectual and academic development (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1992). Unbeknownst to the teachers, the test didn't exist at all; the students had simply been randomly labeled as having special aptitudes. By the end of the experiment, many students who had been randomly labeled as special were demonstrating higher IQs than their peers—results that Rosenthal and Jacobson termed the "Pygmalion effect." The researchers concluded that, just as Henry Higgins's high expectations of Eliza Doolittle became a self-fulfilling prophecy in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, teacher expectations can transform student performance.

In a review of 800 meta-analyses of education research, John Hattie (2009) notes that while some researchers have questioned the findings of the original Rosenthal experiment, 674 studies conducted since that time have confirmed its key conclusion: that teacher expectations do, indeed, have a powerful effect on student achievement.

Exactly how teachers convey their expectations remains a critical variable, though. For example, the effects of simply praising students—one obvious way that teachers might convey high expectations to students—appear to be minimal (Hattie, 2009).

Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, has determined that praising students by telling them they are smart may actually have a detrimental effect on their achievement. Dweck and her colleagues conducted an experiment in which they divided students into two groups. They consistently praised students in the first group for their ability, telling them, "Wow. You got…eight right. That's a really good score. You must be really smart [emphasis added] at this." The second group, they praised for effort: "Wow. You got…eight right. That's a really good score. You must have worked [emphasis added] really hard at this" (Dweck, 2006).

The group of mostly adolescent students, according to Dweck, began the experiment "exactly equal". Yet afterward, the students praised for innate ability began to develop a "fixed mindset"; that is, they believed that achievement was based on innate smarts, not earned or developed through effort. These students began to reject more challenging tasks, fearing that if they tried and failed at them, they would no longer be perceived as smart or special. On the other hand, 90 percent of those students praised for their effort were willing not only to accept challenging tasks but actually enjoyed them.

Encouraging Growth Mind-Sets

In Mindset (2006), Dweck offers many examples of things teachers can say to reinforce the message that it's effort, not smarts, that counts. Here are a few:

  • "You put so much thought into this essay. It really makes me understand Shakespeare in a new way."
  • "That homework was so long and involved. I really admire the way you concentrated and finished it."
  • "That picture has so many beautiful colors. Tell me about them."

The key to all three above examples is that they focus on children's efforts, not their personality attributes or traits (e.g., their ability to grasp Shakespeare when most kids don't understand him, their perfect score on a homework assignment, or their ability to draw rainbows, which could dissuade them from drawing other things).

So what about when kids fall short? Dweck recommends that teachers respond with the following sorts of phrases:

  • "Everyone learns in a different way. Let's keep trying to find the way that works for you."
  • "I liked the effort you put in, but let's work together some more and figure out what it is you don't understand."

Source: From Mindset, by C. Dweck, 2006, New York: Random House.

Dweck concluded that one of the ways great teachers stand out from others is that they tend to have a "growth mind-set." They view achievement not as innate, but rather as changeable—the result of hard work. In contrast, "teachers with a fixed mindset create an atmosphere of judging. These teachers look at students' beginning performance and decide who's smart and who's dumb. Then they give up on the 'dumb' ones." On the other hand, "great teachers," Dweck writes, "believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning". Dweck points to Jaime Escalante, the Los Angeles teacher whose story was told in the film Stand and Deliver, as someone who saw the potential in his students, regardless of their previous performance, not only to learn but to excel at calculus.

Exercising the Brain

If you were to announce to a personal trainer, "Sorry, I can't lift weights because I'm not very strong," your trainer would no doubt tell you that lifting weights makes your muscles stronger and thus able to lift more weight. What Dweck is saying, and what current brain research is confirming, is that the same principle applies to the brain. Like a muscle, it becomes stronger the more it's used.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, for example, recently discovered that intensive remedial reading instruction not only improved the reading skills of struggling readers, it actually changed their brains by fostering the growth of new white-matter connections. These new connections appear to help students drown out distracting thoughts so they can focus more on reading. Marcel Just, one of the study's principal researchers, said that this and similar findings show that "we're not at the mercy of our biology…. I think that's a fruitful way to think about life and society in general" (Roth, 2009). The bottom line appears to be that Thomas Edison's well-worn adage that "genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration" is now being supported by modern brain science, which is finding that great minds can be made, not just born.

Building Strong Relationships with Students

Dweck has observed that great teachers both "challenge and nurture" their students. As an example, she cites Dorothy DeLay, the famous violin instructor (who counted Itzhak Perlman among her pupils). One of DeLay's students once remarked, "That is part of Miss DeLay's genius—to put people in a frame of mind where they can do their very best. Very few teachers can actually get you to your ultimate potential. Miss DeLay has that gift. She challenges you at the same time that you are feeling nurtured" (Dweck, 2006).

In 1969, Judith Kleinfeld, then a Harvard doctoral student, traveled to Alaska "eager to do research that mattered, to find ways of improving education for children who were not doing well in school" (1972). Hoping to identify which teaching styles had the most positive impact on Native Alaskan students, she spent a year observing classroom interactions between teachers and students in two boarding schools.

Over the course of the year, Kleinfeld identified four types of teachers. The first type she calls traditionalists—teachers who set high expectations for students but viewed developing personal relationships with them as outside their professional purview, offering little academic or emotional support to help students meet expectations. Kleinfeld described one such teacher as follows:

Mr. W is a nervous man with a perpetually strained facial expression… During the observation, Mr. W. stood behind his desk lecturing… He placed a summary of the main concepts of the lecture, highly technical terms, on the board. The…students dutifully wrote down the words.
In a later interview, Mr. W. voiced serious concern for…students and noted that their main problem in the class was vocabulary. They couldn't understand what he was saying…
Mr. W. mentioned, "[Some] students are afraid of me because I yell at them. Well, I do jump on them when they are slack on work"

Building Relationships with Students

In the movies, relationships form easily, often during a montage scene while perky music plays in the background. In real-life classrooms, though, it takes much more day-today effort to develop strong bonds with students. Here are some tips for developing positive teacher–student relationships.

  • Talk casually with students about their interests before or after class.
  • Greet students by name as they enter the classroom. (This may be especially important for "problem students," with whom it's easy to inadvertently limit interaction.)
  • Comment on important events in students' lives—for example, congratulating a student on a good performance in the school play.
  • Consciously seek to make eye contact with every student in the room.
  • Freely move about your room, deliberately seeking to move toward and be close to all students, especially those who are struggling.
  • Use "get-to-know-you" activities at the beginning of the school year.

Although some of these tips may seem obvious, it's easy for them to fall by the wayside in the crush of daily events. It can also be easy for teachers to skip these sorts of "touchy-feely" exercises in order to get down to the "business" of teaching. However, teachers need to recognize that these sorts of relationship-building efforts can make their job of teaching much easier, so it's worth investing time and energy in them.

Source: From Dimensions of Learning: Teacher's Manual, by R. J. Marzano and D. J. Pickering, with D. E. Arredondo, G. J. Blackburn, R. S. Brandt, C. A. Moffett, D. E. Paynter, J. E. Pollock, and J. Whisler, 1997, Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

The second teacher type Kleinfeld characterized as sophisticates—aloof and undemanding. The third type—warm but undemanding—were sentimentalists. Only those belonging to the fourth group—the supportive gadflies—were successful with students. Teachers in this group combined "high personal warmth with high active demandingness". In the classrooms of these teachers, students actively participated in discussions and were willing to work hard for their teachers, with whom they had developed a positive, mutually respectful rapport. In short, this group of teachers demonstrated the power of the old saying, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

In a later publication, Kleinfeld coined a new term for supportive gadflies—warm demanders (1975). Since that time, dozens of scholarly articles have used it to describe the widely affirmed quality of effective teachers: setting high expectations while nurturing student growth. Hattie's recent examination of 800 meta-analyses on student achievement lends further credence to this concept, finding that one of the strongest correlates of teacher effectiveness is teacher–student relationships. Hattie found that the top teacher–student relationship variables associated with higher levels of student achievement are as follows:

  • Nondirectivity (i.e., encouraging student-initiated and -regulated activities)
  • Empathy
  • Warmth
  • Encouragement of higher-order thinking

This final bullet point—encouragement of higher-order thinking—bears highlighting. In the 1950s, a team of cognitive psychologists led by Benjamin Bloom developed a six-level "taxonomy" (later revised in the 1990s) for classifying intellectual behavior. By classifying learning from its simplest to most complex levels (i.e., remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating), Bloom's taxonomy represents one way to measure the extent to which teachers are providing their students with intellectually challenging classroom experiences.

Over the past few years, McREL has collected data from more than 27,000 classroom observations that offer a dismaying glimpse into the level of instruction that appears to be occurring in the nation's classrooms. In well over half of these observations, student learning reflected the two lowest levels of Bloom's taxonomy: remembering (25 percent) and understanding (32 percent). Meanwhile, students were developing the higher-order thinking skills of analysis (9 percent), evaluation (3 percent), and creation (4 percent) in less than one-sixth of the classrooms observed.

Certainly, not all learning can focus on higher-order thinking; teachers must develop students' ability to recall and understand basic concepts before they can move on to more critical thinking. Nonetheless, the fact that so much of what goes on in classrooms appears to be focused on low-level thinking suggests that high expectations and challenging instruction may be the exception, rather than the norm, for most students.

A final point to be made with regard to teacher–student relationships is that they should not be seen as a substitute for, but rather as a complement to, setting high expectations for learning. For some students, especially those who resist learning simply because they want to have some control over their own activities, a little empathy and nondirectivity can go a long way. That's what Jeffrey Cornelius-White, a professor at Missouri State University, concluded after conducting a meta-analysis of research on teacher–student relationships. He found that person-centered learning—that is, teachers' displaying warmth, empathy, and "nondirectivity"—was associated with large increases in student participation and motivation to learn. He noted, in particular, that for students who are oppositional or resistant to learning, "avoiding power struggles through empathy and the encouragement of self-initiated learning seems to help" (Cornelius-White, 2007).

A Resource for "Warm Demanders"

In his book Teach Like a Champion (2010), Doug Lemov, managing director of Uncommon Schools, a network of urban charter schools, lays out a taxonomy of instructional practices drawn from his observations of outstanding urban teachers. The no-nonsense teacher profiles from which these strategies are drawn exemplify the "warm demander" model of teaching—setting high expectations for behavior and learning while at the same time making it clear that they expect all students to meet these expectations and that they, themselves, are willing to do whatever it takes for their students to succeed.

Video examples of these teachers at work in the classroom are available on the Uncommon Schools website at

However, Cornelius-White also observed that some students' resistance to learning stems from their simply wanting to avoid effort. For these students, no amount of cajoling, nurturing, or sweet talk will likely goad them into taking their studies seriously. Indeed, Cornelius-White found in his meta-analysis that a stronger student– teacher relationship "appears to have virtually no effect" in persuading students who are simply avoiding effort to try harder. These students don't need more empathy or warmth, they need some "tough love" that helps them to overcome their own low expectations—or fixed mindset—for themselves (for an example, read the sidebar about Marva Collins). Instead of letting students think they're OK just where they are, growth-minded teachers tell it to students like it is, letting them know where they're falling short and then giving them the tools and support they need to step up their learning efforts.

Teaching with Intention

Conveying high expectations and building strong relationships with students, while essential to effective teaching, are still not, by themselves, sufficient: they are but two legs of a three-legged stool. The third leg of this stool is intentional use of instructional strategies. Without all three legs, the stool will not stand. It is not enough for teachers to believe their students can succeed and to show them that they care; they must also know what they're doing in the classroom. Or to be more precise: they must know why they're doing what they're doing in the classroom.

A Closer Look: A "Warm Demander" in the Classroom

In Mindset, Carol Dweck describes the "tough love" teaching approach of Marva Collins, an educator in inner-city Chicago who took her 2nd grade students from well below grade level—struggling to get through the basic readers—to reading at a 5th grade level (e.g., Tolstoy, Frost, Shakespeare, and the like). The following exchange between Collins and an apathetic, openly defiant student named Gary, who, as this exchange opens, has refused to come to the blackboard, offers a compelling glimpse into Collins's no-nonsense, nurturing classroom demeanor.

Collins: Sweetheart, what are you going to do? Use your life or throw it away?
Gary: I'm not gonna do any damn work.
Collins: I am not going to give up on you. I am not going to let you give up on yourself. If you sit there leaning against this wall all day, you are going to end up leaning on something or someone all your life. And all that brilliance bottled up inside you will go to waste.
[Gary relents to going up to the board but then digs in his heels again, refusing to work.]
Collins: If you do not want to participate, go to the telephone and tell your mother, "Mother, in this school we have to learn, and Mrs. Collins says I can't fool around, so will you please pick me up."

As Dweck recounts, that day, Gary started writing and never looked back. By the end of the year, he was analyzing Macbeth using references to Socrates and Greek mythology.

Source: From Mindset, by C. Dweck, 2006, New York: Random House.

Going Beyond What Works: Knowing How, When, and Why It Works

Over a decade ago, researchers at McREL identified nine categories of instructional strategies that have a high probability of enhancing student learning (see Figure 1.1). Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock first reported these findings in their book Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement (2001), where they noted that "no instructional strategy works equally well in all situations". Simply using the strategies at random will not raise student achievement; teachers must also understand how, when, and why to use them. In our work to help teachers improve their instructional practices, teachers often arrive at an "aha moment" when they come to understand what has been missing from their professional practice: intentionality.

Figure 1.1. The Why Behind the Classroom Instruction that Works Strategies


Why They Work

Identifying Similarities and Differences

  • Supports acquisition of new knowledge by linking to prior learning
  • Deepens knowledge with critical thinking (analysis)

Summarizing and Note Taking

  • Focuses learning on important content
  • Deepens knowledge with critical thinking (analysis), review, and revision
  • Demonstrates understanding and identifies misconceptions

Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition

  • Motivates learning through positive reinforcement
  • Motivates learning by developing growth mind-set in students

Homework and Practice

  • Motivates learning through development of good work habits
  • Deepens knowledge through application
  • Demonstrates understanding and identifies misconceptions

Nonlinguistic Representations

  • Supports acquisition of new knowledge through visual learning
  • Deepens knowledge and supports recall through visual learning

Cooperative Learning

  • Motivates through "positive interdependence"
  • Deepens knowledge by "talking through" problems and strategies

Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback

  • Focuses learning on important content
  • Motivates by personalizing learning
  • Supports acquisition of new knowledge by surfacing misconceptions

Generating and Testing Hypotheses

  • Motivates by accessing "mental set" for problem solving
  • Deepens knowledge through critical thinking (evaluating, creating)

Questions, Cues, and Advance Organizers

  • Focuses learning on important content
  • Motivates by increasing student curiosity, interest in topic
  • Supports acquisition of new knowledge by linking to prior learning
  • Deepens knowledge through critical thinking (analyzing, evaluating)

By understanding why instructional strategies work, teachers are better able to put them to use. Effective teaching requires understanding not only what to do but also why to do it: Why am I giving a pop quiz? What am I hoping to learn about my students? Why am I breaking students into small groups? What am I hoping students will learn? Why am I giving a particular writing prompt? What am I hoping to have students demonstrate? As Figure 1.1 shows, understanding the why behind the what of the nine strategies reveals a simpler, smaller set of objectives that teachers must accomplish in the classroom.

Let's examine each of these nine categories of instructional strategies in greater detail.

Identifying Similarities and Differences. Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001) note that the process of identifying similarities and differences appears to be "basic to human thought"; attaching new information to existing knowledge and memories is, after all, the heart of learning. However, research shows that novice learners often fail to make connections between what they're learning and what they've already learned (Gentner, Loewenstein, Thompson, & Forbus, 2009). Moreover, what connections novice learners do make tend to be superficial (for example, identifying similar characters or story settings, rather than deeper, structural similarities in plot or themes). Thus, one of the key reasons—the why—for teachers to help students identify similarities and differences is to support their acquisition of new knowledge by helping them connect what they're learning to what they already know—familiar constructs, concepts, and processes.

Summarizing and Note Taking. According to brain researcher John Medina, one key to learning is actually forgetting—that is, weeding out extraneous information in order to make room for new knowledge (Medina, 2008). The process of summarizing information aids in knowledge acquisition because it helps students separate the wheat from the chaff of what they're learning. Note taking can also help students filter information (summarizing what's important and writing it down) and assist in the long and perilous journey that new information takes before finding a home in students' brains. Most new information that we process, Medina explains, gets lost long before it can make it into our long-term memory. However, when we repeat or reinstate new information—within 30 minutes of first learning it, say, then again within a few days, and ultimately within a few months—we are far more likely to remember it. Thus, notes taken during class can serve as a handy way for students to review and reengage in material they've previously learned.

Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition. Carol Dweck's research makes a strong case for the value of reinforcing and recognizing effort. Good teachers understand this and know that the biggest why behind reinforcing effort and providing recognition is to help students develop a growth mind-set and intrinsic motivation to learn.

Homework and Practice. Although sometimes maligned, homework and practice have benefits for learning when teachers understand when and why to give at-home and in-class assignments. As Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001) note, homework can serve two key purposes: letting students practice newly acquired skills and deepening their knowledge of new concepts. According to Harris Cooper, who reviewed research on homework, "Homework probably works best when the material is not complex or extremely novel" (1994). This being the case, it probably should not be used to teach new or complicated concepts. Homework and practice also provide educators with the opportunity to see where students are struggling and correct their misconceptions. However, according to Cooper, homework should not be graded or used as punishment, because doing so can rob students of one of the potential benefits of (and a why behind) the strategy: building intrinsic motivation to learn. One of the key benefits of students' doing independent work is helping them to see, as Cooper puts it, that "I must enjoy this; I'm doing it and the teacher isn't standing over me."

Nonlinguistic Representations. Medina (2008) writes that "vision trumps all other senses". Human beings are hard-wired as visual learners—a fact with profound implications for teaching and learning. Medina notes, for example, that "if information is presented orally, people remember about 10 percent, tested 72 hours after exposure. That figure goes up to 65 percent if you add a picture". Thus, the why behind the use of nonlinguistic representations in the classroom is pretty obvious: to tap into students' predisposition for visual-image processing, helping them to better recall new information later.

Cooperative Learning. Research suggests that when cooperative learning works, it does so because it gives students an opportunity to "talk through" material with their peers and thus learn more deeply than they might through individual reading or listening (Johnson & Johnson, n.d.). By talking through material, students become more conscious of the strategies they use to get to an answer and thus appear better able to retain new knowledge and skills. In addition, students can be more motivated to learn when a sense of solidarity develops among the group. These benefits of cooperative learning suggest that the why for this strategy is to help students deepen knowledge by processing it together and to motivate them to learn through what researchers call "positive interdependence."

Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback. Like summarizing, setting learning objectives focuses teaching and learning on important content, thus aiding knowledge acquisition by filtering out extraneous concepts. It also serves to build intrinsic motivation among students. In the early 1980s, Stanford psychologists Albert Bandura and Dale Schunk conducted an experiment with 40 elementary-age students. One group set "proximal" personal learning goals (e.g., aiming to complete six pages of instructional items during each class session), another group set "distal" learning goals (e.g., aspiring to complete all 42 pages over seven sessions), and yet another group set no goals but was told to complete as many pages as possible. Children who set "proximal" learning goals showed more motivation to learn (such as by solving math problems without being asked) and performed far better on a test of their skills than students who set "distal" goals or no goals at all. Finally, effective teacher feedback—that is, feedback that offers guidance on students' performance measured against clear criteria and explains why answers are correct or incorrect—serves to correct misconceptions before they become too deeply rooted. Thoughtfully delivered feedback can also motivate students to try and try again until at last they succeed—which is, after all, the very essence of a growth mind-set.

Generating and Testing Hypotheses. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2010), Daniel Pink recounts the surprising findings of an experiment conducted by Henry Harlow at the University of Wisconsin in 1949. Harlow and his fellow researchers gave a group of eight rhesus monkeys some simple mechanical puzzles to solve. Almost immediately, the monkeys began to solve the puzzles without anyone showing them how. Moreover, they actually appeared to enjoy solving the puzzles despite receiving no reward for doing so. The truly odd part of the experiment, though, occurred when Harlow and his colleagues gave the monkeys raisins as an incentive to solve the puzzles. The addition of the raisins, which Harlow thought would further motivate the monkeys to solve the puzzles, backfired. Once bribed with raisins, the monkeys began making more errors and solving the puzzles less frequently. The insertion of the external reward appeared to have undermined their intrinsic motivation to solve the puzzles. Researchers have since confirmed a similar phenomenon among humans, finding that people have a natural predilection for problem solving (which may explain the strangely addictive nature of jigsaw puzzles) and don't need external bribes to be persuaded to solve them. Students, too, are intrinsically motivated to solve problems. Thus, in addition to teaching higher-order thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation (or how to think like scientists in the science classroom), a key why behind asking students to generate and test hypotheses may be, again, motivation—that is, tapping into students' natural bent for problem solving.

A Closer Look: Motivating with Classroom Mysteries

In the late 1980s, CBS aired a buddy cop show called Houston Knights. Many episodes of the short-lived series would open with a scene that revealed the killer or criminal. The show would then follow the hapless pair around as they tried to figure out what the audience already knew. The suspense-killing construction of the show likely explains why it ran only two seasons. It also offers some insight into why many lessons fail to interest students—and what we can do about it.

While researching what makes for good scientific writing, Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, observed that good science writers don't come right out and reveal their findings. Rather, they develop a sense of suspense, posing a scientific quest as a mystery—for example, what are the rings of Saturn? Ice? Dust? (The answer is both—ice-covered dust.)

Inspired, Cialdini began creating mysteries in his own classroom. For example, to teach about the power of counterarguments in resisting persuasive appeal (a yawn-inducing topic if ever there was one), Cialdini poses this mystery: How did U.S. tobacco companies in the late 1960s reverse a three-year decline in sales and boost cigarette consumption while spending less on advertising?

Cialdini has since found that students stay in class even after the bell rings to hear the answer to a mystery. "All of us have heard of the famous 'Aha!' experience," he writes. "Well, the 'Aha!' experience becomes much more satisfying when it is preceded by the 'Huh?' experience. This is why the same student who will fall asleep reading vital course material will stay up until 4 a.m. reading a mystery novel."

The appeal of mysteries may also explain the power of such teaching strategies as cues and questions and generating and testing hypotheses to increase student interest. Used effectively, these strategies can tap into students' natural inclination to solve problems, puzzles, and mysteries and thus can hold their attention until well after the bell rings.

Source: From "What's the Best Secret Device for Engaging Student Interest? Hint: The Answer's in the Title," by R. B. Cialdini, 2005, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(1), 22–29.

Questions, Cues, and Advance Organizers. Questions that teachers ask in the classroom, cues (i.e., "hints" about what students will learn), and "advance organizers" (stories, pictures, and other introductory materials used to "set up" learning) can help students connect new knowledge with old and focus their learning on what's important. Moreover, questions, when asked correctly, can also encourage higher-order thinking among students by prompting them to evaluate and analyze new knowledge. Thus, the why behind this strategy is twofold: (1) to aid in knowledge acquisition by helping students connect new with existing knowledge and (2) to help them deepen knowledge by encouraging higher-order thinking about it.

Reflecting on the Why

Adding the why to the what of the nine strategies might seem, at first, to "complexify" the elegant simplicity of the nine strategies. However, digging deeper into why the nine strategies work reveals some common themes and patterns among the strategies, which in turn suggest four key objectives of effective teaching:

  1. To motivate and focus learning
  2. To introduce new knowledge
  3. To deepen and expand knowledge
  4. To check for understanding and guide learning and reteaching

The example in Figure 1.2 describes how a teacher might use these objectives and the nine instructional strategies to design an intentional approach to teaching.

Figure 1.2. Teaching with Intentionality: An Example

Figure 1.2. (continued)

Objective: Introduce new knowledge and develop understanding

Strategy: Identifying similarities and differences to help students access prior knowledge

Ms. Jones also knows that identifying similarities and differences is an effective way to help students connect new knowledge to existing knowledge, so she draws two columns on her smart board: one that reads "What makes a plot interesting" and another that reads "Examples from fiction and film."

Strategy: Using summarizing and note taking to support acquisition of new knowledge

Knowing that summarizing and note taking support students' acquisition of new knowledge by filtering out extraneous content and also helping them to later revisit what they've learned, Ms. Jones asks them to create the same two columns in their notebooks. Through a guided discussion with frequent checks for understanding, she has the class fill in both columns, identifying, with multiple examples from previous in-class readings as well as popular films and books, plot elements that make stories interesting, such as parallel plots, flashbacks, frame stories, complications, and plot twists.

Objective: Extend and apply knowledge

Strategy: Generating and testing hypotheses to develop critical-thinking skills

Ms. Jones knows that her students need to deepen their understanding of the new concepts they've learned and that her learning objective calls for critical thinking (e.g., "analyze how an author's choices…"). Thus, she engages her students in the higher-order thinking activity of generating and testing hypotheses. She reads to the class the first part of the story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," in which the main character, Peyton Farquhar, a prisoner, is standing on a bridge, about to be hanged. She asks students to predict what will happen next.

Strategy: Using nonlinguistic representations to access visual learning and deepen knowledge

Ms. Jones understands the power of visual learning to deepen understanding and support memory, so after the class reads the story, she uses a graphic organizer to engage her students in creating a visual story line. They identify the events as they occur in the story—starting at the bridge, then flashing back in time to Farquhar's agreeing to sabotage the bridge, then jumping back to the present with Farquhar escaping the noose around his neck and fleeing his captors, before finally (spoiler alert!) returning to the moment the story started. Farquhar, the noose still around his neck, is hanged, his escape having been only a figment of his imagination. Using a graphic organizer, they rearrange the events in actual chronological sequence and show how one chain of events—Farquhar's imagined escape—branches off from reality.

Strategy: Using homework to expand knowledge and test for misconceptions

Ms. Jones understands that homework is best used to expand, practice, or apply knowledge. Having introduced several plot concepts, she now asks her students to read additional stories and identify, in written homework, the plot concepts they exemplify. She collects the homework and engages in a class-guided discussion of the plot structure concepts they found in the stories. This gives her a chance to see if students have misperceptions about the plot structure concepts they're learning.

Strategy: Using cooperative learning to motivate learning and deepen knowledge

As a capstone to the unit, Ms. Jones wants to give her students an opportunity to engage in the higher-order thinking activity of creating. Over multiple class periods, she asks each student to write (and rewrite) a short story that demonstrates the elements of plot structure they've learned, followed by written commentaries in which students discuss, using specific examples, the key plot structure elements in their stories. Knowing that cooperative learning is most effective when it's framed around problem solving, holds students accountable for individual work, and occurs in groups of two to four students, she creates writers' workshops of four students, who work together to review one another's creative work against a rubric (see below) for evaluating plot structure in the stories they've written.

Objective: Check for understanding and correct misperceptions

Strategy: Reinforcing effort and providing recognition

Ms. Jones understands the importance of reinforcing effort, not mere talent or aptitude. So she provides each group with a grading rubric—one that makes it clear that she will evaluate their stories not on the basis of the students' innate cleverness but, rather, on how well they demonstrate the plot concepts they've learned and what they did to utilize feedback from their peers and teacher. She directs students to rewrite their stories and writers' notes based upon the feedback received from their peers and from herself. She grades the final stories and commentaries and to provide additional recognition, anthologizes them into a class collection of stories.

Intentionality: Beginning with the End in Mind

The idea of beginning with the end in mind is, of course, not new. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe have long extolled the power of "backward design"—starting not with textbooks or favorite lesson plans but rather with what students need to learn and then deliberately choosing texts, lesson plans, and other classroom activities to meet their learning needs (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998).

Carol Ann Tomlinson, a University of Virginia professor and arguably the leading proponent of differentiated instruction, relates the following anecdote of one teacher's epiphany regarding intentional instruction. After observing the teacher's class, in which the teacher asked students to read a book, draw one of the characters, write alternative endings, and design a new cover for the book, Tomlinson asked why she had designed her lesson the way she did. After some probing from Tomlinson, the teacher suddenly understood what she had been missing: intentionality. "Oh my gosh!" she exclaimed. "I thought all they were supposed to do was read the story and do something with it!" (Tomlinson, 1999).

Hattie's synthesis of meta-analytic research affirms the value of teaching strategies—when used thoughtfully to achieve clear instructional purposes. He concludes that students are most apt to learn at high levels when teachers clarify learning intentions for their students and themselves, select the most fitting strategies, and "provide appropriate feedback to reduce the gap between where the student is and where they need to be" (2009).

Using the Touchstones: Putting Popular Teaching Approaches to the Test

In the introduction to this book, I noted that the key principles discussed in each in chapter can serve as "touchstones"—something educators can use to gauge the merit and value of their endeavors. Let's test that assertion.

If the principles of high-quality instruction that we've called out in this chapter—conveying high expectations, fostering meaningful relationships with students, and delivering intentional instruction—really are what matters most when it comes to teaching, we should expect to find that strategies or approaches that incorporate all three "touchstones" are effective. Conversely, those strategies that neglect one or more of the touchstones should fall short of the mark.

Let's take a closer look at three common teaching approaches to see what the research says about them and whether our touchstones help to explain why they may—or may not—be delivering results in classrooms.

Is Culturally Relevant Pedagogy Really Different…or Just Good Instruction?

While sifting through research on what it takes to change the odds for students, especially those of color or in poverty, our McREL research team began with the following assumption: Given the volume of scholarly discourse around the need to adapt teaching styles to the needs of underserved students—an approach often dubbed "culturally relevant pedagogy"—we assumed that we would find significant evidence, examples, and guidance pointing to the need for teachers to employ a different, perhaps unique, set of instructional practices with underserved children. In other words, if one might normally use teaching strategy x—say, identifying similarities and differences—to teach a particular topic to nonminority or middle-income students, does the research suggest that the effects of poverty or culture dictate using a different strategy with underserved students?

After reviewing hundreds of research articles on pedagogy, we found very little experimental research to support altering teaching methods according to students' ethnic or cultural backgrounds (see, for example, Flowers & Flowers, 2008; Nasir, Hand, & Taylor, 2008). Judith Kleinfeld, the originator of the "warm demander" concept mentioned earlier in this chapter, has similarly concluded that "after more than 25 years of research on cultural differences in learning styles, psychologists have been unable to show that one method of teaching works better for children of one cultural group while a different method of teaching works better for children of a different cultural group" (1994).

Kleinfeld acknowledges that some ethnic groups do occasionally display different ability patterns. For example, she notes that Alaskan Natives tend to demonstrate especially high levels of visual and spatial skills while performing less well on tests of English verbal ability. However, she concludes, "Just because different cultural groups have different cognitive strengths does not mean that teachers should narrowly match their teaching styles to these patterns of abilities". As evidence of this observation, she points to a study that she conducted early in her career.

The study was designed, she thought, to demonstrate the importance of aligning instruction with students' unique, cultural learning styles. Ethnographic research at the time suggested that Native Alaskan students had strong visual memories, developed perhaps to remember small visual cues needed to navigate the vast and seemingly monotonous landscape of the Arctic tundra.

So, Kleinfeld and a colleague developed two sets of lessons for teaching the classification of animals and their place on the food chain: one was verbally oriented, the other visually oriented. They delivered both lessons to Native and non-Native students, fully expecting to find the visual lessons boosting learning for the Native students. And that is exactly what they found. However, they also found that while the Native students "did learn more with the visual lesson…the Caucasian children benefited the same or more!".

Kleinfeld notes that similar efforts to identify strategies that are more effective with particular ethnic or cultural groups—for example, using cooperative instead of competitive learning with black students—have arrived at the same conclusion: The strategies tested are simply more effective for both groups of students.

That's not to say that teachers shouldn't attempt to put learning in context for students. Kleinfeld describes the experiences of one teacher whose first attempt to teach science to Native students in a remote Alaskan village consisted of a "boring lecture on calories and energy transformation". After getting to know his students better, he designed a lesson that asked students to visit a local steambath (an important fixture of village life) to observe the transition of water from solid to liquid to vapor. His students came back to class engaged in their learning and excited to talk about what they observed. One might conclude that the lesson worked because it was culturally relevant, but that would miss its real strength. On a deeper level, it worked because it connected what students were learning to their prior knowledge (namely, their experience with steambaths) and focused on developing higher-order thinking skills (e.g., analysis and evaluation). Both strategies are simply good instruction.

The bottom line: Effectively teaching all students does not require wildly different strategies; rather, it requires skillful and intentional use of existing proven practices.

The Curious Case of Differentiated Instruction

At this point, some readers may feel this chapter has given short shrift to the practice of differentiated instruction, which is aimed at meeting the needs of diverse learners and is an idea much in vogue in education circles. Carol Ann Tomlinson, one of the foremost proponents of differentiated instruction, writes that teachers who practice differentiated instruction in their classrooms

accept and build upon the premise that learners differ in important ways. Thus, they also accept and act on the premise that teachers must be ready to engage students in instruction through different modalities [learning styles], by appealing to differing interests, and by using varied rates of instruction along with varied degrees of complexity. (1999)

The logic behind this statement seems airtight. For years, such psychologists as Howard Gardner (2006) have contended that people learn in different ways. Some are visual learners, others are bodily-kinesthetic or linguistic learners, and so on. Each student, the theory goes, has a preferred learning style and comes to school every day with a unique set of prior knowledge and skills. Following this logic, the best response to this diversity of learning styles and aptitudes is for teachers to differentiate instruction, teaching students in ways that match their individual readiness levels and learning styles.

It all seems very logical, but there's one problem: To date, no empirical evidence exists to confirm that the total package of differentiated instruction (i.e., conducting ongoing assessments of student abilities, identifying appropriate content and instructional strategies based on those abilities, using flexible grouping arrangements for students, and varying how students can demonstrate proficiency in their learning) has a positive impact on student achievement (Hall, 2002).

One reason for this lack of evidence may simply be that no large-scale, scientific study of differentiated instruction has yet been conducted. And as any researcher will tell you, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The lack of research itself may be due to the fact that differentiated instruction is such a large undertaking that it's difficult to implement well and thus difficult to study well. Indeed, some of Carol Ann Tomlinson's own research has found that even in those schools that claimed to be implementing differentiated instruction, few teachers appeared to be opting for differentiation in any form (Tomlinson, Moon, & Callahan, 1998).

Another explanation, however, could be that, while seemingly logical, differentiated instruction is based on some flawed premises. Some of the underpinnings of differentiated instruction, including adapting instruction to student abilities, aligning teaching to student learning styles, and providing instruction based upon individual students' interests, have yet to be confirmed by careful research. Here are a few salient research findings that Hattie (2009) cites:

  • A meta-analysis of 61 studies of "aptitude–treatment interactions"—that is, grouping students according to ability and providing them with appropriate instructional support—found that these interventions provide more benefit to higher-achieving students than to lower-achieving ones and, thus, may exacerbate achievement gaps.
  • More than 400 studies found that aligning instruction to student learning styles has effects only slightly above what would be expected from normal teaching. And even these moderate effect sizes are in doubt according to Hattie, who notes serious methodological flaws with many of them. One concern with adapting instruction to learning styles, according to a pair of researchers who conducted a meta-analysis of 39 studies, is the "considerable overlap" in individual learning styles, which calls into question whether reported learning style preferences "could really be deemed preferences" at all (Kavale & Forness, 1987; cited in Hattie, 2009).
  • Six hundred studies of individualized instruction (i.e., instruction based on students' individual interests and past learning experiences) found these efforts to be "only slightly better than regular classroom instruction" (Hattie, 2009).

The Trouble with Multiple Intelligences and Learning Styles

In his book Why Don't Students Like School?, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham observes that "children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn," adding that, "as far as scientists have been able to determine, there are not categorically different types of learners" (Willingham, 2009). He cautions, for example, against assuming that just because a student is naturally gifted in music he should be taught commas by being asked to write a song about them or that a child with bodily-kinesthetic aptitude should be asked to contort herself into the shape of a comma.

Willingham notes that Howard Gardner himself, the father of multiple intelligences theory, "disavows this idea, and he's right to do so". The problem with this line of thinking is that these different abilities—whether it's musical talent or being physically coordinated—have nothing to do with learning about commas. Similarly, "mathematical concepts have to be learned mathematically and skill in music won't help," writes Willingham. So too, one might add, a baseball coach is unlikely to help a child with a weak arm (but who is good at math) make a better throw from third base to first base by asking him to write mathematical formulas of an orb in flight.

So what does all this mean? Is differentiated instruction a bad practice? Should teachers who are having success with it in their classrooms (and, undoubtedly, there are many) stop doing it?

Not at all.

These findings don't imply that differentiated instruction (or approaches similar to it) never works, just that it doesn't work consistently. Indeed, Willingham himself writes in a passage on this point that bears repeating:

I am not saying that teachers should not differentiate instruction. I hope and expect that they do. But when they do, they should know that scientists cannot offer any help. It would be wonderful if scientists had identified categories of students along with varieties of instruction best suited to each category, but after a great deal of effort, they have not found such types, and I, like many others, suspect they don't exist.

So what's one to do with students of different abilities? Certainly, everyday teachers face the challenge of trying to educate children of different abilities. In a single classroom, a teacher is likely to have students with learning disabilities grouped with students who have been identified as gifted and talented. Those differences are impossible to ignore. Teachers, no doubt, often find that when they teach a lesson, not all kids immediately grasp the content the first time around—maybe a quarter, a third, or even half of the students don't get it.

The point to draw from the research here is that learning style differences are unlikely to explain why those students didn't comprehend what was being taught the first time around. Moreover, given the lack of research to support learning style preferences, there's no reason to label or group students according to these so-called abilities or design lessons specifically for them.

Certainly, providing math manipulatives that illustrate volume or more visual ways of presenting cell mitosis can help struggling students better understand these concepts. It's likely, though, that these techniques will help all students. The fact that some higher-performing students may bring to the classroom more background knowledge, vocabulary, or motivation probably goes a long way toward explaining why they may understand the concept of volume when it's taught in an more abstract way (i.e., "length times height times width equals volume"). This doesn't mean, however, that they won't also be more likely to understand and remember a concept when they encounter it in a more visual or tactile way.

Educators might still reasonably embrace differentiated instruction, with the caveat that it's not easy to do well. That appears to be the conclusion of a recent practice guide from the What Works Clearinghouse on implementing Response to Intervention to improve students' reading abilities. The guide cites the "low level" of evidence for differentiated instruction, yet still calls teachers to use the approach in their classrooms (What Works Clearinghouse, 2009).

The What Works Clearinghouse report notes, however, that there is moderate evidence (that is, a number of high-quality correlational studies) that supports the practice of regularly screening students and monitoring their progress. And strong evidence exists from scientifically based research to encourage the practice of placing students who are falling behind in small, homogeneous groups where they receive one to three hours per week of intensive, supplemental instruction, including one-on-one tutoring (What Works Clearinghouse, 2009). Bear in mind that these groupings are not permanent labels applied to students—they are based on real-time assessments of how students are learning and should be reconfigured regularly when students demonstrate that they no longer need the extra support.

The Bottom Line: Differentiation in Moderation

One challenge, of course, in writing about differentiated instruction is that most likely, if you ask 10 teachers to define it, you'll probably get 10 different definitions of what it is. For some, it's simply the practice of teaching all students well the first time, checking for student understanding with formative assessments, identifying those who are falling behind, and providing them with some additional instruction. Research from the What Works Clearinghouse practice guide suggests that this is a prudent approach to differentiate instruction.

Some advocates of differentiated instruction, however, call for something a bit more complicated—for example, creating different options for different learning styles (e.g., verbal-linguistic, visual-spatial, logical-mathematical, intrapersonal) based on Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences theory. As we'll see more in the next chapter on curriculum, such tweaks or infusion of student choice in the curriculum may provide some benefit in terms of motivation. Some students may find it more interesting to use a Venn diagram to compare and contrast plants and animals, for instance, while others may feel more inclined to write about their "life as a plant" (Tomlinson & Cunningham Eidson, 2003).

So if experienced teachers wish to infuse student choices into their lesson plans and feel confident that each choice will require students to demonstrate similar levels of learning, they might reasonably get a little fancy, so to speak, with their lessons. Students may even benefit some from these extra flourishes. However, for some teachers, especially beginning teachers, adding this layer of complexity to teaching may feel like attempting to bounce down a treacherous, double-black diamond ski slope meant for experts when they've only just recently made their way off the bunny hill. For these educators, teaching is complicated enough without adding the additional, and, research would say, unnecessary, burden of trying to adjust instruction to students' so-called learning styles.

The bottom line is this: yes, teachers should differentiate the intensity of instruction according to student needs and mastery of content. They can, however, safely disabuse themselves of feeling obliged to adapt every lesson to differences in students' learning styles. The former, simpler approach to differentiation will do just fine.

The Ugly Duckling: Direct Instruction

John Hattie (2009) writes that he often finds his teacher education students have been "indoctrinated with the mantra 'constructivism good, direct instruction bad,' and are thus, stunned, if not indignant, when they learn that more than 300 studies of Direct Instruction have found the approach to be among one of the more effective in teaching". (It should be noted here, though, that only one study of Direct Instruction has measured up to the high bar of the What Works Clearinghouse, meeting the Clearinghouse's exacting standards for medical-style research complete with random experimental and control groups; this study, which examined the impact of Direct Instruction on 164 special education preschool and kindergarten children, found only small effects for the approach with its limited sample of students [What Works Clearinghouse, 2007]).

Hattie notes that contrary to popular conception, Direct Instruction (with capital letters, as in the program developed by Dr. Siegfried Engelmann, Dr. Wesley Becker, and colleagues) is not simply didactic instruction or a teacher droning on in the front of the room—think the monotone lecture on the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act from Ben Stein's character in the 1980s' comedy Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Rather, Direct Instruction is an intensely intentional process of instruction that involves teachers' becoming clear upfront about learning objectives, making them transparent to students, demonstrating them through modeling, monitoring student progress by moving around the room and constantly interacting with students, giving students opportunities for independent practice, and pulling the entire lesson together with a thoughtful "closure" that helps students make sense of what they've learned.

In contrast to these positive findings, researchers have found that less-structured and more student-guided approaches to instruction can be harmful for struggling students. One analysis of 70 studies conducted by Richard Clark, a researcher at the University of Southern California, found several experiments in which lower-aptitude students taught with less-guided or -structured instructional methods actually tested significantly lower on posttest than pre-test measures. In other words, they experienced a loss of learning while exposed to unguided instruction. Higher-ability students, on the other hand, achieve at higher rates with less-structured instruction, presumably because they have already acquired their own effective learning techniques.

In unusually strong language for the staid, equivocating world of peer-reviewed journals, Clark and his colleagues, Paul Kirschner and John Sweller, conclude that "after a half-century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique." They add, "In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners" (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).

At this point, astute readers may wonder: "Wait, didn't you say earlier that nondirectivity is one of the teacher characteristics most strongly correlated with higher levels of achievement? But now you're saying that Direct Instruction works. So which is it? Directive or nondirective?"

Admittedly, this is the kind of conflicting guidance that drives educators crazy and may cause them to hate research. But there is less conflict here than may appear on the surface. It all has to do, again, with intentionality—namely, what kinds of knowledge and skills we're trying to teach to students.

Research suggests that direct, teacher-led instructional approaches work best when the purpose is to introduce new knowledge to students. For example, rather than let students flail about trying to rediscover what Pythagoras figured out centuries ago about triangles, it's best simply to teach them that if they want to know the length of a right triangle's hypotenuse, A2 + B2 = C2 works every time. A meta-analysis of 15 scientifically rigorous research studies of the effects of various mathematics instruction techniques on low-achieving students conducted by Scott Baker, Russell Gersten, and Dae-Sik Lee confirms this: They found strong effects for teacher-led instruction in mathematics (d = .58) and negligible effects for teachers who emphasized real-world applications of mathematics (d = .01). They concluded that "low achievers seem not to do well at authentic problem solving and discussion of mathematical concepts without solid preparation in the underlying mathematical foundations" (Baker, Gersten, & Lee, 2002).

That's not to say, of course, that a teacher wouldn't use real-world applications to generate student interest in the topic—showing, for example, why a carpenter, surveyor, or astrophysicist might be interested in determining the length of a triangle's hypotenuse. The point here, though, is simple and commonsensical: When you need to teach new knowledge to students, it's best simply to teach it to them.

Cognitive psychologists also know that new knowledge exists in a fragile state in students' minds. A teacher can't simply throw out a new idea and hope it sticks. That's where application, practice, and higher-order thinking come into play—to help students deepen their knowledge, attaching it to their previous knowledge and applying it to novel situations that are meaningful to them. Less-directive, problem-solving approaches give students the opportunity they need to practice and apply their new knowledge. Just as we've all experienced suddenly turning into misspelling, ungrammatical dolts when someone watches over our shoulders as we type, students need some room to experiment and problem solve independently to deepen their understanding of new knowledge. That's where some nondirectivity can be helpful.

Incidentally, less-directive opportunities for independent practice are, in fact, built into Direct Instruction methods. Direct Instruction advocates themselves point out that neglecting to give students opportunities for independent practice is usually to blame when students are unable to recall information later or cannot apply their learning to new or novel situations (Hollingsworth & Ybarra, 2009). So, in the end, it appears that both directive and nondirective approaches are effective—when applied to proper ends and at proper times in the learning cycle.

That thought returns us to the heading of this section. We're all familiar with the story of the ugly duckling—the cygnet that's seen as ugly when it's among other ducks but grows into a beautiful swan. Like the ugly duckling, directive instruction has taken its share of abuse in academia and teacher education programs—probably because the method and its purposes are not fully understood. But when properly implemented and understood, Direct Instruction (the formal method) specifically, and teacher-directive instruction techniques more generally speaking, can have a powerful effect on student learning.

Using the Touchstones to Make Sense of the Data

So what are we to make of all this?

Three popular approaches—culturally relevant pedagogy, differentiated instruction, and constructivism—that remain in vogue in education circles don't have much solid research evidence to commend them. On the other hand, the ordinary and sometimes disparaged Direct Instruction approach has a large body of evidence (albeit not yet scientifically based evidence) to support it. Our three touchstones may help to explain why this may be the case.

First, in the case of Direct Instruction, by compelling teachers to set clear, challenging learning objectives, engage with students to monitor their progress, and use teaching strategies clearly tied to learning outcomes, Direct Instruction may, in effect, compel teachers to demonstrate the touchstones of effective teaching:

  • Setting high expectations and delivering challenging instruction. Teacher expectations for students have a powerful influence on student achievement. The best teachers see intelligence not as something that is innate to, or fixed within, students but as something that can be nurtured and developed.
  • Fostering engaging learning environments and meaningful relationships with students. Effective teachers are warm demanders, pressing students to achieve at high levels while developing strong, nurturing relationships with them.
  • Intentionally matching instructional strategies to learning goals. The best teachers are clear about what they are trying to teach to students. They consistently monitor student progress toward learning goals and use appropriate teaching strategies to close the gap between what students know and what they are expected to learn.

This is not to say that Direct Instruction is the only approach that works in the classroom. To the contrary; as I noted in the introduction, the purpose of this book is not to propose lockstep, one-size-fits-all solutions, but instead to call out the deep principles of success in classrooms and schools. The point here, then, is simply to say that the documented success of Direct Instruction is likely the result of its helping teachers to attend to the things that matter most in the classroom.

Moreover, holding up other instructional approaches to the touchstones may help explain why they fall short—if not in theory, at least in practice. Indeed, the real message to draw from the dearth of evidence supporting differentiated instruction and culturally relevant pedagogy may be this: The extent to which teachers differentiate instruction in their classrooms is not a key variable in student success. Differentiated instruction and culturally relevant pedagogy may be more of a means to an end, a way to address these three touchstones of teacher success.

Teachers who exemplify all three of the aforementioned touchstones of good instruction will almost assuredly deliver great results for students. Take away any one of them and teacher effectiveness, along with student success, will decrease. For example, if teachers differentiate instruction yet fail to develop strong nurturing relationships with students, they won't be as successful as teachers who differentiate instruction and develop positive relationships with students. Similarly, if they deliver what they believe to be more culturally relevant pedagogy but set low expectations for learning, they're unlikely to raise student achievement. On the other hand, when differentiated instruction, culturally relevant pedagogy, or any other instructional approach does work, it's likely because teachers are delivering instruction that reflects all three touchstones.

In the end, the simple takeaway message from this chapter is this: Simply nurturing kids and "loving them up" won't produce learning. Nor will simply setting high expectations. Teachers must do both—challenge and nurture students. At the same time, they must know why they're doing what they're doing in the classroom. Take away any one of the touchstones—regardless of the instructional approach teachers may be using in the classroom—and you'll get mediocre results at best. Put them all together and you're bound to succeed.


Log in to submit a comment.

To post a comment, please log in above. (You must be an ASCD EDge community member.) Free registration