What Difference Does Instruction Make?

When we teach, we hope and believe our instruction is making a difference. But is that always true?

This was the question I wanted my third-year pre-service teachers to think about as they participated in a five-week, full-time field placement. For those not in the US, field placements involve a college student who wants to be a teacher spending time in a classroom with a state-licensed “cooperating” teacher. In the case of my university, students experience a five-week placement during one semester. Later they participate in a fourteen-week student teaching experience with another cooperating teacher.

First Principles

I had gotten the idea of working from first principles via Richard Feynman, about whom I wrote previously. He did not like to accept others’ conclusions and tried to work out essential information for himself. I did not want my students to assume that just because instruction was happening, learning was happening.

Part of being a reflective teacher is to consider actual data related to teaching. Students, therefore, used a pre- post- research design. They pre-assessed students on a concept of their choice, some teaching took place, and the college students assessed after the instruction.

Accommodating Field Placements

Field placement assignments need to be flexible. Therefore, students could do their research paper on any topic taught in schools. They could use whole groups, small groups, or individual students. The instruction could take place across one lesson or across a few weeks. This way, the cooperating teacher would not have to make accommodations in classroom instruction for the college student. Often cooperating teachers would have the college students focus some of their time on a child who was struggling. This child would become the subject of the research.

Supporting the Project

I told the students that their thoughts about why they got the results they got would be the most important part of the paper. I wanted to know their ability to reflect on the factors that support or impede learning.

I’m also much more interested in mastery learning than in using assignments to merely to judge. Across time, my teaching colleague and I developed various scaffolds that helped students to understand the concepts behind the research and to think about the results they had. As a result of the scaffolds, we received many well-done papers and some were spectacular.

Research Results

Students were highly motivated to teach their students well with this project because they wanted it to “work.” They wanted to show that their teaching was effective and that children learned. Yet we also had some interesting and successful projects that demonstrated that teaching didn’t work.

For a while, one school system we worked with had a scripted reading program district wide. All schools were literally on the same page on a given day. They had monitors walking the halls to make sure teachers were following the plan. We had a couple of students do their projects on instruction from that program. They found that this particular form of instruction did not work for the children in those classrooms.

Reflective Teaching

It’s easy to get caught up in teaching, that is, planning and delivering lessons, without thinking about the other end of the equation, learning. Whole publishing companies and the districts who use their scripted curricula are examples of planning for teaching without taking into account the learning needs of each student.

Part of reflective teaching is to take a look at student progress in a systematic way, such as a pre-/post- research design. When teachers think about how individual students learn and the various ways learning can be supported, they improve both their teaching practice and students’ learning outcomes.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, universityof.wolverhampton.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.