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The Pros and Cons of Popular Instructional Strategies

The Pros and Cons of Popular Instructional Strategies

Often, students find a benefit in mixing things up a bit with content presentation or assessment, and teachers may find moving out of their traditional practice, stretching, and trying something new is super gratifying as well. I love a design sprint workshop or an impromptu planning experience; however, during the school week, educators do not always have the time to step back and take part. In the past few years, planning periods may have been devoured up by attending meetings, covering a class, or simply trying to catch up. Professional learning has unfortunately taken a backseat to survival. 

While there are many different types of students and classes, people learn best when they are stimulated and engaged. For teachers to accomplish this, there are different teaching methods and plans they can employ. These are collectively called instructional strategies.

Exploring some different instructional strategies and discovering how to incorporate them into the classroom process can rekindle a love affair with teaching. Finding the right instructional strategy to fit your classroom can make a world of difference to your students by allowing them to make meaningful connections with what they are learning. Take a look at a few different strategies, and see which one might suit your students this academic year.

Constructivism and Questioning

Asking questions and listening for learning in the answers is both fun and engaging for students of all ages.  Educators naturally do this, but by simply becoming a bit more intentional and process driven with the questions, educators can create an environment that supports a unique experience of learning.

The Socratic method, named after the Greek philosopher Socrates, is often used to promote critical thinking. Students come to class prepared for discussion. Educators need to guide student preparation with a pre-class assignment.  It is the discussion that leads the way through material. Inquiry is promoted through open-ended questions, and students have the option to explore different perspectives. Each question leads to discussion and can produce more than one answer. The meat of the learning is found in the process, teaching students to think about the material.

In this method, educators ask questions of students, listen to the answers, and continue until any contradictions are exposed. Socrates also used this method of questioning to encourage people to question the things they were told and to look beyond the obvious. This process helps students develop critical-thinking skills, gets them to think quickly, and requires them to be prepared and attentive. Examples of questions to pose include: “What exactly do you mean?” and “Why is it vital?” and “What else can we assume?” Questions can focus on viewpoint, such as “Why is it better than the alternative (What is the alternative?)?” and “What would be the effect of that?” and “What made you feel that way?”

Socratic Method

Project-based learning or problem-based learning (PBL) is designed to engage students in solving a real-world problem or answering a complex question. Project-based learning unleashes a contagious, creative energy among students and teachers. It is NOT a moment in the curriculum when students build a diorama. 

PBL begins with teachers assigning an open-ended problem with more than one solution. With the problem presented, students then investigate potential solutions, often within small groups. The role of educators is to facilitate and support. Ultimately, students demonstrate their knowledge and skills by creating a public product or presentation for a real audience. As a result, students develop deep content knowledge, as well as critical-thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication skills. PBL can vary in length from one class to an entire semester depending on the complexity of the problem.

The project should contain and frame curriculum and instruction. Projects tend to be more open-ended than problem-based learning, giving students more choice when it comes to demonstrating what they know. Different from projects that are the culmination of a learning unit, PBL projects ARE the learning unit, meaning that fundamental concepts and skills are learned throughout the project.

PBL is an evidence-based practice under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and it meets the evidence requirements for tiers 1 and 2 under ESSA, which is exciting on so many levels.

There are a few steps for learning to be considered PBL versus just another classroom project. While the core problems will vary among disciplines, some characteristics of good PBL problems transcend school subjects. 

Project-Based Learning

Inquiry-based learning is based on constructivist theories of learning, where knowledge is “constructed” from experience and process. Constructivists believe that learning happens through actively “mulling over” information. This encompasses an array of approaches, including fieldwork, case studies, investigations, individual and group projects, and research ventures. This is in contrast to theories like behaviorism, which proposes that students should be told information from a teacher rather than learning it themselves through experiences.

It may sound similar to PBL, but there are subtle differences. Inquiry-based learning places an emphasis on finding answers to questions through discovery. In 1961, psychologist Jerome Bruner introduced the discovery learning model as a technique of inquiring-based learning. In discovery learning, teachers guide the process and investigations, whereas in true PBL, the student discovers everything themselves, even the questions. Both are considered constructivist approaches, where the process of learning is achieved actively through experiences such as investigation and observation in a student-centered environment rather than through passive learning, which is a teacher-centered environment, a contrasting educational approach that favors repetition and memorization. An inquiry-based approach asks students to investigate concepts using research and analysis. When executed correctly, this approach focuses on the use of higher-order-thinking skills like problem-solving to reach conclusions. Students are expected to use logic and reason to come to conclusions about topics. 

Specific learning processes that students engage in during inquiry include refining questions, seeking evidence to answer questions, explaining evidence, and justifying or laying out an argument for the evidence. Progress and outcomes are assessed through observing students’ learning development over time through conversations, notebook entries, student questions, procedural skills, the use of evidence, and other techniques. In this method, the process is more important than the solution. Effective questioning plays a role in focusing students on unit learning goals or overarching themes.

Inquiry Based Learning

Bloom’s Approach

This approach and its iterations have been the framework for categorizing educational goals since 1956.  It is a hierarchical model that categorized learning objectives into varying levels of complexity. Its theory advocated individualized learning over a universal curriculum. In 2001, Bloom’s was revised to call out the process of learning as active rather than passive. 

Mastery-based learning was introduced by psychologist Benjamin Bloom (perhaps best known for his taxonomy framework). It applies the principles of individualized instruction and tutoring to whole-class learning. In this model students are assessed multiple times throughout the learning process rather than at the end of a unit or semester. It is an instructional approach where students need to demonstrate a deep understanding before progressing to another topic or subject area.  Educators provide individual feedback, diagnose learning needs/difficulties, prescribe specific remediation or enrichment strategies, and reassess with a parallel assessment.

Mastery learning is basic to many textbook programs and has promoted formative assessments as a routine of classrooms. It honors the idea that students learn at different levels or paces and follows the philosophy that learning is unique to every student and that by instruction being closely monitored, educators learn and understand what students truly know. 

Mastery-based Instruction

Scaffolded instruction focuses on delivering content gradually to support high-quality and unforced learning. It is a teaching technique used to build connections for learners by establishing details surrounding content prior to instruction. With scaffolded instruction, students do not learn new concepts in isolation, but as part of the big picture. Teachers may model a task and slowly transfer the knowledge to learners.

Instruction could look like chunking the material into small steps to reach the desired content outcome. Strategies that work with scaffolded instruction include simple steps like pre-teaching vocabulary words before reading a text or using a timeline to teach historical content to allow students to see both when and how events impacted each other. 

Scaffolded Instruction

Teacher-Led, Directed, or Reciprocal/Cooperative Teaching

Teacher led instruction, using experience to share knowledge with students has slowly been moving away from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” However, there are some instructional practices that leverage the techniques that made teacher led instruction popular for so many years.   

Reciprocal teaching is an instructional approach in which students become the teachers in small-group reading (or other content) sessions. Teachers model and then help students learn to guide group discussions using strategies such as summarizing, question generating, clarifying, and predicting. Once students understand and can apply the strategies, they take turns assuming the role of the teacher in a dialogue. In another version, students take the roles of predictor, summarizer, questioner, and clarifier.

Collaborative learning, another research-based strategy for teaching, follows closely in the vein of peer learning, with students working in pairs or small groups and employing reciprocal teaching methods.

Structured academic controversy (SAC) is a cooperative learning strategy developed by David and Roger Johnson in order to structure and focus classroom discussions. One practice involves students working in pairs and then coming together in four-person teams, where students explore a question by reading about (or viewing) content and then presenting contrasting positions. Afterward, they engage in discussion to reach consensus. A discussion using SAC moves students beyond “either/or” thinking, examining controversial issues from multiple perspectives.

The jigsaw classroom is a research-based cooperative learning technique invented and developed in 1971 by Elliot Aronson and his students at the University of Texas and later at the University of California. It focuses on fostering student cooperation rather than competition. It strives to create a social environment where student learning is dependent on positive relationships. In this process, a large amount of educators’ time is devoted to building student relationships through a culture of mutual respect, modeling, and teaching. In a jigsaw classroom, students are placed in groups where they must work together toward a common goal. Each member of a small group is assigned to learn one part of a lesson and then expected to teach that information back to the group. Students learn to listen to and respect each other and the lessons being taught. The primary focus is developing the groups intentionally, building collaboration between students who may not get along or who struggle to understand each other. The content is secondary; it is a means to the collaboration.

Realia refers to real-life objects used in classroom instruction in order to improve students' understanding. It typically refers to instruction of other cultures and real-life situations. Teachers of English language learners and global languages employ realia to strengthen associations between words and the objects themselves. Teachers of young students also use this process to provide a tangible resource that connects to their developmental stage. Realia is used to link learners with the tactile and multidimensional connections between learned material and the object of the lesson. Primary objectives of this strategy include increasing comprehensible input, using language in context, and promoting verbal interaction and active involvement. 

Teacher-Led Strategies

As a former kindergarten and special education teacher, I do not know how we can teach without understanding that the whole child must be considered. Whole-child learning is an approach to learning that embraces the concept that education should consider all influences on a child's development. It prioritizes all the developmental and personal needs of students in addition to their academic achievements—hence the name, whole child.

Hungry children do not learn; anxious children do not learn either. Sometimes, the baseball coach can get more from students than the classroom teacher. It is important, and in many ways, a no-brainer, to meet and understand the needs of students. However, this requires a team and support from the school and district, many of which are stretched thin already.

Looking to learn more about teaching best practices? Check out our blog on five brain-based learning strategies to boost retention and focus in your classroom!

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Winnie O'Leary

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently the Educator Initiatives Manager. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she learns something new and exciting every day.