Better Education Is in the Details

By | October 29, 2013

Thought Experiment*

How would you teach if you wanted someone:

  • to learn something new?
  • to enjoy and be engaged in your lesson?
  • to remember the most important information and skills without a lot of reteaching and confusion?

Do we need big, new, nationwide programs? Do we need a few tweaks to what we’re already doing? Or do we need to take a step back and think more carefully about basic questions like those listed above?

Poor Design – Do We Always Recognize It?

All of us tend to avoid things that don’t work well. We won’t buy another car or appliance from a brand that has let us down in the past. We avoid websites that are difficult to navigate, take much time to load, or don’t give us the information we want.

Yet sometimes people blame themselves. People may berate themselves when they find copy machine instructions confusing or are slow to figure out a new computer operating system. We may hear such statements as “I’m not good at math” or “I’m not good at spelling.”

In classrooms, when learning does not occur, often children are seen as having the problem. Educators may say that “all children learn differently” and add extra instructional time, activities differentiated in various ways, and tiers of intervention depending on how easily students learn using the standard form of instruction in a classroom.

BUT — When children don’t learn, should we not make sure that the initial instruction is well designed for all students? Are we able to recognize degrees of design, from poor to better and much better, in educational materials and methods?

So back to our thought experiment:

How would you teach if you wanted someone:

  • to learn something new?
  • to enjoy and be engaged in your lesson?
  • to remember the most important information and skills without a lot of reteaching and confusion?

Compare the Details to Compare the Design

Consider, for instance, some of the crucial and foundational ways in which music instruction is often superior to many versions of reading instruction.

Effective instruction for any subject requires:

  • a clear and accurate understanding of the most essential and meaningful structure (knowledge and skills) of a topic, and
  • recognition and use of the ways that people learn best naturally — starting with what people already know and enjoy, focusing on the most important knowledge and skills through engaging interactions using meaningful and appropriate increments, with timely practice and feedback.

Note the use of the word “meaningful.” Meaning is constructed of things that matter to us, that catch our attention, that become associated to other meanings in our lives. Meaning is not enough to assure learning, but without meaning, learning is much more difficult.

Learning to Play a Musical Instrument

The common method of instruction for learning to play a musical instrument is to associate fingering of a few notes at a time to their visual representations on a clef, through playing and practicing simple patterns of notes and songs. From the beginning, students are spending most of their time with meaningful melodic segments; they naturally receive feedback each time they play a note correctly or not. Each lesson and song stretches their capabilities and flexibility by using the same notes, and incrementally adding some new notes, in different patterns. When children are successfully learning and are encouraged to use new knowledge and skills with family and friends and in their own ways, they are very likely to enjoy playing. But even if they don’t particularly enjoy lessons, students usually learn to play an instrument with some degree of competence if all of the components are present.

Learning to Read

Learning to read is often very different, especially if it starts with a drawn-out process of learning each letter name and information about that letter separately. Letter names in the English language are not very helpful for learning the code by which speech sounds or phonemes are associated with letter representations. As children start learning to read words, often at a later time, they may see each word as a separate entity to be memorized. Some vocabulary and content meant to help students generalize their knowledge so they don’t have to memorize each similar word separately (e.g., short and long vowels, rules, categorization of words by type, such as open or closed syllables, and word families) may add layers of sometimes confusing information, requiring much effort without furthering students’ reading skill appreciably. Learning to read even fairly basic text may extend over a period of several years.

Signal and Noise in Teaching and Learning

One way of thinking about the transmission of information is in terms of signal and noise. Signals clearly identify what is important so that we receive the intended message; noise is whatever confuses the message so we don’t receive the most important information. Educators usually don’t think in these categories, but signal and noise are useful ways to think about what we present and what students get from our lessons.

Learning to play an instrument is usually fairly straightforward. The code of associations between fingerings, notes, and letter names for notes is clear for most instruments. Changes in rhythms, time signatures, and keys are added incrementally. With time and practice, great complexity can be achieved. Lessons focus on clearly on what needs to be learned, and students are generally not confused about the code.

There are many potential sources of confusion, however, in how many students learn to read. Clear signals about what is most important for learning to read can be lacking. Alphabet letters? Alphabet letter names? Word families? Whole words? Word shapes? The sounds letters “say”? Some children are better at seeing the implicit code and patterns needed for reading words . Others are less successful because they can’t put together all of the disconnected bits and pieces. If the problems of poor design are compounded, as they may be, by lack of true interest by students, their parents, and friends, learning to read will be even more of a struggle.

We must look carefully at the details of instruction — at what we present, do, and say as we work with students to teach lessons. We need designs for teaching that are based on a solid understanding of the meaningful structure of whatever we wish to teach and of how people naturally learn best.


* A thought experiment often explores what might happen under certain circumstances. in this case, I’m suggesting some questions; exploration occurs as we think about things that actually happen or might happen if we set about teaching in different ways.

Karen McDonald, Ph.D.

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.