If we want many children to be unsuccessful, to need specialized instruction, and to dislike school, what do we do?
We use ineffective educational materials and methods.
Poorly designed instructional materials are often inaccurate or misleading, illogically sequenced, and based on a misidentification and misunderstanding of the most important units of knowledge and skills.
Poor methods set up students to remember bits and pieces of unrelated information rather than to understand how things work and how ideas are related to each other. When coupled with little or untimely feedback, poor instruction may result in students’ wasting time and effort in completing work badly or inaccurately on their own.
Students are likely to develop only superficial and confused knowledge and skills and to remember less over time. A substantial proportion of students will need extra help or intervention. If less effective interventions continue to be used, many of these unsuccessful students will be identified as having learning or other problems.
If we want to improve education for all of our children, what do we do?
Everyone involved in education — not just a relative few — must recognize and use better materials and methods for all children, from the beginning.
Effective instruction for any subject requires:
- a clear and accurate understanding of the most essential structure (knowledge and skills) of a topic, and
- recognition and use of the ways that people learn best naturally — through engaging and meaningful interactions, with timely feedback, that avoid short-term and superficial fixes.
To identify better instruction, we need to look closely and carefully at the content of materials and methods and evaluate how well all children learn, both short- and long-term. If a child is not learning successfully (and also with enjoyment), the first place to look is at the materials and methods that are being used.
Furthermore, better instruction should not be kept for those students who did not understand using the “usual” instruction. Better instruction benefits all students.
Improving instruction seems trivial. Aren’t the reasons for student failure much more complicated?
Quality of instruction has always been highly variable. Among the many factors that can contribute to student success, improving quality of instruction is one of the most potentially powerful interventions.
Many factors — societal, psychological, medical, and others — have been described that can affect children’s learning. However, one of the most powerful is quality of instruction.
In research, effect size measures the degree to which change occurs as a result of an intervention. An effect size change of 1.0 standard deviations would be about the same as moving a child’s score on a test 34 percentile ranks higher. For instance, if the effect size of an intervention was 1 standard deviation, children scoring at the 50th percentile rank — better than 50 percent of children, would be likely to increase their score, on average, to the 84th percentile rank — better than 84 percent of children.
Consider these various effect sizes for activities we might use to meet one particular instructional goal*:
How might we help students to remember details better immediately and over time about factual information, such as students need to learn in social studies?
Dramatic (students observe a dramatic recreation or act out what they’re learning) — +1.12
Visual (using non-linguistic representations – pictures, mental pictures, or visual organizers) — +0.90
Verbal (telling students or having them read) — +0.74
Long-term, After 12 Months:
Dramatic (students observe a dramatic recreation or act out what they’re learning) — +0.80
Visual (using non-linguistic representations – pictures, mental pictures, or visual organizers) — +0.74
Verbal (telling students or having them read) — +0.64
Of course, better methods can be used badly, and less effective methods can be used in more effective ways. Dramatic, visual, and verbal styles of presenting and interacting with information can all be effective. However, the more that students engage deeply with important information, using more of themselves, the more likely it is that they will learn well.
Although many very good teachers do excellent work with students, there is much that is done in classrooms that is of poor quality or that can be improved greatly. A vast amount of misinformation about what effective instruction looks like prevents nationwide progress.
Not all of the most often used, and even recommended, practices meet criteria for more effective instruction. If school administrators, school boards, and other powerful groups and “experts” choose less effective materials and methods, then students and teachers suffer.
This website is about identifying better instructional materials and methods.
*Marzano, et al. (2001). Classroom Instruction That Works. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. This book is a helpful introduction to thinking about effect sizes for instructional practices.
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