October 15, 2019

MASB LeaderBoard: Traditional Instruction is Still Necessary

Despite innovative research and practices around instruction over the past 20 years, classroom instruction is still quite incidental.

In other words, the pressures to “cover” vast amount of curriculum compels teachers to teach “to the middle” where a number of students have already mastered the content within daily lessons, while others are not ready for the content and are lost. Teaching to the middle favors an incidental approach to instruction, meaning that learning mainly occurs with those students who happen to be ready for the lesson. Obviously, this form of instruction is neither efficient nor desirable, so many educators are searching for the “magic bullet” in instruction that will instantly lead to improvement.

Over the past few years, we have seen a number of districts and schools across the state adopt competency-based learning, projected-based learning and many other instructional strategies. All of these approaches have demonstrated success in both research and within districts here in Michigan. However, these strategies tend not to be successful when “traditional” instructional techniques are completely abandoned.

For example, project-based learning can help students gain deep knowledge through a series of experiential activities and simulations. No one who cares about students would object to them gaining deep knowledge for that’s one of the key goals of education—students have deep knowledge and can transfer it to other contexts and situations. However, if students do not have the prerequisite skills or knowledge to effectively participate in the project-based activities, they become as lost in the classroom as students who are in classrooms where teachers are teaching incidentally to the middle.

The solution to our state’s instructional woes is still and has always been “intentional” instruction, which is teaching to the specific needs of students. While this method is considered a traditional learning approach, it could be argued that seldom is this the actual practice that occurs daily in most classrooms. Intentional instruction is typically targeted to students, often through small groups within a classroom, based on formative assessment data. This would mean, on any given day, students in these classrooms are working on challenging curriculum that is aligned to their learning needs based on assessment data.

This could also be called differentiation, but this term is often misused and tends to have many ambiguous connotations associated with it. Traditional and intentional instruction may not be a glamorous approach, but it is effective and does not carry additional costs because teachers utilize the curriculum and materials they normally use.

Lastly, traditional instructional strategies can be intentionally embedded in other models such as project-based learning to ensure all students are prepared and able to gain the maximum benefit from the associated activities and experiences. At the end of the day, traditional instruction is still necessary.

Sean Williams, Ph.D., is Eaton RESA’s Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services, and can be reached at smwilliams@eatonresa.org or 517.541.8760.