Elliott Seif

Philadelphia, PA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

  • Posted 2 Years ago
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Part 8: Effective Teaching & Powerful Instruction

In the first seven parts of this commentary series, I have tried to present a picture of teacher effectiveness by analyzing the complexities, challenges, and key qualities of teaching[i]. In this eighth installment, I will try to dissect effective instruction by explaining how the best teachers:

  • Build an instructional style and approach consistent with important, substantive learning goals;
  • Create high expectations and appropriately challenge their students to be successful;
  • Use research-based learning principles while instructing students;  
  • Regularly use powerful instructional strategies;
  • Synthesize all these factors into a coherent “flow” of instruction and learning.

Matching instructional style and approach to substantive goals

As described in a previous commentary, highly effective teachers work from substantive goals that they consider very important and that they are passionate about[ii]. Once clear about their goals, they develop an approach or style of instruction consistent with their goals. In other words, whether they believe that their purpose for teaching is to improve student thinking or to improve the world, they find ways to build an instructional approach that matches their purpose - to “operationalize” their goals and foster student success.

Various approaches to styles of instruction have been developed that are focused around specific goals. For example, a literacy approach to instructionis designed primarily to improve reading, writing, and thinking skills. Its primary characteristics are to:

  • Select, introduce, and read high quality fiction and/or non-fiction reading material
  • Survey reading-introduce questions
  • Read individually or as a group
  • Teach vocabulary, concepts, background knowledge
  • Raise important, open-ended questions for discussion
  • Write and reflect
  • Share thoughts and reflections
  • Read independently as follow-up

The inquiry approach emphasizes the development of lifelong, self-directed learning skills. Teachers who commit to this important goal will focus their instruction around the following aspects:

Help students:

  • Identify questions-problems for exploration (by both teachers and students)
  • Gather and analyze information and data: “research” and “analyze” from many information and data sources, field experiences, surveys, interviews with “experts”, experiments…
  • Process information, test hypotheses
  • Draw conclusions, synthesize, reflect
  • Share results

Other teachers might emphasize a deep learning approach, also known as teaching for understanding, designed to promote understanding of core ideas and the skills that foster understanding. Its essential elements include: 

  • Develop and share essential questions and enduring understandings
  • Develop performance tasks as key culminating assessments
  • Instruct with meaning and transfer in mind

Still other teachers who stress problem solving and project-based learning might focus their instruction around the following:

  • Identify a “driving question” that suggests a problem to solve or a major task to complete
  • Research the problem and gather the information necessary to answer the question or complete the task
  • Develop a solution to the problem and/or develop a product
  • Present and share the solution/product
  • Develop an action implementation plan

If promoting thinking and problem solving are key goals, Ron Ritchart’s Thinking Routinesare a good place to start a focus on instruction. He has developed a set of instructional routines designed to introduce and explore ideas, synthesize and organize ideas, and dig deeper into ideas.[iii]

Creative problem solving is another approach to teaching and learning focused around the goals of increasing creativity and creative thinking. Creative problem solving begins with a “mess” (an open-ended problem or question) and then focuses on problem-finding (what is the real underlying problem?), idea finding (brainstorming), solution finding (judging solutions and developing the best solution), and acceptance finding (making the solution workable, developing a plan).  Another, similar creative problem solving approach is taught at the d.school at Stanford University.

These are just some of the many instructional approaches that have been developed to promote diverse learning goals. Many of the best teachers develop their own hybrid approaches over time built around their chosen learning goals. Thus, to determine effectiveness of instruction, it’s important to examine a teacher’s most critical goals and the consistency of his or her approach and style of instruction with their goals in order to determine a teacher’s effectiveness.

Effective Teachers build high expectations and realistic challenges

Not only do effective teachers develop their instructional approaches and styles consistent with their learning goals, but they also figure out ways to develop high student expectations, challenge students to do their best, and increase student effort[iv]. They develop an understanding of their students - their strengths, their abilities, and struggles - and work hard to get the best from their students. They learn how to push their students to do better, when to give them feedback, but also when to back off. “You can be better than you are” is a refrain that the best teachers implicitly apply to their students.

Effective teachers integrate research-based learning principles into their instruction

Over and above the development of substantive goals, related instructional approaches, and high expectations, the best teachers consistently follow basic, core learning principles as they teach. What are they? Basic, core learning principles, based on the work of Madeleine Hunter and others, have been known for some time. I have adapted them to the following eight principles of learning:

  • Teach to objectives

               o  Clear learning objectives and associated assessments shared with and/or         developed by students

  • Use time wisely

               o  Learning is doable within a given time frame

  • Active participation of all

               o  Motivate and challenge

               o  Create positive feeling tone

               o  Create meaning and interest

               o  Build a “you can do it”, effort matters attitude

               o  Promote active learning, mental and physical involvement of all in learning

  • Promote thinking that enhances learning

               o  “Chunk” and connect knowledge

               o  Classify, conceptualize, and categorize

               o  Find similarities and differences

               o  Use inferential reasoning

               o  Analyze and synthesize

  • Guide Learning

               o  Teach and Model

               o  Provide models of good work

               o  Guided practice

  • Seek improvement

               o  Diagnose student abilities, skills and background knowledge                

                               •Use diagnostic tools

                               •Use anticipatory sets

               o  Frequently check for understanding

               o  Get and give feedback

               o  Adjust instruction

                         •Differentiate and customize


  • Promote independent learning

             o  Apply/transfer learning to new situations

             o  Foster independent practice

  • Seek closure

             o  Summarize and/or synthesize learning

             o  Use a variety of culminating assessments

             o  Integrate new learning with previous learning

Note that these principles do not suggest a rigid, sequential instructional recipe. Flexibility is the rule. For example, one should not expect a teacher to incorporate all these principles into every lesson in a specific sequence. One lesson may consist almost totally of teaching and modeling, whereas another might primarily consist of a discussion of feedback provided by a teacher to all students on a piece of writing. A lesson might begin with “closure” from the previous day that leads into a new lesson. However, over time, perhaps in a complete unit, all these principles should be included in appropriate ways.

In addition, the use of different learning principles in instruction will vary with student needs and challenges. A focus on motivating and interesting students in learning may be low in advanced courses where students are already highly motivated, and high in general courses with students not as interested in academic learning. Some teachers may be able to incorporate greater amounts of independent learning because students already have a great deal of practice with the skills being taught (e.g. a science course where students have already in previous courses conducted experiments and worked in labs). Teachers in urban settings may need to spend a great deal of time motivating and challenging students due to the fact that students may have had less opportunity to develop academic learning skills, experienced academic failure, have trouble figuring out why they should learn, and also have many more daily problems, greater needs, etc.

Ineffective Teachers often violate basic, core instructional principles

Ineffective teachers violate these basic principles in many ways. For example, Smith, Lee, and Newmann analyzed two divergent approaches to teaching in the Chicago Schools – what they call the didactic vs interactive approaches[v]. In the didactic approach, the teacher is the major source of goals, information and activity. Other qualities of this approach are that the teacher:

  • emphasizes the learning of facts or discrete skills
  • covers a lot of material in a short period of time
  • emphasizes learning from textbooks
  • poses questions that ask for single, short answers
  • assesses students on the correctness of their answers
  • teaches primarily through worksheets and recitation strategies;
  • uses a traditional test (e.g. multiple choice, short answer questions) to measure successful achievement;
  • moves on to new material once the testing is completed.

This approach to teaching is generally less effective for a variety of reasons. Learning goals often lack meaning and emphasize superficial factual knowledge or simple, discrete skills. Students are not likely to be motivated and involved in learning – the teacher is the center of learning and worksheets and recitation are emphasized as the key instructional strategies. More interesting activities, such as those that emphasize writing and other core skills (e.g. research, thinking, oral discussions and presentations) are deemphasized. There is little emphasis on getting feedback from students (e.g. using formative assessments) to analyze how well students are learning and in providing extra support for those who need help. Very little feedback is given to students to help them improve learning.

At the secondary level, culminating tests generally emphasize multiple choice questions and short essays, and include “trick” questions designed to sort students according to grades. The teacher works with the notion that if students don’t succeed, it’s their fault, and the teacher moves on even if students don’t do well, thus increasing the likelihood that those that don’t do well will not succeed in future studies.

The Interactive Framework generally incorporates more meaningful goals and greater student involvement. Its characteristics are:

  • Learning objectives that include thinking, understanding, better communication (e.g. writing, discussion, oral presentations)
  • Teacher sees his or her role as guide or coach
  • Teacher poses questions that ask for explanations and which may have multiple answers
  • Teacher often assesses how students arrived at answers
  • Teacher creates situations in which students are expected to ask questions, develop strategies for solving problems, and increase communication with one another.
  • Teacher provides choices to students
  • Students have many opportunities to build knowledge relationships and to apply, interpret and integrate knowledge into prior understanding.[vi]

Smith, Lee and Newmann’s research indicates that interactive instructional practices lead to higher levels of achievement than didactic instruction.

Effective teachers use powerful strategies

In addition to setting substantive goals, connecting goals with effective instructional approaches, incorporating core learning principles, and creating high expectations and challenges, effective teachers use powerful instructional strategies as part of their teaching repertoire. Some examples of powerful types of instructional strategies include:

  • Writing process and varieties of types of writing
  • Activators and summarizers
  • Concept development
  • Interactive notebook
  • Effective questioning
  • Socratic discussion
  • Think-pair-share, wait time
  • Graphic organizers-Visual learning strategies
  • Formative assessments
  • Performance tasks-projects
  • Ambiguous assignments and open-ended questions
  • Brainstorming and other creativity strategies
  • Higher order thinking strategies
  • Differentiation-Customization

Putting it all together

Good instruction is extremely complex. The best teachers develop substantive, meaningful goals that they think are important and build a consistent, coherent instructional approach-style to help students meet those goals. They have high expectations for their students and realistically challenge them to succeed. They frame their instruction around core, basic learning principles. They use powerful instructional strategies as part of their instructional repertoire.

All of this gets put together into a generally seamless instructional model that they adapt to their teaching situations. And they continually learn from their failures and errors to improve on what they do.

Based on all this, here are some questions to consider when working with a teacher:

  • Can the teacher explicitly state critical, substantive goals that he or she is passionate about? Why does he or she hold these goals as important? Where do they come from?
  • Does the teacher have a coherent, explicit or implicit instructional approach or style that matches his or her critical goals?
  • Does the teacher create high student expectations and effectively challenge all students to do well and be successful?
  • Does the teacher consistently frame his or her instruction around basic principles of learning?
  • Does the teacher regularly incorporate powerful instructional strategies into his or her instruction?
  • Does the teacher synthesize all of the above into a coherent instructional “flow” that maximizes learning?

The reality is that the best teachers, like the best musicians, make a difficult complex task look easy. They continually synthesize all of these separate components into a seamless, coherent “flow” of instructional activity that help students meet important goals, grow, learn and be inspired.  They learn from their mistakes, and continually improve upon what they do. Like great musicians, they practice and apply their skills often. We should cherish their work when we see it, and help and support teachers as they improve their instructional skills, grow and learn.



[i] The links to the first seven parts are the following:

Part 1: Effective Teaching: An Overview:   http://bit.ly/22kHVwN,

Part 2: Teaching “Flow”:   http://bit.ly/22kI2IC,

Part 3: Effective Teaching in a 21st Century World:   http://bit.ly/1RnOgE1

Part 4: Teacher Effectiveness and the Curriculum:  http://bit.ly/1T6MFSP

Part 5: Effectively Managing Classroom Environments:  http://bit.ly/1UiZbwW

Part 6: Teacher Effectiveness and Assessment:   http://bit.ly/1nGLCMU

Part 7: Effective Teaching and Goal Setting:    http://bit.ly/20TqhhV

[ii] See Part 7: Effective Teaching and Goal Setting:   http://bit.ly/20TqhhV

[iii] See Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison, Making Thinking Visible; How to Promote Engagement, Understanding and Independence for all Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

[iv] The caveat here are the teachers who work with highly motivated students in advanced classes. The best teachers work both to increase achievement motivation for some but also help students who are too intense achievers learn to back off from their intensity.

[v] For further information about the differences between didactic and interactive instruction, see Smith, Lee and Newmann, Instruction and Achievement in Chicago Elementary Schools. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research, 2001.


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