“Discussions about research on instructional practices are not sought after and not well received,” says Robert Marzano, coauthor of the ASCD book Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement.
But the definition of content standards and the public pressures of the accountability movement are encouraging more districts and teachers to take a closer look at research-based instructional practices that improve student motivation and achievement, say researchers.
Oddly enough, some of these teaching strategies don’t seem particularly new—identifying similarities and differences, note taking, and homework and practice, for example. The cumulative knowledge of more than 30 years of research, however, is what “validates their usefulness,” insists Marzano.
“For a long time, teachers had the models of instruction, but they didn’t know the ‘why?'” says Dickmann, co-author with Nancy Stanford-Blair of Connecting Leadership to the Brain.
The evidence from neuroscience, cognitive science, and clinical studies as well as theoretical constructs from evolutionary biology, archaeology, and philosophy converge in support of certain instructional practices, says Dickmann. “You put all that together and the black box opens up,” he suggests.
Dickmann points to cooperative learning as an example. “Hard research now enables educators to look through the lenses of physiological, social, emotional, constructive, reflective, and dispositional dimensions of the way the brain learns,” he says.
Cooperative learning physiologically engages more of the brain’s neural networks through the stimulation of sensory information from kinesthetic, visual, and auditory input. A teacher who studies the research would also better understand how cooperative learning taps into students’ “natural capacities to be engaged socially and emotionally” and supports their efforts to construct knowledge and apply it in problem solving, says Dickmann.
Ultimately, research on the subject can enlighten teachers about how cooperative learning can foster learning dispositions or mental habits that can help students throughout their lives, he adds.
Dickmann likens the “breakthrough in knowledge” about instructional practices to the work of Louis Pasteur, the microbiologist famed for his discovery in 1857 that infectious diseases are caused by germs. It is not enough for such new knowledge to be available, explains Dickmann; “there has to be a perceptual shift” so such discoveries might be practically applied. Often there is a lag time between great scientific theories and their application in everyday situations. For example, Pasteur’s findings were not immediately used to prevent wounded soldiers from contracting fatal infections. Similarly, some teachers hesitate to tap into the practical benefits of research-based strategies.
Administrators in the region wanted an alternative to the kind of professional development that entailed having a “big inspirational speaker” descend in August—just when teachers need to be preparing to teach, says Nancy Lockett, staff development coordinator for Iowa’s Area Education Agency 7. AEA7, which oversees 26 independent school districts, including Waterloo, Cedar Falls, and surrounding rural areas, wanted to cultivate a “common language and critical mass” of research-based best practices that would “hit all administrators, teachers, and counselors.”
The plan calls for a sea change in how teachers approach classroom instruction, student engagement, and lesson planning. Over the years, staff in participating school districts have learned about the latest research on brain-based learning, student assessment, and standards and benchmarks. After taking all this information in, teachers complained that it was difficult to incorporate strategies into lesson planning because the information was never at hand, Lockett recalls. Looking up the right strategy in books, notebooks, binders, file folders, and old workshop handouts was too time consuming. To help solve the difficulty of a wealth of strategies, the agency created a 30-page booklet of strategies it called the “skinny book” to help teachers plan lessons.
Consultants also advised school districts to reduce the number of standards and benchmarks for each subject area, so teachers would concentrate lessons on what students needed to know most to be successful.
Finally, the area education agency developed the Linking Learning, Teaching and Curriculum (LLTC) program to assist teachers with aligning the selection of strategies with curriculum, assessment, and broader educational goals. This program also allowed teachers and administrators from different districts to coordinate professional development that addressed common concerns.
Over the years, teachers have been exposed to a variety of strategies from experts—such as Marzano or Patricia Wolfe, who specializes in brain-compatible instructional practices—who have developed strong professional relationships with the teaching staff, says Edward Redalen, director of educational services for AEA7.
“An external consultant with expertise and charisma can unlock things for you,” says Redalen. “And experts say they like coming back because we follow up on using the strategies.”
After an inservice session has given teachers the “basic chocolate cake recipe,” they are encouraged to adapt a variety of strategies into a rich combination that meets their specific classroom needs, says Lockett.
Of the numerous instructional strategies available, lateral thinking expert Edward de Bono’s Plus, Minus, Interesting approach (PMI) has worked well to open up brainstorming sessions in teacher Pattie Bailey’s gifted and regular classrooms. PMI, which looks at pros, cons, and interesting aspects of an idea or proposal, has proved useful in Bailey’s social studies classes and even in her reading curriculum.
“Students will often come up with a statement that begins, ‘What if this happened . . .?’ so we can apply PMI to foster discussion” about some line of thought that intrigues them, says Bailey.
Another strategy she has used with 4th graders is Consequences and Sequel (C&S), which prods students to focus on the immediate, short-term, medium-term, and long-term consequences of actions taken by a story character or historical figure.
Bailey, who teaches math for 5th graders and gifted students at Reinbeck Elementary School and gifted students at Gladbrook-Reinbeck High School, advises that no single strategy is going to meet the needs of all students. Bailey has to do “lots of pre-testing,” she says, and work with students to get to know their optimum learning styles.
For example, some of Bailey’s gifted high school students want to try out many scenarios when deciding what to write for a Future Problem Solving essay, an international program for creative thinking that involves a changing roster of topics—from education to virtual corporations. Other students “need time to think the whole period,” she says. Recognizing such student differences, Bailey allows for a variety of approaches.
Dan Flaharty, who teaches math and health at Jesup High School in Jesup, Iowa, has found visual organizers, such as a table of rubrics, helpful. At the beginning of the year, Flaharty and students together develop a rubric about expectations and goals for class learning. In terms of content, for instance, he uses rubrics to help students monitor whether they’ve correctly carried out all the steps for solving an algebraic equation.
“They acquire higher-order thinking skills because they evaluate themselves. There’s no doubt about it that those students who are using the algebra rubric are achieving at a higher level,” notes Flaharty.
In geometry class, a kinesthetic learner would be given the option to construct different triangle models in wood, or an artistic student could create an art project to demonstrate her knowledge of geometric concepts.
Still, there are challenges. “We learn all of these strategies in an inservice, and try them the next day,” says Flaharty. But then it can be easy to “fall back into the old ways of the lecture rut. It just takes a long time to change.”
For example, Flaharty wanted to improve his students’ ability to solve math story problems, so he is giving them strategies for analyzing common words that appear. Using a math word bank, Flaharty helps his students break these words into prefixes, suffixes, and root words to better understand their meaning. So if a student sees “colinear” on a test, she’ll already understand that the prefix “co-” means “together with” and will have applied the prefix in nonmath sentences using words such as “cooperate” or “coed.” Flaharty tracks student assessments in the targeted area in the first year and makes adjustments in the following year. In monthly learning team meetings, teachers compare notes and exchange ideas about their successes and challenges.
Not surprisingly, the strategy of generating and testing hypotheses is an essential learning team strategy as teachers try out different instructional practices, explains school improvement consultant Denise Schares.
Schares is working with a team of elementary school teachers interested in helping students with reading problems. Having hypothesized that these students don’t have a bank of strategies—rereading, questioning, and so on—to get them through the sticking points, these teachers selected a handful of reading strategies to teach their struggling readers.
“I asked them to start small so they can get a sense of the process,” says Schares. “The team will now observe students and chart data for the rest of the year to determine whether their hypothesis was correct” and what revisions they’ll make to improve their use of instructional strategies.
“Implementation is key to this business,” says Redalen. “We can’t just keep adding stuff but need to get deeper penetration, and learning teams are evidence that teachers want to sustain more and better use of these strategies.”
In the current age of measuring achievement, some district administrators are taking notice of practices proven to show percentile gains of 26–37 points in research studies. For example, students tend to flourish when a classroom atmosphere reinforces effort or a teacher encourages them to analyze their thinking and self-motivation.
Perhaps researchers’ long-standing claims that even one teacher armed with effective strategies—even in a mediocre school environment—can make a profound difference in a student’s learning will end up becoming the one piece of research that ushers in a new era of teaching.