Methodology, Principles of Learning
Comments 5

Two for company – three for learning

Do we underestimate the importance of instruction?

Two lovebirds (Flickr)

We quite rightly value the relationship between the teacher and the student. It forms the basis of everything that we want to achieve as teachers. Learning can thrive where there is trust and security; conversely, it is very difficult to learn when you feel stressed and anxious. As trusted adults, we need to ensure safety, respect, acknowledgment, encouragement and boundaries, so that children can focus on what school is supposed to be about: learning.

I want to suggest something that on the one hand seems so obvious but on the other often seems to be overlooked. In order for learning to occur, there is a third element in the interaction besides the teacher and the student – the instruction. As teachers we can tend to see ourselves as central to the instruction. It’s important to be able to separate ourselves, both emotionally and logically, if we want to critique and improve our practice. I have learned that with good instructional design, whoever teaches the lesson, the student will learn.

Three_lovebirds_on_a_perch-8a (Wikimedia)

There are various reasons why the importance of instruction is overlooked, or more likely, underestimated. We have the fashionable idea that passion will ignite motivation in the child, and then learning will occur because now they really want to know. Perhaps the most prevalent conception of learning is that the child will make sense of the world in small steps, and the job of teachers is to facilitate that discovery. Then there is the problem of not knowing: as teachers, we rarely get the training to be able to select from, and exploit, the myriad of effective instructional techniques that have been developed over the years.

Once I began to learn about the power of instruction, I discovered that the field is immensely complex. As a simple overview, there are two main elements to instruction: the content to be taught, and the way in which it is communicated. Rather than try to describe this at length, here is an excerpt from a recent article on Direct Instruction, which is the most effective approach I have found for organising and communicating content efficiently, especially for students who have previously been failing.

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 11.53.38

Lightbulb - comprehension

The assumptions that we make about students determine the way that we design instruction. DI makes simple but incredibly liberating assumptions, such as:

  1. Learners are logical.
  2. If content is organised and presented logically, students can learn it.
  3. Students should learn to mastery, so that time is not wasted re-teaching content already taught.

Although these assumptions seem simple, the business of analysing the knowledge to be taught, or the skills to be acquired and practiced, requires concentration and perseverance. The prize is that when such principles of instruction are applied, the students learn not only the lesson content, but that all-important message about themselves: if I keep working, I’ll get it.

fireworks-1758_640 (Pixabay)

Effective instruction ensures student success, and that success in turn leads to satisfaction, enthusiasm, and confidence. For most teachers I know, that is the most rewarding aspect of our role.

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Stockard, J. (2015) Harmful Effects of Early Academic Education? A look at the claims and the evidence.

You may also be interested in:

Success, failure and self-concept

Teaching Reading is Rocket Science

What Does Mastery Really Look Like?

Why We Can’t Remember How We Learned

Pulling the Strands Together



  1. I was talking to my partner yesterday about the effect of getting things wrong when I was at school and it amounts to what you have written!! My point was that I don’t remember failing too much at school, not because I was good at everything (my GCSE’s attest to my greater ability in History compared to English Literature) however I don’t recall ill effects of it either.

    I was taught to persevere and the fact that I did meant that I understood from the experience that failing initially did not mean forever.

    I particularly remember being taught to knit during a DT session and failing most spectacularly at it!! All I did was undo all the cast on my knitting needle!! She did cast on again but then we ran out of time.

    I remember going home disappointed but determined not to be outdone by this so asked my gran to show me and then practised until I got it!! I was so proud in the class in the next lesson as I was able to show my teacher who asked what had caused this wonderful transformation. The fact that I was motivated to learn despite initial failure was not innate, it was taught and then reinforced by experience.

    However, as always this is the hard way to teach and learn but it is the most long lasting. I am still able to knit well now.


      • Absolutely – I agree a hundred percent. When I didn’t wish to pursue my PhD further as it wasn’t right for me, I went for the MPhil and ensured that I did not leave with nothing. Neither did it put me off studying further. Every time I have ‘failed’ – I have bounced back from it, even recently with some of my ventures as I have learned to take stock and then move on.

        The other half has a funny story to tell (as he is the oversensitive type and wants to know who is throwing the pity parties and when they will do so for him!!) about a time he was told off. However, I remind him each time that he did deserve it as he was talking. The point though is that he does get that instead of helping him, pandering to his sensitivities would have been worse as he would have had no resilience at all!


  2. Pingback: Reflections on Hidden Potential | thinkingreadingwritings

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