How we think about teaching molds learning

Anyone who has ever built a house, or a chicken coop for that matter, understands the usefulness of a building plan. Having a good idea of what a structure should look like provides a vision of a successful finished product. You’d expect this same level of thoughtfulness would go into designing the curricula in our public schools, but unfortunately “the architecture of instruction” is not something that most schools think about — or at least not in the right way.

What is the architecture of instruction? Technically, it’s translating established principles of learning into plans for designing and building instructional materials and activities that have a high likelihood of ensuring student learning. In plain English, this means designing a plan for teaching based on solid scientific evidence.

There is plenty of educational research informing the instruction in our schools, but it’s not often the best research that rules. In many cases, effective educational practice is clouded by a number of things:

  • Research may be difficult to translate into practice for teachers to use
  • Influential commercial publishers are often focused on what sells, rather than what really works based on rigorous research
  • Schools do not have the means to properly evaluate educational research, or instructional materials.

Just as medical researchers seek interventions to help prevent sick patients, we look for interventions to help prevent struggling learners — those students who are not at the same level of academic achievement as their peers. And as with medicine, preventive programs are often more effective than those that treat symptoms.

Take reading for example, which by the way, is a complex and unnatural act. Studies show that a child who has been taught to “decipher” our writing system by the end of first grade faces very good chances (88 percent) of being able to read by the end of third grade. Meanwhile, students who struggle with the alphabet and reading at the end of first grade face the exact opposite. Their chances of failing to read by the end of third grade are 87 percent. Most kids require some form of instruction to learn to read, because it just doesn’t come naturally.

When it comes to struggling learners, there are social, economic, parental and other factors at work and pinpointing the problem can be difficult. Additionally, once children fall behind, they face what I call the “tyranny of time,” in which they must learn more content in less time in order to catch up to their grade-level peers.

Despite the challenges, we are at a breakthrough stage when it comes to conducting and applying rigorous and trustworthy educational research. For example, at the University of Oregon’s Center on Teaching & Learning (CTL) we have 16 research projects representing approximately $30 million of federally funded research. Our 78 staff members are examining promising new interventions such as NumberShire, a suite of educational tools that employs gaming technology, based on the architecture of instruction, to maximize student engagement, interest and motivation in foundational early mathematics.

We’re also working to change the way teachers (and administrators) think about instruction. For example, teachers are learning to view struggling learners not as isolated instances of student failure, but as troubling cases of instructional failure.

One example of a teaching approach that is effective is a simple method called explicit instruction in which a lesson and directions are laid out in a way that students can clearly see and hear what is being taught. In this way, students not only gain an understanding of a new and unknown concept in a clear way, but parents can also see how the instruction takes place, thereby making “public” the very nature and details of the instruction their children receive.

No approach offers overnight fixes for our education system, but it’s imperative that we continue to seek better ways of designing educational curricula. Education is a public trust and as such we owe it to future generations to create instructional programs based on the strongest research evidence available. Parents can help in this effort by asking hard questions of their schools. Is the curriculum that’s being used in your child’s classroom based on solid research, or is anecdotal evidence informing the plan?

It’s up to all of us — schools, teachers, parents and educational researchers — to be constantly asking whether we can improve the teaching of our children. Only by asking these kinds of questions can we be sure that our schools are implementing the best programs that create a strong foundation for learning.

Edward J. Kame’enui is the Dean-Knight Professor and Founding Director of the Center on Teaching and Learning (CTL). As part of the UO’s October Research Month, he will deliver the University of Oregon’s Presidential Research Lecture at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, in 182 Lillis. T

— Published in The Register-Guard on Oct. 28, 2013