Instructional Techniques

Having decided which of the basic formats a lesson will involve, you must next decide which of many instructional techniques would be most appropriate for the particular situation. Issues such as the developmental level of the students, the instructional venue (indoors, outdoors, individual desks, tables and chairs for group work, etc.), and the subject matter to be presented must be considered. Generally speaking, there are eight categories of techniques from which a teacher might choose. As has previously been the case, the teacher may well determine that a combination of techniques would be most appropriate.

As you read through the techniques, consider that we have arranged them in terms of increasing sophistication of the thinking required of students. This is not to say that any one of the techniques is inappropriate for particular ages. After all, you can probably remember being lectured to by your parents at one time or another in your life, and you likely discovered some things on your own even as a young child. However, when planning for educational experiences, teachers need to identify the level of cognitive processing they want to engage and select the technique that best encourages that level of thinking (Lasley, Matczynski, & Rowley, 2002). Our list of techniques parallels Bloom's Taxonomy, the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives Handbook I: Cognitive Domain (Bloom, Englehart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956). The taxonomy begins with the least sophisticated level of processing, that being the recall of knowledge and facts, and progresses to the highest level, thinking that involves evaluative processes.

The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Cognitive Domain

Cognitive Skill

Verbs that characterize the skill

Knowledge Label, list, match, recall, select, state, underline
Comprehension Describe, explain, interpret, summarize, paraphrase
Application Complete, organize, solve, calculate, compute, use
Analysis Categorize, classify, find patterns and relationships, compare
Synthesis Compose, create, formulate, hypothesize, write
Evaluation

Judge based on criteria, support, conclude

Direct Instruction

We list direct instruction in the teaching of skills as the lowest level of our taxonomy of instructional techniques because in this case the teacher decides what is important for the students to know and specifically explains or demonstrates a skill, and the student attempts to replicate it. There is very little abstraction involved here, though that is by no means intended to imply that the task is a simple one. As children struggle to reproduce the letters of the alphabet, they need all the concentration and control they can muster. Similarly, the high school student performing the steps of an experiment can be very focused and intent. Nonetheless, the demands for deep understanding and recombining of information on the part of the student are minimal in a direct instruction format. The emphasis is clearly on the acquiring of information or procedural skills.

Drill and Practice

One level up from direct instruction is drill and practice. Though it might seem that this technique is even more rote in nature than direct instruction, the implication is that something has already been learned, or at the very least been presented, and now the emphasis is on repetition to hone the skill or provide a strong link to the information to improve remembering it.

With this particular technique there is not a great emphasis on abstraction or on the synthesis of new understanding. Your own experience with multiplication tables would be an example of drill and practice. There was not much mathematical theory being taught when you were required to memorize those products.

Lecture

The mainstay of a traditional college education, the lecture, shows up third in our instructional technique hierarchy. What does that tell you about the thinking that lectures require of a student? We are by no means denigrating the lecture approach, but the simple fact is that lectures in their pure form serve only to offer information from one person to another in a one-way verbal transaction.

It needs to be mentioned that many times teachers will follow up a lecture with some sort of discussion session. However, lectures can be, and often are, presented without any opportunity for an intellectual exchange between student and teacher. Its strength is that a large amount of information can be conveyed to a large group of people in a short amount of time with a concomitant personal touch.

Question and Answer

At this point we begin considering techniques that actually require reflection on the part of the student and thus involve evaluation and the synthesis of new information, the two highest levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. Reflection requires that a student receive information and then consider it with regard to his or her own experiences and interpretations. The question-and-answer technique supposes that to one degree or another the teacher and the student share a common body of knowledge. This does not mean that the student has the same depth of knowledge or understanding, but there are sufficient elements to the common core that allow the student and teacher to make consideration of the topic a two-way exchange.

There are several approaches to using the question-and-answer technique. In one approach, the students may question the teacher. The teacher needs to be sufficiently knowledgeable of the subject matter to provide appropriate responses without knowing the questions in advance or having the opportunity to look things up. A teacher cannot have all of the answers, but being prepared to deal with the unexpected is part of being a teacher, not something that happens once in awhile. Children come to school thinking about the same questions that they have heard their parents discuss at home. They may not always understand those questions, but the idea of asking the teacher for an answer is typically considered to be a good one.

The other side of question and answer is the situation in which the teacher asks questions of the students. You are certainly familiar with this approach! However, our concern now is with the reason for those questions. One purpose would be for giving the students practice with the recall (and perhaps application) of particular information. Another would be for assessing the students’ acquisition of particular information. In either of these cases, techniques such as providing think-time (Gambrell, 1983) and challenging initial responses will be valuable skills to improve the use of question-and-answer sessions. Indeed, in her classic study of the effects of wait time, Mary Budd Rowe (1978) found that providing students additional time to think increased the number and quality of responses and decreased discipline situations.

Yet a third purpose for the use of this instructional technique is to stimulate thought and encourage divergent thinking (as opposed to the convergent thinking of the previous two examples). In this situation the teacher is challenging students to apply prior knowledge and then use that as a basis for synthesizing new knowledge. The challenge presented to the teacher is that when such questions are asked, a wide range of answers is possible. The teacher must be prepared for whatever might come along, and this involves finding ways to identify merit in virtually any response. If a teacher is willing to open up the classroom to divergent thinking and the opinions of the students, then he or she must be ready to help students formulate and reformulate their ideas without diminishing the value of the original idea. Asking students for their opinions and then telling them they are wrong is one of the surest ways to bring original thinking in the classroom to a halt. The amount of innovative and creative thinking that a teacher can initiate, in virtually any subject area, is empowering both for students and teachers.

Discussion

A step higher on our taxonomy of instructional techniques is discussion. This differs from the previous level in that neither the teacher nor the student holds the upper hand. In this situation the teacher is concerned with a very different treatment of information than possible using the previous methods. Discussions involve the exchange of ideas. With this approach a teacher hopes to develop greater depth of thinking and perhaps to foster the manipulation of information for solving problems rather than just the acquisition of knowledge.

Some might argue that discussion is not the most appropriate term for what teachers wish to accomplish. In fact, discussion does refer more to the arguing of points of view whereas dialogue refers to an exchange of ideas. In either case, the instructional intent is to take students beyond “just the facts” and to engage them in a more poignant treatment of the subject matter.

Mental Modeling

Mental Modeling (Culyer, 1987) and a variation of it, the “I wonder . . .” model (Bentley, Ebert, & Ebert, 2000), are techniques specifically intended to enhance students’ ability to direct their own learning by modeling the use of cognitive processes in the solving of some problem. This might sound “elementary” at first, and it is quite effective when working with young children, but it is a process that you may well have been exposed to in your secondary and now higher education experiences.

For example, during an elementary school lesson about using maps a teacher might say,

I’d like to find my way to Sarah’s house. I know the address, but I don’t know how to get there from the school. I think I’ll use the map of our city to find the way there. First I’ll check the street index to find out where to look on the map. Then I’ll use the numbers from the index to find the street.

In this way a teacher demonstrates how to sequence steps and put information to work in solving a problem. Students are then able to practice the same procedure.

The “I wonder . . .” model uses the same approach, though in the context of science education. Bentley, Ebert, and Ebert (2000) consider this to be one of the best ways of initiating the information-seeking process. An otherwise unobservable process, this technique attempts to verbalize the thinking that goes on. Here’s an example from The Natural Investigator that a teacher might use with elementary level children:

This morning I looked outside and noticed that it wasn’t very sunny. I observed lots of gray clouds. I wondered if it was going to rain today. I could have just carried an umbrella in case it did rain and not thought about it anymore. However, I was planning to wear my new shoes, and I really didn’t want to get them wet and dirty the first time I wore them. So I checked the newspaper and the weather channel. The paper predicted . . . (p. 127)

In this scenario, the children are exposed to the steps of listing observations, formulating a question, and identifying possible sources of information. These steps are not confined to elementary instruction. For instance, in college-level science courses you are encouraged to go through the same three steps. Your chemistry professor probably will talk you through conducting an experiment to prepare you for what might occur.

Mental modeling is a powerful technique that is on a high cognitive level. Precisely for that reason, it is something that you should try to use with your students at every opportunity. But practice first! The keys to using this technique are modeling thinking that your students can understand and then providing them with immediate opportunities to apply what they have learned. Having your students explain their own mental models or “I wonder . . .” models aloud will help clarify the process for them and allow you to assess their understanding.

Discovery Learning

Discovery learning is an approach to instruction that focuses on students’ personal experiences as the foundation for conceptual development. It is unlikely that children will walk into your classroom with all of the necessary experiences that relate to the concepts you want to teach, so the challenge is to provide your students with the opportunities for experiences they need in the context of discovery. That is, allowing students to find the information for themselves by virtue of some activity you have provided. The students in your class will then share a common experience that you can develop as it relates to the concept under consideration. In essence, we are cheating just a bit because, from an instructional perspective the idea is to have children discover what we want them to discover. It’s new to them, of course, but it is all part of the strategy for the teacher.

Discovery learning channels the natural inquisitiveness of children (and the natural inquisitiveness that remains in adults) by providing structure to the experience without imposing unnecessary structure on the thinking. That is, unlike the science experiments that you did in high school that were “wrong” if they didn’t come out the way the book said they should, discovery learning encourages children to engage in the activity and document what does happen.

Even with structured activities in the classroom, twenty students will experience the activity in twenty different ways. Because of that, for discovery learning to be pedagogically sound it must be accompanied by a structure that goes beyond the discovery phase of the exercise. Such a structure, or framework, is intended to clarify the experience in terms of the concept being taught.

Four-Phase Learning Cycle

  1. Introduction: a question, challenge, or interesting event that captures the students’ curiosity.
  2. Exploration: the opportunity for students to manipulate materials, to explore, and to gather information.
  3. Concept Development: With a common experience to relate to, terminology is introduced and concepts developed in class discussion.
  4. Application: This could take the form of an enrichment activity, an opportunity to apply what has been learned, or a test to assess learning.

An example might be packaging an egg to withstand being dropped from a height of ten feet or so. After posing the question to the students about how this might be done (Introduction), students are provided time to devise various packaging strategies (Exploration). Instruction about packaging is not provided before the egg is dropped; the students are on their own at this stage. Discussions of forces, mass, acceleration, and so forth do not yet enter into the picture. It is only after the eggs have been packaged, dropped, and checked for survival that the lesson moves to a discussion of what has been found. With the common experience of this trial-and-error activity, students are prepared to have a meaningful lesson about the topics relating to forces and motion (Concept Development). Finally, the students might be challenged to package another egg (or something else) to apply what they have learned (Application). You can see that this entire lesson, though arranged by the teacher, is centered on the students’ thinking. In fact, the students’ thinking will drive the lesson as the teacher assesses and accommodates the various perspectives that the students will have.

Inquiry

We have placed inquiry at the highest level of our taxonomy not only because it involves the use of prior knowledge and the discovery of new knowledge, but because it also involves generating the question to be answered. It is no coincidence that the tendency to ask questions is characteristic of children as well as of adults at the top of their professions. Scientists, professors, writers, politicians, and others are people who frame questions and then go about finding solutions. Children, with their natural curiosity, are compelled to ask questions and take delight in finding answers. The task for professional educators is to channel that inquisitiveness in ways that are beneficial to the individual and perhaps even to the world at large. Suddenly our discussion has come a very long way from rudimentary direct instruction. Teaching changes lives, and it changes the world!

The teacher who uses an inquiry approach has a considerable amount of preparation to do and also must be prepared to teach the students how to use inquiry. Foremost among the concerns would be helping the student frame a question in a manner that can be investigated. For example, what would your response be if a child were to ask, “Why do birds fly?” Would you say that birds fly because it’s faster than walking? Because they enjoy being in the air? Just because? Why birds fly is a legitimate question, but likely one to be addressed by theologians or philosophers. A more appropriate question might be “How do birds fly?” This is a question that can be investigated in the context of school. Students could even investigate what factors allow one type of bird to fly faster or higher than another or, in the case of ostriches and chickens, not at all. Helping to frame an appropriate question, without diminishing the validity of the initial question, is a primary challenge the teacher faces.

A chief strength of the inquiry approach is that it can integrate the curriculum by involving many disciplines in meaningful ways. Children can read, write, calculate, engage in scientific investigations, address social concerns, and use the arts, all in the context of answering their own questions. While the amount of lecturing that a teacher does is significantly reduced, the intellectual challenge for a teacher preparing and conducting such activities is considerable, and considerably rewarding.

A teacher may use combinations of all of the techniques we have discussed in the course of a single lesson. A lesson plan may begin with a question-and-answer session that stimulates student interest and thinking and then proceed to a discovery-learning experience that will be followed by a discussion of what was learned. It is important for you to understand that teaching is a task that requires considerable instructional flexibility, and we still have not even considered the topic of knowing the subject matter!

If you were an astute observer of the nature of each technique that we have discussed, you may have already noticed that the first three levels represent approaches in which the teacher does the most talking or directing of student activity. The middle two levels transition to a dialogic approach in which the teacher and student share more of a partnership. The teacher continues to direct the activity, if only by virtue of having planned the whole experience, but the exchange of ideas is of central concern with these levels.

But notice what happens as we move to mental modeling and the levels beyond. See how the emphasis changes now to the thinking that students will do? At these levels students are not only investigating academic topics but ultimately are also asking their own questions and finding ways to seek answers and solve problems. You have probably heard that education is a process that seeks to develop lifelong learners. The teacher who uses all levels of the taxonomy with an eye toward leading students to these highest levels and allowing them to develop their critical and creative thinking abilities will be the teacher whose students develop that love of learning that we all wish to impart.

The Taxonomy of Instructional Techniques

Teacher Focused

  • Direct Instruction: Teacher explains or demonstrates
  • Drill and Practice: Repetition to hone a skill or memorize information
  • Lecture: Teacher provides information to students in a one-way verbal presentation

Dialogue Oriented

  • Question and Answer: Requires reflection as information is exchanged in response to a question
  • Discussion: An exchange of opinions and perspectives

Student Focused

  • Mental Modeling: Assists students in managing their own learning by modeling a problem-solving technique
  • Discovery Learning: Uses students’ personal experiences as the foundation for building concepts
  • Inquiry: Allows students to generate the questions that they will then investigate and answer