The Practice of Teaching? Eight Modes of Instruction

We know a lot about learning. Quite ironically, we know little about teaching.

Perhaps its wrong to think of teaching as some separate process––as something other than: facilitating learning.

The trouble is: what we know about learning is all theory. And as everyone knows: theory is not practice.

Theory is a set of abstractions. Physics has "gravity," and sociology has "social solidarity," and literature has "textuality." You can't point to gravity itself anywhere: you can only see it in action––and then only when you know what to look for.

And learning has "motivation" and "working memory" and "cognition" and "executive functions" and "agency" and "self-efficacy." If you know what all these aspects of learning, you 'just teach based on them.'

This is a lot like saying: learn all about color and pigments and perspective and then 'just paint a painting.' Or: 'just learn the laws of physics and then go split an atom.'

In this sense, teaching would just be: turning all the underlying elements of learning into something you can see––because you know what you are looking for (and at).

And yet: no one knows clearly and simply what that is. What is the "application" of all the ideas of learning?

Indeed, we the best procedure is probably to reverse the whole thing and to say that the whole issue of teaching can be reduced to the very gap between abstract theories and concrete actions: making ideas and abstractions concrete and perceptible and actionable through definite steps.

Yet what are these "definite steps"? We should have something on the side of teaching that corresponds to the Big Ideas of learning (motivation, working memory, executive functions, etc.)––and yet which is not abstract but rather a concrete procedure.

One such notion would be modes of instruction.

That is: there must be certain ways of teaching which are so basic and so elementary that they can be separated out like elements in chemistry. These would be the smallest possible ways of teaching, and I think it's possible to identify eight. (I'll leave out the word 'instruction' to characterize each, to avoid repetition.)

  1. Direct or nominal: This is the most common, and it can be represented by the verb "to tell." The instructor thinks "I'll just tell them." The knowledge being aimed it is simply named. "The square of the hypoteneuse is equal to the sum of the other two sides of a right triangle."
  2. Demonstrative: This is also very basic, although often ignored in favor of direct instruction. It's simply showing. With the triangle example, the instructor walks through the equation––even measures an actual physical triangle.
  3. Indirect or analogical: This is the use of metaphor or allusion to get the point across. An allegorical tale could be invented personifying the sides of the triangles and giving their feelings, for instance.
  4. Exploratory or experiential This is giving the learner something to do, without necessarily explaining either the result or the goal. Here the students would be given triangles and asked to measure and explore their properties. This kind of purely exploratory method had a fashion for a while but now is looked down upon.
  5. Procedural or algorithmic: Here the learner gets a specific sequence of steps to follow. No mention need be made of the goal, and indeed, lots of bad instruction falls under this heading.
  6. Goal-oriented: Here the learner is asked to achieve something specific. "Determine the relation between the two sides of a triangle joined in a right angle and the third side." No more guidance might be provided: just a goal.
  7. Social or observational: Here the learner is asked to observer others doing something relevant. You could say: this is implied in all demonstrative instruction, in which case neither of the two is really elementary. But observing other learners or other aspects of the physical and social world seems so central to naturalistic learning, that it would be absurd to exclude it as a method.
  8. Reflective: Here we ask the learners to recall and reflect on experiences. You could object that this requires an experiential or exploratory moment, but the experiences reflected on need not be a part of the instruction, so the process of reflecting does have some independent value.

These eight basic modes of instruction could be reduced to verbs or even sentences, depending on how the instruction was implemented––which is to say: who did what in relation to the verb. E.g.,:

  • tell,
  • show
  • imply,
  • explore,
  • walk through,
  • achieve,
  • watch,
  • reflect.

Or, for the teacher as the grammatical subject and the learners as the object:

  • I tell them.
  • I show them.
  • I imply.
  • They explore.
  • They go through the steps.
  • I set a goal which they achieve.
  • They watch others.
  • They reflect.

The methods change dramatically if the instructor is no longer the center. Indeed, inverting every method produces something dramatically different: the students tell or show the instructor; the instructor explores or watches or reflects. These would seem to be good instructions for how to make the teacher a learner, which is what a good teacher ought to be. And so the fact that changing the agent changes the impact does not say much about the validity of separating out the modes.

One very clear implication seems to be: each mode of instruction has a fatal weakness.

  • If you don't understand the terms of a direct explanation, you're out of luck.
  • Similarly, if the analogy makes no sense to you, the effectiveness is near zero.
  • You can show me something, and I can attend to the way you stand, rather than what you're doing.
  • Etc.

What this says to me is: effective teaching likely combines several of the basic modes of instruction. Indeed, telling usually gets followed by showing, then students going through steps, etc. But many practical teaching procedures skip entire modes of instruction (such as reflection), and yet we do not actually know which modes should be accompanied by which, nor in what order.

We could find out, though. A very nice research project would be a meta-analysis of studies of instructional methods. Researchers would code the methods studied to determine which modes of instruction were being used. And then the effectiveness of each method could be analyzed statistically in terms of the various modes being combined, as well as the combinations.

The fact is: we simply do not know (a) whether these modes of instruction really are primary, nor (b) which work best in which combination (let alone with which subject matter, which one might want to hold constant).

If these methods sound terribly concrete, that's exactly the point. Does one engage motivation better? Or another addresses issues in working memory? Are agency and self-efficacy supported better by this or that method? That is not the point.

Or rather: we could find all that out.

The point is: to make instruction something do-able and systematic and to know which techniques to use when and in what combination.

And then we would know more about teaching––which is something, as the poet said, "devoutly to be wished."

––Edward R. O'Neill


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