Archive for November, 2013

Direct Instruction


In general usage, the term direct instruction refers to (1) instructional approaches that are structured, sequenced, and led by teachers, and/or (2) the presentation of academic content to students by teachers, such as in a lecture or demonstration. In other words, teachers are “directing” the instructional process or instruction is being “directed” at students.

While a classroom lecture is perhaps the image most commonly associated with direct instruction, the term encompasses a wide variety of fundamental teaching techniques and potential instructional scenarios. For example, presenting a video or film to students could be considered a form of direct instruction (even though the teacher is not actively instructing students, the content and presentation of material was determined by the teacher). Generally speaking, direct instruction may be the most common teaching approach in the United States, since teacher-designed and teacher-led instructional methods are widely used in American public schools. That said, it’s important to note that teaching techniques such as direct instruction, differentiation, or scaffolding, to name just a few, are rarely mutually exclusive—direct instruction may be integrated with any number of other instructional approaches in a given course or lesson. For example, teachers may use direct instruction to prepare students for an activity in which the students work collaboratively on a group project with guidance and coaching from the teacher as needed (the group activity would not be considered a form of direct instruction).

In addition, the basic techniques of direct instruction not only extend beyond lecturing, presenting, or demonstrating, but many are considered to be foundational to effective teaching. For example:

  • Establishing learning objectives for lessons, activities, and projects, and then making sure that students have understood the goals.
  • Purposefully organizing and sequencing a series of lessons, projects, and assignments that move students toward stronger understanding and the achievement of specific academic goals.
  • Reviewing instructions for an activity or modeling a process—such as a scientific experiment—so that students know what they are expected to do.
  • Providing students with clear explanations, descriptions, and illustrations of the knowledge and skills being taught.
  • Asking questions to make sure that students have understood what has been taught.

It should be noted that the term direct instruction is used in various proprietary or trademarked instructional models that have been developed and promoted by educators, including—most prominently—Direct Instruction, created by Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley Becker, which is a “explicit, carefully sequenced and scripted model of instruction,” according to the National Institute for Direct Instruction.


In recent decades, the concept of direct instruction has taken on negative associations among some educators. Because direct instruction is often associated with traditional lecture-style teaching to classrooms full of passive students obediently sitting in desks and taking notes, it may be considered outdated, pedantic, or insufficiently considerate of student learning needs by some educators and reformers.

That said, many of direct instruction’s negative connotations likely result from either a limited definition of the concept or a misunderstanding of its techniques. For example, all teachers, by necessity, use some form of direct instruction in their teaching—i.e., preparing courses and lessons, presenting and demonstrating information, and providing clear explanations and illustrations of concepts are all essential, and to some degree unavoidable, teaching activities. Negative perceptions of the practice tend to arise when teachers rely too heavily upon direct instruction, or when they fail to use alternative techniques that may be better suited to the lesson at hand or that may improve student interest, engagement, and comprehension.

While a sustained forty-five-minute lecture may not be considered an effective teaching strategy by many educators, the alternative strategies they may advocate—such as personalized learning or project-based learning, to name just two options—will almost certainly require some level of direct instruction by teachers. In other words, teachers rarely use either direct instruction or some other teaching approach—in actual practice, diverse strategies are frequently blended together. For these reasons, negative perceptions of direct instruction likely result more from a widespread overreliance on the approach, and from the tendency to view it as an either/or option, rather than from its inherent value to the instructional process.

Curriculum Mapping


Curriculum mapping is the process indexing or diagraming a curriculum to identify and address academic gaps, redundancies, and misalignments for purposes of improving the overall coherence of a course of study and, by extension, its effectiveness (a curriculum, in the sense that the term is typically used by educators, encompasses everything that teachers teach to students in a school or course, including the instructional materials and techniques they use).

In most cases, curriculum mapping refers to the alignment of learning standards and teaching—i.e., how well and to what extent a school or teacher has matched the content that students are actually taught with the academic expectations described in learning standards—but it may also refer to the mapping and alignment of all the many elements that are entailed in educating students, including assessments, textbooks, assignments, lessons, and instructional techniques.

Generally speaking, a coherent curriculum is (1) well organized and purposefully designed to facilitate learning, (2) free of academic gaps and needless repetitions, and (3) aligned across lessons, courses, subject areas, and grade levels. When educators map a curriculum, they are working to ensure that what students are actually taught matches the academic expectations in a particular subject area or grade level.

Before the advent of computers and the internet, educators would create curriculum maps on paper and poster board; today, educators are far more likely to use spreadsheets, software programs, and online services that are specifically dedicated to curriculum mapping. The final product is often called a “curriculum map,” and educators will use the maps to plan courses, lessons, and teaching strategies in a school. For a related discussion, see backward design.

While the specific approach or strategies used to map a curriculum may vary widely from district to district, school to school, or even teacher to teacher, the process typically aims to achieve a few common goals:

  • Vertical coherence: When a curriculum is vertically aligned or vertically coherent, what students learn in one lesson, course, or grade level prepares them for the next lesson, course, or grade level. Curriculum mapping aims to ensure that teaching is purposefully structured and logically sequenced across grade levels so that students are building on what they have previous learned and learning the knowledge and skills that will progressively prepare them for more challenging, higher-level work. For a related discussion, see learning progression.
  • Horizontal coherence: When a curriculum is horizontally aligned or horizontally coherent, what students are learning in one ninth-grade biology course, for example, mirrors what other students are learning in a different ninth-grade biology course. Curriculum mapping aims to ensure that the assessments, tests, and other methods teachers use to evaluate learning achievement and progress are based on what has actually been taught to students and on the learning standards that the students are expected to meet in a particular course, subject area, or grade level.
  • Subject-area coherence: When a curriculum is coherent within a subject area—such as mathematics, science, or history—it may be aligned both within and across grade levels. Curriculum mapping for subject-area coherence aims to ensure that teachers are working toward the same learning standards in similar courses (say, three different ninth-grade algebra courses taught by different teachers), and that students are also learning the same amount of content, and receiving the same quality of instruction, across subject-area courses.
  • Interdisciplinary coherence: When a curriculum is coherent across multiple subject areas—such as mathematics, science, and history—it may be aligned both within and across grade levels. Curriculum mapping for interdisciplinary coherence may focus on skills and work habits that students need to succeed in any academic course or discipline, such as reading skills, writing skills, technology skills, and critical-thinking skills. Improving interdisciplinary coherence across a curriculum, for example, might entail teaching students reading and writing skills in all academic courses, not just English courses.



In education, scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. The term itself offers the relevant descriptive metaphor: teachers provide successive levels of temporary support that help students reach higher levels of comprehension and skill acquisition that they would not be able to achieve without assistance. Like physical scaffolding, the supportive strategies are incrementally removed when they are no longer needed, and the teacher gradually shifts more responsibility over the learning process to the student.

Scaffolding is widely considered to be an essential element of effective teaching, and all teachers—to a greater or lesser extent—almost certainly use various forms of instructional scaffolding in their teaching. In addition, scaffolding is often used to bridge learning gaps—i.e., the difference between what students have learned and what they are expected to know and be able to do at a certain point in their education. For example, if students are not at the reading level required to understand a text being taught in a course, the teacher might use instructional scaffolding to incrementally improve their reading ability until they can read the required text independently and without assistance. One of the main goals of scaffolding is to reduce the negative emotions and self-perceptions that students may experience when they get frustrated, intimidated, or discouraged when attempting a difficult task without the assistance, direction, or understanding they need to complete it.

Scaffolding vs. Differentiation

As a general instructional strategy, scaffolding shares many similarities with differentiation, which refers to a wide variety of teaching techniques and lesson adaptations that educators use to instruct a diverse group of students, with diverse learning needs, in the same course, classroom, or learning environment. Because scaffolding and differentiation techniques are used to achieve similar instructional goals—i.e., moving student learning and understanding from where it is to where it needs to be—the two approaches may be blended together in some classrooms to the point of being indistinguishable. That said, the two approaches are distinct in several ways. When teachers scaffold instruction, they typically break up a learning experience, concept, or skill into discrete parts, and then give students the assistance they need to learn each part. For example, teachers may give students an excerpt of a longer text to read, engage them in a discussion of the excerpt to improve their understanding of its purpose, and teach them the vocabulary they need to comprehend the text before assigning them the full reading. Alternatively, when teachers differentiate instruction, they might give some students an entirely different reading (to better match their reading level and ability), give the entire class the option to choose from among several texts (so each student can pick the one that interests them most), or give the class several options for completing a related assignment (for example, the students might be allowed to write a traditional essay, draw an illustrated essay in comic-style form, create a slideshow “essay” with text and images, or deliver an oral presentation).

The following examples will serve to illustrate a few common scaffolding strategies:

  • The teacher gives students a simplified version of a lesson, assignment, or reading, and then gradually increases the complexity, difficulty, or sophistication over time. To achieve the goals of a particular lesson, the teacher may break up the lesson into a series of mini-lessons that progressively move students toward stronger understanding. For example, a challenging algebra problem may be broken up into several parts that are taught successively. Between each mini-lesson, the teacher checks to see if students have understood the concept, gives them time to practice the equations, and explains how the math skills they are learning will help them solve the more challenging problem (questioning students to check for understanding and giving them time to practice are two common scaffolding strategies). In some cases, the term guided practice may be used to describe this general technique.
  • The teacher describes or illustrates a concept, problem, or process in multiple ways to ensure understanding. A teacher may orally describe a concept to students, use a slideshow with visual aids such as images and graphics to further explain the idea, ask several students to illustrate the concept on the blackboard, and then provide the students with a reading and writing task that asks them articulate the concept in their own words. This strategy addresses the multiple ways in which students learn—e.g., visually, orally, kinesthetically, etc.—and increases the likelihood that students will understand the concept being taught.
  • Students are given an exemplar or model of an assignment they will be asked to complete. The teacher describes the exemplar assignment’s features and why the specific elements represent high-quality work. The model provides students with a concrete example of the learning goals they are expected to achieve or the product they are expected to produce. Similarly, a teacher may also model a process—for example, a multistep science experiment—so that students can see how it is done before they are asked to do it themselves (teachers may also ask a student to model a process for her classmates).
  • Students are given a vocabulary lesson before they read a difficult text. The teacher reviews the words most likely to give students trouble, using metaphors, analogies, word-image associations, and other strategies to help students understand the meaning of the most difficult words they will encounter in the text. When the students then read the assignment, they will have greater confidence in their reading ability, be more interested in the content, and be more likely to comprehend and remember what they have read.
  • The teacher clearly describes the purpose of a learning activity, the directions students need to follow, and the learning goals they are expected to achieve. The teacher may give students a handout with step-by-step instructions they should follow, or provide the scoring guide or rubric that will be used to evaluate and grade their work. When students know the reason why they are being asked to complete an assignment, and what they will specifically be graded on, they are more likely to understand its importance and be motivated to achieve the learning goals of the assignment. Similarly, if students clearly understand the process they need to follow, they are less likely to experience frustration or give up because they haven’t fully understood what they are expected to do.
  • The teacher explicitly describes how the new lesson builds on the knowledge and skills students were taught in a previous lesson. By connecting a new lesson to a lesson the students previously completed, the teacher shows students how the concepts and skills they already learned will help them with the new assignment or project (teachers may describe this general strategy as “building on prior knowledge” or “connecting to prior knowledge”). Similarly, the teacher may also make explicit connections between the lesson and the personal interests and experiences of the students as a way to increase understanding or engagement in the learning process. For example, a history teacher may reference a field trip to a museum during which students learned about a particular artifact related to the lesson at hand. For a more detailed discussion, see relevance.

Backward Design


Backward design, also called backward planning or backward mapping, is a process that educators use to design learning experiences and instructional techniques to achieve specific learning goals. Backward design begins with the objectives of a unit or course—what students are expected to learn and be able to do—and then proceeds “backward” to create lessons that achieve those desired goals. In most public schools, the educational goals of a course or unit will be a given state’s learning standards—i.e., concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education.

The basic rationale motivating backward design is that starting with the end goal, rather than a starting with the first lesson chronologically delivered during a unit or course, helps teachers design a sequence of lessons, problems, projects, presentations, assignments, and assessments that result in students achieving the academic goals of a course or unit—that is, actually learning what they were expected to learn.

Backward design helps teachers create courses and units that are focused on the goal (learning) rather than the process (teaching). Because “beginning with the end” is often a counterintuitive process, backward design gives educators a structure they can follow when creating a curriculum and planning their instructional process. Advocates of backward design would argue that the instructional process should serve the goals; the goals—and the results for students—should not be determined by the process.

While approaches may vary widely from school to school or teacher to teacher, a basic backward-design process might take the following form:

  1. A teacher begins by reviewing the learning standards that students are expected to meet by the end of a course or grade level. In some cases, teachers will work together to create backward-designed units and courses. For a related discussion, see common planning time.
  2. The teacher creates an index or list of the essential knowledge, skills, and concepts that students need to learn during a specific unit. In some cases, these academic expectations will be called learning objectives, among other terms.
  3. The teacher then designs a final test, assessment, or demonstration of learning that students will complete to show that they have learned what they were expected to learn. The final assessment will measure whether and to what degree students have achieved the unit goals.
  4. The teacher then creates a series of lessons, projects, and supporting instructional strategies intended to progressively move student understanding and skill acquisition closer to the desired goals of the unit.
  5. The teacher then determines the formative-assessment strategies that will be used to check for understanding and progress over the duration of the unit (the term formative assessment refers to a wide variety of methods—from questioning techniques to quizzes—that teachers use to conduct in-process evaluations of student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course, often for the purposes of modifying lessons and teaching techniques to make them more effective). Advocates typically argue that formative assessment is integral to effective backward design because teachers need to know what students are or are not learning if they are going to help them achieve the goals of a unit.
  6. The teacher may then review and reflect on the prospective unit plan to determine if the design is likely to achieve the desired learning goals. Other teachers may also be asked to review the plan and provide constructive feedback that will help improve the overall design.

While backward-design strategies have a long history in education—going back at least as far as the seminal work Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction, by Ralph W. Tyler, published in 1947—the educators and authors Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe are widely considered to have popularized “backward design” for the modern era in their book Understanding by Design. Since its publication in the 1990s, Understanding by Design has evolved in series of popular books, videos, and other resources.


As a strategy for designing, planning, and sequencing curriculum and instruction, backward design is an attempt to ensure that students acquire the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in school, college, or the workplace. In other words, backward design helps educators create logical teaching progressions that move students toward achieving specific—and important—learning objectives. Generally speaking, strategies such as backward design are attempts to bring greater coherence to the education of students—i.e., to establish consistent learning goals for schools, teachers, and students that reflect the knowledge, skills, conceptual understanding, and work habits deemed to be most essential. For a related discussion, see curriculum mapping.

Backward design arose in tandem with the concept of learning standards, and it is widely viewed as a practical process for using standards to guide the development of a course, unit, or other learning experience. Like backward designs, learning standards are a way to promote greater consistency and commonality in what gets taught to students from state to state, school to school, grade to grade, and teacher to teacher. Before the advent of learning standards and other efforts to standardize public education, individual schools and teachers typically determined learning expectations in a given course, subject area, or grade level—a situation that can, in some cases, give rise to significant educational disparities.

For related discussions, see achievement gapequity, and high expectations.