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Getting it Right the First Time: Why Good First Instruction Matters

Before I was a teacher, the word “intervention” meant something that people do for friends when they have a serious, rock-bottom problem like substance abuse. As it turns out, the word has an entirely different context in education, where interventions are implemented when students have not achieved a learning outcome the first time. For example, a student might be pulled out of class to get additional instruction, or might be given extra work in areas of concern. Like the interventions that occur outside of education, stepping in after instruction is often not as effective as people would like it to be, and that is because of its reactionary nature. Rather than getting ahead of a potential issue, people wait and respond when it is often fairly late in the game. For that reason, putting a greater emphasis on sound first instruction is a more proactive way to ensure that students meet objectives. How can teachers be empowered to teach something during allotted instructional time and not play catch-up with students later?

Differentiation Made Possible

I once worked with a teacher who insisted that differentiating instruction was an impractical pipe dream. How, he wanted to know, could we tailor instruction to such a large range of needs during each lesson? A lot of his struggle was rooted in the fact that he worked too hard in his classroom to be the driver of instruction, whether he was lecturing or running around to work individually with kids nonstop. Without trusting the class to take more ownership, he was right about it being next to impossible to create options for learning. We hear the term “differentiation” pretty often, but even the most skilled teachers can struggle to master the processes needed to ensure that it happens. When we set up structures that allow students to explore learning with more flexibility, the result is a deeper level of understanding the first time. One way to set the classroom up for differentiation is to design lessons that are built around students doing the work rather than the teacher. For instance, if students are researching an ancient civilization, they can provide resources for the class by working in groups to locate articles or other materials and placing what they find into a shared document. That way, they gain a much deeper understanding of the content by having to do some of the legwork, and teachers don’t have to go back and re-teach concepts; students have already achieved mastery outcomes, and they have done it with meaningful, authentic educational experiences.

Intention-Based Planning

In a recent lesson planning meeting, I heard a teacher utter a phrase that I have come to question: “We need to get through this.” When learning is seen as an obstacle course of things to “get through,” we are not planning for good first instruction with any kind of intention. Instead, our focus is on a to-do list that does not serve student needs. We think that we plan our lessons with care, but we are probably not as aware of our processes as we should be. How are we thinking ahead to strong practices that help students get it the first time? One method to ensuring that instruction is strong is to plan for multiple learning styles. If the class is reading a chapter from a book, share an art piece that pairs with the text to help learners who are more visual. Or, focus on kinesthetic learners by having students move around to discuss elements of the text. Likewise, have a podcast ready for students who are aural learners. As long as we continuously acknowledge and plan for all learners, the intentionality of our lesson plans will provide a higher level of first instruction that allows for students to learn in a way that best serves their needs.

Frequent Checks for Understanding

A teacher on a team I used to supervise insisted that her students did not need to do a grammar assessment on adjectives because in her view, they already knew the content. When I asked how she knew that students had achieved the learning goal, she revealed that her perception of the situation was based on intuition, and I urged her to collect data to support her instincts. As I feared, when students were given the adjectives quiz, many did not know the content and needed remediation. It is absolutely impossible to conduct good instruction without sufficient knowledge of where students stand. Each class period should include an assessment, whether it is formal or informal. Even a quick check of understanding is an effective measure of student learning. One of my favorite quick assessment methods, “Show Me Your Cards” (shown in this Teaching Channel video), provides a fast but accurate way to check for acquisition of learning in a way that is low-risk and engaging. Similar brief checks, from one-question Google form exit tickets to putting questions on index cards, can tell us so much about how effective our first instruction efforts have been.

If we are careful to provide good first instruction with intention, we will not need to put intervention measures in place. Think of the time and energy saved from doing something right the first time, not to mention the positive impact on climate. When students know that teachers trust them to learn without having to constantly shore up instruction, they believe in themselves more, and the benefits of that outcome are vast and ongoing.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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