Instruction vs learning

Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

Earlier in my career as an educator I trained in the discipline of instructional design as I began working in distance education. Back then this was thought of as the process of creating learning experiences and materials in a manner that results in the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills. It involved a systematic process of assessing needs, designing a learning sequence, developing materials to support that and evaluating their effectiveness as the learner engages with them. I found this discipline fascinating as it required me to apply rigour everything I did at every step in my planning to work with my distance students, including the ways I interacted with them. (Note: This was all before the days of the WWW, so involved a lot of preparation of print-based resources etc.)

In recent weeks I’ve enjoyed a number of exchanges with some fellow educators in the US with whom I’m collaborating to write a paper about learner agency. As we’ve been working together to share and shape our ideas, the focus inevitably took account of the audience for our paper – likely to be mostly from North America. In the process of ensuring that our expression of ideas would resonate for this audience, we’ve spent time considering the characteristics of their current discourse and the language they use. The word ‘instruction‘ is used a lot we found, and the work of teachers associated with the use of phrases such as instructional design, instructional methods, instructional management, shifts in instructional focus (when referring to new curriculum priorities) and even the idea of ‘seat time for instruction‘.

So why dwell on this now? After all, an educational definition of instruction is “the act of educating, giving the steps that must be followed or an order“. Surely this is what teaching is all about? Over the past decades educators have developed a variety of models of instruction, each designed to produce student learning.

Therein lies a point of tension for me. This emphasis on a ‘factory’ mindset that lies behind the way the word is used. That instruction is about delivery of content, and the production of learning. Indeed, thinking of teachers as instructors conjures up images of the ‘expert’ dispensing knowledge to willing students, applying a range of strategies that include breaking it down into digestible elements, and presenting it in sequences that are intended to make it easier to build understanding. For many, it can reduce the act of teaching to a reliance on following particular methods and trusting implicitly on that to create results for students.

If you learn only methods, you’ll be tied to your methods, but if you learn principles you can devise your own methods.  —

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Now I acknowledge that being familiar with and understanding when to apply particular pedagogical approaches (including direct instruction) is not wrong, indeed, this is the capability every teacher needs to have in their arsenal in order to be able to make the best response to a particular learner or group of learners, especially when dealing with the development of core skills in the area of literacy and numeracy for example. But we do need to think about where the power lies in an ‘instructor-student relationship’, and how this mindset affects the behaviour of both teachers and students. We need to be asking what opportunities are created for students to be more than simply ‘consumers’ of what is being delivered to them.

At this point it’s worth noting what brought about the collaboration I’m involved in with writing a paper with this experienced group of US educators. Some months ago we collaborated on another paper titled Mere Engagement: Reflections about the Connections Between Online Learning, Student Agency, and Student Engagement – drawing largely on our experiences of working with educators in NZ and the US during the COVID-19 pandemic and period of school lockdowns.

Having made presentations together about that paper and receiving some very positive feedback we decided to dig a little deeper into one of key things we saw emerging from the voice of young people in their feedback about their experience. While there was an enormous amount exposed about educational inequities, student well-being the disadvantages face by many, we noted that in a lot of the student feedback there were common references made to things like how empowered students felt when given the opportunity to spend as much time as they needed on a particular topic or study, or how they appreciated the opportunity to make more decisions about what they learned and the order in which they learned it – and for some, who they learned that with.

While not wanting at all to be dismissive of the much bigger and more pressing issues of equity and wellbeing, we were drawn to the fact that for many learners, this experience exposed them for the first time to what is possible when their participation and success in learning isn’t dependent of being present at set times and completing tasks on a schedule set by someone else. This is what led us to exploring the ways in which we might take the positive aspects of these experiences and incorporate them back in the regular, face to face classroom experiences – a process we’re calling in our paper ‘agency by design’ (more to come on that.)

The juxtaposition in this for me is the response from many schools and educators, who, at the time of the lockdown became extremely concerned about how they would measure ‘seat time’, and set about requiring students to be present online at certain times and to follow certain schedules. In other words, replicating the instructional processes from the classroom in a remote learning context. We see this now with concerns raised about ‘learning loss’ as educators focus on the number of hours learners have missed in instructional settings (i.e. teacher in front of a class) during the lockdown.

Many of these behaviours reflect how deeply grounded our education system remains in ideas of ‘delivery’ and ‘accountability’ and of the role of the teacher as ‘instructor’. What a contrast when we consider the challenge of progressive educational theorists and practitioners including Dewey, Piaget and Reggio Emilia – where the focus is placed on the role of the learner as an active participant in all aspects of the learning process.

“The learner possesses rights, is an active constructor of knowledge, and is a social being; the instructor is a collaborator and co-learner along with the child, a guide and facilitator, and a researcher.”

Reggio Emilia

This is why, over the past couple of decades, I’ve become much more comfortable with the notion of learning design. Each of these words engenders a new depth of meaning – meaning that can help mitigate some of the ‘power concerns’ I have about the use of the word ‘instruction’.

  • Learning focuses our attention in our work as educators and the planning we do on what it is we’re wanting to see happen – i.e. learning! It is about the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught! In other words, we will be focused on the activity of learning – where the learner is likely to be much more involved, and where direct instruction is but one of the strategies we may employ.
  • Design focuses our attention on the dynamic nature of our role as educators and the planning we do. All good design begins with an analysis of need, which includes not simply the identification of the academic skills or knowledge required, but also takes into account the personal needs and dispositions of the learner. We’ve seen the concept of ‘design thinking’ embraced by many educators in recent years. Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user. It focuses on the application of human-centered techniques to solve problems (e.g. how to make learning happen) in a creative and innovative way.

Now I’m not trying to set up a ‘binary mindset’ here – pitching learning design against instructional methods – indeed, there is a lot the two have in common. I’m merely trying to establish that our use of language is important, and that many terms we use (e.g. instruction) have become ‘loaded’ with pre-conceived ideas that may actually stand in our way when we’re trying to embrace new ways of thinking and working. Alfie Kohn touches on this brilliantly in a recent blog post about the progressive teacher’s role in the classroom.

Traditionalists believe that teachers should have absolute control over a classroom: Adults know more than children do and therefore ought to make all the important decisions — setting and enforcing the rules, managing students’ behaviour, planning the curriculum, dispensing knowledge, and so on. Groovy alternative educators, meanwhile, believe that children can be trusted to learn and grow and solve their problems essentially on their own, without outside interference.

Alfie Khon –

Let’s not be mired down in arguments based on a binary view of these terms and philosophies, but let’s instead be prepared to think critically about the language we use and the behaviours we associate with them – so that we can be better prepared to consider and explore the new thinking that we’re being challenged to embrace, particularly when this makes a difference for our learners and may be just the thing that helps them experience success and grow to thrive in the future.

BTW – my personal preference for ‘learning design‘ still stands – as that’s my way of being able to give expression to the beliefs that underpin my practice, and to differentiate this from what was more the way I thought and acted earlier in my career.

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