Gapless instruction

If we make assumptions about what students know or should be able to do, some of them will inevitably fall into these gaps and fail to meet our expectations.

Teachers are often told to ‘teach to the top’. For the most part, this is caveated by included the need to ‘scaffold down,’ but in too many cases, the notion of teaching to the top does more harm than good.

‘Teaching to the top’ only works if ‘the top’ refers to outcomes rather than children. If we mean teaching to the top of the ability range, then we will inevitably leave many students behind. But, if we teach all students, regardless of their prior attainment, to achieve the highest possible standards then maybe all will find it possible to achieve excellence. Getting the most advantaged, the most able, the highest prior attainers to be successful is relatively straightforward. All too often these students are successful despite rather than because of what we do in the classroom. If the least advantaged, the least able, the lowest prior attainers are to be successful it will only be because of our efforts.

Easy to say, but what does this actually mean?

Experiencing success is essential for students to be willing to commit doing anything difficult. For some students this will inevitably require a huge amount of support. The five teaching strategies which underpin the implementation of our curriculum are all aligned with this ambition. For instance, the focus on reading fluency ensures, through repetition, that all students achieve perfect prosody. C25K writing, with its relentless focus on mastering individual sentence structures, attempts to guarantee that every student can smash out perfect sentences. Structured discussion, with its emphasis on repetition of high-quality language, means that all students have the experience of speaking well-crafted academic language. Because the curriculum specifies small steps repeated over and over, all students can be successful. Obviously, despite this emphasis on mastery, some students will still be more successful than others, but because all students see and feel that they are able to produce something impressive, they come to believe that maybe, just maybe, they might be able to sustain this standard with increasing independence.

The fact that all this is ridiculously optimistic is part of the point. Inevitably, there are still students who, despite every effort, fall through the gaps. But, if we’re really serious about all students achieving the highest standards, we need to believe that gapless instruction is possible.

Siegfried Engelmann, the mastermind behind Direct Instruction, says, “Instructional sequences have the capacity to make children smart or not. If students fail to learn from their interactions from the content that a) they are expected to dabble, b) there is no requirement to retain what is learned today, and c) there is no requirement to follow the teacher’s directions, the children will perform at a level that will permit them to be labelled as specific learning disabilities by the time they reach the eighth grade… If the program sensibly counters not merely the content errors that poorly designed programs might induce, but also the more general attitudes about learning and retaining information they promote, children can become impressively proficient in academic skills. The curriculum will largely determine the extent to which children are smart.”

When children fail to achieve the highest standards, we often assume they just aren’t up to it, that the fault is theirs. Instead, our default response should be to take responsibility for these inevitable failures and assume that if students haven’t been successful, it must be because we’ve left a gap in our instruction. Whilst it might not always be true – there may be some students who, no matter how hard we try, we can’t reach – it’s probably a useful fiction. Useful because there’s very little percentage in blaming students. By taking responsibility and assuming we’ve inadvertently left gaps we will look more closely at the content and sequencing of our curriculum and reflect more deeply on our teaching. And, if we look carefully and closely enough, we’re likely to find areas where we can improve.

In our efforts to make the implementation of our curriculum ‘gapless’ we certainly cannot claim the kind of flawless communication promoted by Engelmann in his DI programs, but we can certainly strive to help teachers understand that if students struggle then the responsibility – if not the fault – lies with us.

Success before struggle

Before we can reasonably expect students to engage with challenging content, we must ensure they have an experience of success.

David’s blog on success and struggle