Strategies for Instruction

Professor Lawrence Lowery
March 03, 1998 | Philosophy

Top image: Which instructional strategy is being employed in this classroom situation?

There are many variables that contribute in different ways to the effectiveness of instruction. One variable is seldom examined in detail even though it has a major influence upon learning. That variable is the physical arrangement of learners. Expert teaching can be distinguished from novice teaching by the strategic use of a variety of classroom arrangements. These include the:

Which arrangement is used depends upon the purpose of the lesson. Many lessons utilize more than one type of arrangement. Placing students in social learning settings is an effective way to stimulate interest, enhance cognitive development, increase self-esteem, and raise achievement (Johnson and Johnson, 1984). Research also shows that such arrangements increase student participation, achievement, and learning (Glatthorn, 1991). The five classroom arrangements are used strategically and thoughtfully throughout FOSS lessons.

Whole Group, Didactic

Graph: Whole Group, Didactic

Whole group, didactic instruction is the most common arrangement observed in traditional classrooms. The use of the whole group, didactic arrangement increases dramatically from middle school through high school. This physical arrangement is set up for the purpose of one-way transmission of information. The students are receivers-passive, observing, listening, or taking notes. The delivery of information takes the form of a lecture, a report to the group, or simply the presentation of a television program or a movie. The value of whole group, didactic instruction is that it is sometimes efficient to have everyone hear the same thing at the same time. It works well for giving directions, introducing a new topic, demonstrating, reviewing, or entertaining. It is commonly seen in large lecture halls, on field trips, at movie theaters, and in any situation where the students are expected to be receivers of information. FOSS makes use of this arrangement at the beginning and end of activities. For example, before a field trip in the Trees Module, students are given an overview of what is to take place, the goals of the field trip, and some management guidelines. After the trip, the whole group is assembled to share and review what was seen and learned in relationship to the goals.

Individual, Tutorial

Graph: Individual, Tutorial

The individual, tutorial arrangement is used for two-way transmission of information. For this instructional arrangement to work, both the teacher and the student must be active. It is an arrangement that is often embedded into other instructional arrangements as when the teacher calls upon a student in a whole class, didactic setting or when she leans over a shoulder in a cooperative group setting to ask a student a question. The value of the individual tutorial arrangement is that it is one of the best ways to assess a student's thinking. To know about an individual's thinking makes the teacher's job much easier. It enables her to know what to do next. Students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled up by the teacher; knowing about a student's thinking puts the teacher in a position to nurture the thinking, to help it become more robust, more efficient, more coherent, more generalizable. To know about all children's thinking is essential for effective teaching. The following example of a tutorial interaction was passed along to me recently by my friend and fellow researcher, Tom O'Brien (1997).

Suppose a teacher asks a student, "What is 9 + 9?" And suppose the student answers, "19." There are several things a teacher might do now. The novice teacher tends to show the student where an error was made or demonstrate the correct procedure (didactic teaching). An expert teacher, because the setting is tutorial, knows that this arrangement allows her to first find out what the student was thinking. She asks, "How did you get 19?" "Well," says the student patiently to what was plainly a dim-witted adult, "You asked me about 9 + 9. And I knew that 10 + 10 is 20." "So?" continues the teacher. "So if 10 + 10 is 20, and if 9 is one less than 10, then 9 + 9 is 19." By asking the student to explain her thinking, the teacher learned a great deal! For one thing, the student was not guessing. And the 19 did not result from faulty memory. The thinking was very complex. The student had subtracted one rather than two. The thinking was rich. The student had made a cosmetic error, not a structural error. "Ah, I get it," says the teacher. "So tell me. What is 9 + 10?""That's 19," says the student. "Wait a minute. That other thing you gave me, 9 + 9?That has to be 18!"

In this tutorial interaction, the teacher assessed a student's thinking, realized the nature of the "error," and provided a critical competitor (10 + 9) for the student to compare with the 9 + 9 problem. This interaction took place in about 40 seconds. No other teaching arrangement allows for such personal assessment and personal assistance as does the tutorial arrangement. The tutorial arrangement is valuable for assessing, conferencing, coaching, counseling, remediating, and supporting specific skills or information. Using this arrangement allows the teacher to personalize the instruction. Using this arrangement, the teacher can respond more effectively to different learning styles.

Individual, Task Orientation

Graph: Individual, Task Orientation

Putting each student to work on a task is the second most common instructional arrangement seen in traditional classrooms. It is used to give assignments that are carried out by students working independently from each other. It is most often used when a teacher assigns lessons in a textbook or workbook-a math lesson, spelling page, or step-by-step experiment. All students might be assigned the same task or be given different tasks. In either case, the arrangement frees the teacher to wander from student to student-diagnosing, providing information, or facilitating by interacting with an individual student (thus incorporating a tutorial arrangement within the individual task arrangement). It is this type of teaching that textbooks promote almost exclusively. If the tasks are well written, they can be performed independently by the students. If the tasks are poorly written, students will struggle, do the work incorrectly, or have many questions which requires the teacher to explain (didactic) parts of the task. The arrangement can be used effectively with non-text driven activities. For example, when students examine their own fingerprints in the FOSS Ideas and Inventions Module, each student independently focuses on a common task: examining fingerprints. Similarly, when students construct their own Bonita skeletons in the Human Body Module, they work individually on a common hands-on task. During such instruction, the teacher is free to assist, facilitate, and assess as she finds necessary.

Small Group, Cooperative

Graph: Small Group, Cooperative

Small group, cooperative arrangements are characterized by subdivisions of the class into groups or committees. Objectives for groups can be assigned, roles in the group can be delineated (e.g., chairperson, recorder, etc.), and standards for harmonious group work can be set. For cooperation to take place, it is important that roles be delineated. While the groups are working, the teacher is free to roam and monitor their progress. Other than to organize the cooperative setup, no teacher transmission of information, except as requested, is given. The teacher is free to roam among groups to facilitate the progress as needed or to interact with an individual (for tutorial purposes). Examples of this arrangement are used in the setup of many FOSS activities. For an electricity activity in the Magnetism and Electricity Module, a "Getter" gets the materials for his group to use, a "Starter" does the first test with the equipment, a "Recorder" makes sure the data are recorded, and a "Reporter" summarizes findings and reports to the class.

Small Group, Collaborative

Graph: Small Group, Collaborative

This instructional arrangement has a subtle difference from the cooperative group arrangement. In this arrangement, teams work on a common task, but each member is equally responsible for the quality of the result. It involves the free and uninhibited discussion by students on aspects of importance to them. In such interactions, students do not play roles, but are equals in the production and assessment of ideas. In the FOSS Models and Designs Module, teams of students are challenged to construct a model of the interior of a sealed black box. Students bring their various prior knowledges to bear equally on the task, comparing and exchanging, testing and debating, assessing and providing evidence for ideas. In this situation, collaboration brings about a resolution or set of possible resolutions to the task better than an individual could in attempting the task alone. Preliminary research suggests that students improve their language arts skills through this arrangement due to the social relationships within the group. Students explore and communicate with others. They test ideas, hypothesize, evaluate results, record data, keep journals, and write reports. These uses of language enrich the experiences and provide functional uses for talking, listening, reading, and writing (Cohen, 1986). Other research shows that when students work collaboratively, increased reasoning strategies and greater critical thinking competencies result (Johnson and Johnson, 1984).

A Few Additional Comments

The most common instructional "error" some teachers make is to teach didactically when students are in tutorial or small group arrangements. Non-whole group structures open the possibility for other types of effective instruction, but teachers must know other ways to teach to use these arrangements effectively. Researcher Paul Ammon (1993) found that the whole class, didactic arrangement is favored by beginning teachers and experienced teachers who do not develop expertise in a variety of ways to teach. Even when teachers let students explore materials in a hands-on activity, such teachers tend to summarize for the students what they should have learned (Hutcheson and Lowery, 1988). These teachers believe that students will learn as long as the teacher simply shows or tells them what they need to know (Hutcheson and Ammon, 1987).One reason why some research shows that a reduction in class size does not make a difference in student learning is the fact that many teachers teach fewer children in the same way they teach many (usually in a whole group, didactic manner). Research that examines the reduction of class size when teachers use non-whole group arrangements with appropriate instructional skill, consistently shows positive, significant gains in learning. Expert teaching is flexible. Expert teachers have a range of instructional repertoire and know when to use each type. They know that some classroom arrangements achieve better results than others for certain students, at certain grade levels, and for certain instructional goals. Expert teachers are thoughtful about classroom arrangements and the appropriate mode of instruction to accompany them. Through the thoughtful orchestration of a variety of classroom settings as suggested in the activities, FOSS is a vehicle that nurtures expert teaching.


  • Ammon, P. and B. Levin. (1993). "Expertise in teaching from a developmental perspective." Learning and Individual Differences 5 (4), 319-326.
  • Cohen, E. (1986). Designing Groupwork. Columbia University, New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Glatthorn, J. and J. Baron, (1991). "The good thinker." In Costa (Ed.), Developing Minds. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Hutcheson, B and L. Lowery. (1988). Improving expertise in science teaching. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.
  • Hutcheson, B. and P. Ammon. (1987). "Promoting the development of teachers' pedagogical conceptions." The Genetic Epistemologist, 17 (4), 23-29.
  • Johnson, R. and D. Johnson, (1984). Circles of Learning: Cooperation in the Classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • O'Brien, T. (1997). Personal correspondence, Southern Illinois University.