Tag Archives: voice and choice

Direct Instruction without Lecturing

Image by Yinan Chen from Pixabay

Misconceptions of Student Voice and Choice

An old misconception of Project Based Learning is that PBL is all student choice and inquiry without any teacher input. Students choose any topic they are interested in and then do whatever they feel like with it; basically unschooling on a large scale. This misconception paints the teacher as an unneeded bystander with little role in the learning. Teachers envision chaos when they consider this in their classroom. They correctly assumed that this distorted view of PBL won’t work for their students.

Today most teachers realize that is not how PBL works, but rather it is a framework for structured student inquiry into important content standards through meaningful experiences. PBL and inquiry should include active teacher input in the design and implementation of the learning activities. Yet an offshoot of the old chaos misconception remains. It rears its ugly head when educators debate whether direct instruction or inquiry is the best pedagogy.

Some teachers reject inquiry wholesale using research claiming that direct instruction is more effective (this research is usually limited to results from standardized test scores). An example of this is the “science of math” movement arguing for explicit, direct instruction of math algorithms, even when students don’t understand why they are doing them.

Sometimes deficit thinking is hidden in critiques of inquiry methods with statements such as “My students can’t learn content without me explaining it to them first.” The real meaning of this quote is that this teacher does not believe the students in front of them can think critically on their own. It is the same kind of “pyramid” thinking that misuses Bloom’s Hierarchy to limit students to the lowest levels of basic knowledge acquisition.

The direct instruction vs. inquiry debate falsely assumes that they are mutually exclusive.

Too Much Lecturing

I am a strong proponent of student centered learning and the inquiry process, but that does not diminish the teacher role at all. Instead it shifts the teacher role from talking in the front of the room all hour to coaching small groups. I have realized that my critique of the traditional classroom is not centered on direct instruction, but the more specific technique of whole class lectures.

I am not saying that lectures are inherently bad and should never be used. My issue is when lectures, slides, and note taking are the predominant pedagogy in the classroom.

My educational philosophy has always prioritized active learning: “Whoever is doing is learning.” The work in a lecture is primarily found in the preparation, which is entirely done by the teacher. Passive note taking by the students listening can be mindless. We need students who are actively involved in their learning rather than copying down words to concepts they may or may not comprehend.

The problem isn’t direct instruction, but classrooms dominated by teacher lectures and powerpoint slides leaving students as bored audiences with no personal connection to the content.

Lectures are not effective for many students. In my math class, all of the proof that I need of lecture’s ineffectiveness, is how many students raise their hand for help after I just did three example problems on the board that they copied into their notes. Students are doing what they are told, but have no comprehension of the what or why behind it. If a new problem is slightly different, most of them are at a loss with how to attack it.

Workshop Model of Instruction

Beyond whole group lectures, there are many other effective ways to utilize direct instruction in a workshop model. In Project Based Learning, the teacher can choose one Need to Know from the list of student generated questions to focus on for the day. Then give students:

  • Resources to supply direction
  • Task to explain the why
  • Protocol to provide structure
  • Deliverable to keep students accountable

Students can learn content from many sources beyond a teacher explanation. Use a video, set of images, podcast, website, online article, or even your textbook as the resource for students to focus on. Mix it up so students see different forms of media or give them a menu of choices.

Next student need the task for the day. Why are they using this resource? What is the purpose or learning target that they should achieve? Be clear about what the takeaway should be.

Use protocols such visible thinking routines, SIOP, or eduprotocols to structure and scaffold how students interact with the resource. Protocols teach students how to dissect and analyze different sources. They also structure academic conversations and dialogue between group members. Experiment and choose 3-5 that you repeat throughout the year. With familiarity of the process, students will excel at using them.

Finally require a deliverable at the end of the hour. This could be a mind map or filling out a template. Or it might be presenting their findings to their group or the whole class. Many protocols have deliverables built into their procedures so this is not an extra step.

Start by asking yourself: What direct instruction method besides whole group lecture could I use to teach this concept?

During work time the teacher can push into groups to check progress or teach a mini-lesson or pull out students based off of formative assessments as needed. Pulling out students is an excellent way to differentiate providing support only to those who need while allowing the rest of the class to work in groups on their project.

PBL and inquiry can and should include direct instruction from the content expert, the teacher. The difference is that it primarily comes in the form of small group coaching, rather than large group lectures. Formative assessments allow the PBL teacher to focus their coaching on those students with gaps through a combination of questioning and direct input as necessary.

Learn with me!

Are you interested in professional development for your school on how to integrate SEL or implement PBL? I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I am now scheduling summer workshops and book studies. Check out my workshop page or drop me an email at mikejkaechele@gmail.com. I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.

Would you like to explore more deeply how to integrate SEL into daily classroom activities? Check out my book below for tons of practical ways that can be immediately implemented in any classroom.

Pulse of PBL

ABC’s of School Culture


My friend James threw out this question in a tweet this week and received many intriguing responses. As I personally know many of the people who responded (not @FLOTUS obviously and am curious why @DairyQueen was included), I could see their personalities and passions reflected in their answers. I added a list of my own thoughts, but Twitter is never the place to flesh out complex ideas.

What I really wanted to say was just culture, that’s it. And if you have ever read my blog before, you know that I am passionate about integrating Social and Emotional Learning into Project Based Learning. But those are actually pedagogical frameworks to structure the ideal culture. And without the proper culture they fall flat and are ineffective.

Of course, there are many aspects of education that are complicated, nuanced, and attached to huge systems. But oftentimes what most holds educators back is a culture of fear of rejection based on the traditional perspective of how schools should function. If you have ever visited a school or class that was truly mind blowing in what students were doing, I can guarantee it had a strong culture that allowed it to deal with many of the systems and adversities that hold other schools back.

Every school has a culture, but what are the key ingredients of successful culture that should be adopted by all schools? One of the first things that young children learn are their ABC’s, as a basis for reading. Here are my ABC’s that are the foundation of a powerful school culture.

  • Action
  • Bravery
  • Curiosity
  • Caring

Culture of Caring

I know it starts with “C,”but we have to begin with caring. Kids first. Not the needs of adults in the system: control and compliance that squash individualism. Not the needs of the state: high standardized test scores that reject creativity. Not the needs of business: the economy above all else while neglecting inequities. Not the needs of curriculum: covering all of standards while boring students to death. All schools say that they care for children, but actions and school policies speak volumes.

Evidence of Caring? When it is obvious that students and adults in the building enjoy working together.

Successful schools value community and relationships above all else. Students are the customers that school is designed for, not passive objects that school is done to. Adults value empathy, not only as something to be taught to students, but modeled by involving students in all decision-making processes.

In caring schools, students and adults watch out for each other. They check in on mental health. They laugh at inside jokes. They geek out about passions and create class rituals. Social and Emotional Learning is not an add-on activity, but is integrated into the day with kids developing the competencies through authentic work. Caring is the bedrock that the rest of school culture is built upon.

Culture of Action

I am a firm believer that whoever is doing, is learning. Listening to a lecture and taking notes is NOT doing. Active learning means kids are moving, creating, experimenting, going outside, brainstorming, observing, speaking, collaborating, solving problems, asking their own questions, exploring, and making. SEL skills aren’t just being discussed, but actively practiced in their project teams.

Action means noise, not silence. Classroom management means the teacher is facilitating multiple groups doing different tasks, not watching quiet rows of compliant kids. Students aren’t “locked” in the classroom but spill into the hallways and outdoors. The room doesn’t look like a Pinterest picture, but shows evidence of student learning artifacts scattered throughout. Students are engaged in their work not bored by stale textbooks. They are creating meaningful products that reflect their learning, not cramming facts for tests.

Culture of Bravery

The overarching culture of traditional schools is control and compliance. Administrators demand it from teachers, who in turn require it from students. Great schools flip this model on it’s head and practice freedom. A culture of bravery means that districts reject everything that is not aligned to holistic student growth and learning. District level administration bravely rejects cultural and political pressure for high test scores, accountability measures, and standardization. They empower principals and teachers as professionals to design learning experiences based on students, not curriculum.

There is no fear of failure, only joy in pursuing passions.

Building principals bravely trust their teachers and support innovations that are student-focused. Flexibility is valued. Traditions are cherished when they build community, but rejected when they are only about controlling young people. Adults place student voice over compliance. Administrators are in the habit of saying “yes” to teachers and students who want to experiment and try something out of the box.

A culture of yes, also means saying “no” to harmful practices that value systems and adults over children. It means either skipping standardized tests or de-emphasizing them to the point of ignoring them; getting rid of punitive punishments and replacing them with restorative practices; and searching out and eliminating inequitable practices that harm our most vulnerable students. Based on the culture of caring, anything that gets in the way of student-centered learning is bravely eliminated.

Before every new initiative, students should be asked for input and it should be valued as the most important viewpoint. Not the placement of a token student on the school board, but actually listening to what kids think, say, and want for their education. Schools that move beyond limited choices for students to truly empowered student voice in changing their communities.

Culture of Curiosity

With the removal of so many systemic constraints, students are encouraged to pursue their passions. They ask meaningful questions about their community, engage in authentic inquiry, and seek out practical solutions. They are not preparing for the future, but contributing right now! Project Based Learning is the philosophical framework that structures and guides student curiosity around issues seeded in their community and the world.

Teachers aren’t seen primarily as content experts (although they are) but designers of master learning experiences guiding students down paths that they might not discover by themselves. Teachers are learning experts who model questioning, experimenting, and failure for students. Through PBL, students practice Transformative SEL skills as they address complex problems of the world to bring about justice. Curiosity leads to empathy of multiple viewpoints rather than one dogmatic approach. Students develop into self-directed learners who have the tools to investigate and propose solutions to any problem that they come across. They become curious leaders who never stop learning.

Questions? Interested in an SEL infused PBL workshop or consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele on Twitter.