A sense of community
Whole class instruction brings teachers, techniques, students, and a shared learning goal together via direct, explicit instruction. While both “whole class” and “direct instruction” may seem out-of-step with 21st-century teaching and learning, consider a recent meta-analysis that highlighted a strong, positive connection between direct instruction, a whole class setting, and student learning (Stockard et al., 2018).
Whole class instruction is about learning together: teachers and students at the same time, in the same space, and with each person focused on the same learning goals. As a result, whole class instruction, implemented artfully, can bring a greater sense of community to the classroom.
Meeting the challenge
Even with this sense of community, whole class instruction is not without challenges for both teachers and learners. For example, in a typical grade 4 class of 25 students, Dylan Wiliam (2020) found an approximate 8-year spread in math achievement, with some students working at the grade 1 or grade 2 level, and a few working closer to the grade 9 level. We find similar ranges in reading performance (Firmender et al., 2012).
Yet the goal is to bring every student to mastery. To realize this goal, we take a cue from educators and learners to explore the power of conversation, understanding, and expertise in whole class instruction.
1. Conversations with (and among) students
To support each student in her Algebra I course, Angela Cooper (2017) engaged students in whole class and small group conversations about math. She noted that as students worked together, learners who used more descriptive language (such as “slant”) adopted the mathematical terms (“slope”) while talking with their peers. Although it sounds ironic, small group interaction—when characterized by authentic peer-to-peer conversations—is actually a critical component of whole class instruction (Meador, 2019).
2. Frequent checks for understanding
In whole class instruction, teachers intentionally build frequent checks for understanding throughout each lesson, and as students work with the content following the lesson. Formative assessment processes —eliciting information from students in the moments of learning to inform the next steps in instruction—become the fuel that keeps whole class instruction on track. Following whole class instruction, teachers continue to engage students in frequent checks for understanding.
You might administer a brief digital assessment, such as Star Custom, or—in the case of independent reading practice—have short conversations with students about what they’ve read and what they’d like to read next.
3. Building expertise uniquely
Within your whole class instruction community, each student engages in practice to build reading and math expertise uniquely. This practice can be done both on- and offline and can take a variety of forms. The benefit of digital practice programs is that they allow for seamless differentiation, and they’re accessible both inside and outside the classroom to support continuous student learning.
If you’re using a digital platform like Freckle Math, you can further support students by assigning math practice based on the most critical skills, which we call Focus Skills. Also, while each student builds expertise uniquely, they do not necessarily build it alone. The myON digital reading platform, for example, uses Projects to promote student interaction. Students read and journal, and then debate issues covered in their reading. Such debate can then provide the starting point for whole class discussion.
Cooper A. (2017). How personalized learning starts with less teacher talk, more student talk. Retrieved from: https://www.edsurge.com/news/2017-01-25-how-personalized-learning-starts-with-less-teacher-talk-more-student-voice
Firmender J. , Reis S. , & Sweeny S. (2012). Reading comprehension and fluency levels ranges across diverse classrooms: The need for differentiated reading instruction and content. Gifted Child Quarterly, 57(1) , 3-14.
Meador D. (2019). Exploring the value of whole group instruction in the classroom. Retrieved from: https://www.thoughtco.com/exploring-the-value-of-whole-group-instruction-3194549
Stockard J. , Wood T. , Coughlin C. , & Khoury C. (2018). The effectiveness of direct instruction curricula: A meta-analysis of a half century of research. Review of Educational Research, 88(4) , 479-507.
Wiliam D. (2020). COVID learning loss: What we know and how to move forward. Retrieved from: https://www.edweek.org/education/opinion-covid-19-learning-loss-what-we-know-and-how-to-move-forward/2020/08