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Optimizing the Benefits of Eclectic Instruction

I recommend first reading the summary` of this page.
(and the link puts website into proper left-and-right format)


This page has three parts that will:

• describe 4 logical reasons for using a variety of instructional approaches, combining them to design eclectic instruction that will be more effective in helping students improve their ideas-and-skills;

• examine 3 ways to learn (from Explanations, by Discovery, during Activities), which all can produce constructivist learning`;

• clarify my views – what I do (and don’t) recommend for instruction using Design Activities.



Four Logical Reasons to Use Eclectic Instruction

Logically, we should expect an eclectic blending of instructional approaches to be most educationally effective because:

    1a) we want students to learn a wide variety of ideas (Conceptual Knowledge) and skills (Procedural Knowledge);

    1b) different approaches are useful for teaching various aspects of these ideas-and-skills;

    1c) usually there are diminishing returns for each type of instructional approach (as described in an 80-20 Principle*);

    1d) students' characteristics vary in many ways (in their learning preferences, abilities to experience success with various types of instruction,..) and we want to match the characteristics of more students with at least one of our teaching styles.


These four factors contribute to a logical conclusion:

    2) therefore we should try to design eclectic instruction by combining the best features of each approach in a blend that produces an optimal overall result — a greatest good for the greatest number — in helping students achieve worthy educational goals.


Consensus with Variations:  Although sometimes the rhetoric of enthusiasts makes it seem they are claiming “if some is good, more would be better, and all would be best” (where "all" is the approach they advocate), most educators agree that we should avoid the uncreative restrictions of rigid "all would be best" thinking with either-or assumptions, because eclectic instruction usually works best, especially in the long run.  But we can disagree about details of What-and-How, about WHAT the best "overall result" is (when we're defining goals)* and HOW to combine different approaches to get "an optimal overall result."

* When we're thinking about instruction, some important ideas to consider — regarding our goals for ideas & skills and the potential tensions that occur when we are not able to maximize a mastery of both ideas and skills, plus the diminishing returns (e.g. 80-20) for different kinds of instruction — are in Design of Curriculum & Instruction.


* Basically, an 80-20 Principle states that in many situations (but not all), roughly 80% of a thing's total possible value comes from the first 20% of this thing.*  Applied to instruction, if "the first 20%" is the first 20% of total instruction time invested in a particular kind of instruction, probably we'll see diminishing returns if we use more than 20% for this approach — because we'll be using it INSTEAD OF other approaches — so an 80-20 Principle supports the wisdom of using balanced eclectic combinations.    {some examples in many areas}

* 80-20 is a very rough general principle, so perhaps 50% (or 90% or...?) comes from the first 10% (or 30% or...?), and so on. 80-20)



Three Ways to Learn:

from Explanations, by Discovery, during Activities


As a foundation for understanding the ideas below, I recommend the beginning of Design Activities`, about Thinking-Doing-Learning Activities and Inquiry, which I define broadly to include both science-inquiry and design-inquiry.


1. Learning from Explanations

I have a deep knowledge-of-ideas that spans a wide range, and most of my Conceptual Knowledge (my ideas about science, math, education, history,...) has been learned from others, from seeing or hearing their explanations of ideas.  And although most of my Procedural Knowledge has been learned by discovery during personal action-experience, often my discoveries have been greatly enhanced by coaching, when others provided useful explanations for how to more effectively improve my learning & performing of physical skills and (especially) mental skills.

Are the sources of my knowledge similar to the ways you have learned most of your ideas and skills?

The main motivation for Explanation-Based Instruction (Direct Instruction) is a recognition that by learning from others we "stand on the shoulders of giants" instead of forcing students to always “re-invent the wheel.”  Because learning from others is often an efficient way to learn, it can be a valuable component of effective Eclectic Instruction, as in Discovery-and-Explanation & Constructivist Lecturing & Explanations + Activities.


2. Learning by Discovery

This is an excellent way to learn Procedural Knowledge and organized principles of Procedural Knowledge.  How?  In an overview of Design Process each stage (in a 5-stage verbal-and-visual progression) begins with "Learning and Teaching" to describe how "students can discover essential principles... during guided Reflection on their Experience" that occurs before, during, or after an Inquiry Activity.  In this context, Discovery Learning is especially effective because "students already know these principles from their prior experience of using design-thinking in everyday life and in school, plus their most recent design experiences, so in ‘discovery’ they are just making their personal knowledge more explicit-and-organized within the logical framework of Design Process."

Benefits:  Learning by Discovery can be an effective way to promote deep learning, retention-and-transfer, plus motivation.  Edutech Wiki describes some advantages and disadvantages of Discovery Learning.

A Contrast:   In skillful Explanatory Instruction, a teacher tries to explain ideas with maximum clarity, to help students learn more easily.  But in skillful Discovery Instruction a teacher doesn't try to explain clearly-and-thoroughly;  instead the goal is to make learning a moderately difficult challenge, to let students discover ideas.

Inquiry Learning includes Discovery + Explanation:   Inquiry and Discovery are not the same.  They partially overlap because inquiry experiences (with science-inquiry and design-inquiry) occur when students must think — because they don’t understand, or don’t know what to do — and during these experiences a student may discover ideas and skills;  but students also may learn from others, from fellow students, a teacher, or other sources.  So during an Inquiry Activity students can learn by discovery (in Science-Inquiry this is often a main objective) and learn from explanations.

Adjusting the Difficulty:   With inquiry instruction, the level of difficulty can be adjusted before it begins (by defining what students will do) and during it by the guiding of a teacher who has options for "Adjusting the Difficulty" that include a temporary focus on selected aspects of the design process with whole-part-whole instruction.

Appropriate Difficulty:   For optimal educational benefits, both cognitive and affective, Inquiry Instruction must be well designed so it produces a “moderately difficult challenge” that is educationally appropriate, that is effective for helping students learn.  Like a well-written mystery story, the goal is a level of challenge that is “just right” so students will not become bored if it's too easy, or frustrated if it's too difficult.  Instead they will feel motivated to overcome the challenge, and will be interested in the process of problem solving.  Ideally, students will struggle temporarily but eventually (in a reasonable amount of time) they will succeed, and in doing so they will feel genuine emotional-and-intellectual satisfaction.  They will place a high personal value on their success, which may change their self-view, improving their confidence & motivation — especially if they previously have responded to schoolwork by thinking "why bother?" — because they were able to overcome challenging obstacles during the process of discovery.  In addition to this affective learning, they will improve their Conceptual Knowledge and Procedural Knowledge.


3. Learning during Activities

Variety in Activities:   I define problem-solving “activities” broadly, to include:  Design Activities of any type (science-inquiry, design-inquiry, or personal learning strategies) in the classroom or outside it, including computer-based simulations and games;  doing homework problems from a handout, textbook, software program,* or web-page;  answering Clicker Questions during lecture, as in a series where “teacher introduces, then students predict, observe demonstration, discuss with peers, discuss in whole class including teacher”;  the tough case-study problems in an "overview, case study" approach that combines explanations with activities;  or a metacognitive reflection activity (by individuals or groups) done before, during, or after another activity (by an individual or group), perhaps supplemented by discussing principles of Design Process in a combination of experience + principles.    {* as in PhET with interactive simulations in many subjects or SURGE }

Applications and Extensions:   An activity might be a simple application of ideas-and-skills already known, used in familiar situations.  Or it could be an extension that requires some discovery learning;  extension can occur by using known ideas-and-skills in a novel situation, or using known ideas-and-skills in new combinations, or moving beyond what is known into new aspects of old ideas-and-skills, or even further beyond into new types of ideas-and-skills.   /   The balance of application-vs-extension can vary from one student to another.   And it can change with time:  a series of coordinated activities might begin as application, and then (to challenge a student) shift into extensions of various types;  and a challenging extension can become easier, as a student masters the new ideas-and-skills, until it becomes just an application.   /   Application makes knowledge deeper and stronger, more reliable.  Extension makes knowledge wider, giving a learner more potential for future flexibility.

Discovery and Explanation:   Both types of learning occur during an Inquiry Activity.  Students learn by their own discoveries, in extensions.  They also can learn from explanations, with various timings:  before an activity (to prepare for it) as in a case study when we define the case-scenario for what they know and what they need to do;  or during an activity when they learn from each other, or (for just-in-time learning that occurs when they need knowledge to make progress toward finding a problem-solution) with explanations from a teacher, on the web, or in print;  or after an activity when they are motivated to learn more about a topic they began to explore in an activity.

Variety in Timings:   Different types of learning activities, such as problem solving & explanations, can be combined and coordinated in various ways.  As described above, explanations can occur before, during, or after problem solving;  or you could view the problem solving as coming after, during, or before the explanations.


Overlaps:   I describe these (explanation, discovery, activities) as "three ways to learn" but they overlap, mainly because instructional activities include many types of inquiry (broadly defined) in which students can learn by both discovery and explanations.

Eclectic Instruction:  When we ask “how should we design instruction for maximum learning of worthy ideas-and-skills?”, most of us will agree that instruction should include all three ways to learn.  How should they be combined?  Regarding our uses of each approach, instead of wondering “whether” we should ask “when (re: contexts & timings), how (re: techniques), and why (re: goals)?”  Our disagreements about details can lead to productive discussions about "how to define goals (for the best 'overall result') and how to achieve goals (using the best 'blend of approaches')."



Constructivist Learning includes Learning from Explanations

All three ways to learn are consistent with constructivist theories of learning-and-teaching.  But does learning from explanations really require active construction of knowledge?  Yes, because mental construction requires mental activity, which does not require physical activity.  As explained in How People Learn,

A common misconception regarding “constructivist” theories of knowing (that existing knowledge is used to build new knowledge) is that teachers should never tell students anything directly but, instead, should always allow them to construct knowledge for themselves.  This perspective confuses a theory of pedagogy (teaching) with a theory of knowing.  Constructivists assume that all knowledge is constructed from previous knowledge, irrespective of how one is taught (e.g., Cobb, 1994) — even listening to a lecture involves active attempts to construct new knowledge.  (page 11)

Constructivist Listening:  When "listening to a lecture" the "active attempts to construct new knowledge" should be very mentally active.  In fact, there is much more to do than is possible, so a listener must decide which of the many possible activities — "time-sharing and attention-shifting between listening & seeing, thinking & writing, plus metacognitive observing, while minimizing distractions" — should be done, and how, when designing a cognitive-and-metacognitive Thinking Strategy for learning in lectures that also includes deciding how much time to invest in preparing before a lecture and reviewing after it.

Constructivist Lecturing:  When aiming for clarity-of-explanation it's important to remember that clarity is in the mind of a beholder.  A teacher should think carefully about what learners know and how they think (using Clicker Questions is a useful way to get this what-and-how information, but is not the only way) in order to design a strategy for leading learners from what they are thinking now toward what you want them to learn, to help them understand new ideas-and-skills in terms of what they already know.  Because "people learn by using what they know to construct new understandings,... all learning involves transfer that is based on previous experiences and prior knowledge (How People Learn, pages 68, 236)."  Therefore, when teaching any idea or skill a teacher should try to understand the "previous experiences and prior knowledge" of students, and build on this foundation.


A teacher should help students develop-and-use strategies for active learning when they listen & read, and try to motivate them — one way is to mix explanations with activities — so they will want to learn.


Constructivist Reading:  Virginia Voeks, in her book On Becoming an Educated Person, describes a useful attitude:

    Start with an intent to make the very most you can from whatever you read.  Treat the author as you do your friends.  When talking with a friend, you listen attentively and eagerly.  You watch for contributions of value and are sensitive to them.  You actively respond to his ideas with ones of your own.  Together you build new syntheses.
Every time you learn a new idea, in any way, you are actively constructing your own mental representations of the idea in a personally meaningful form.  Your new idea interacts with your old ideas, while you are trying to combine the new and old into a coherent system of ideas.

Actively Learning from Others concludes that "you can read [or listen or watch] passively, or make it an active adve nture... [because] you control the quality of your learning," and "some of the most effective teaching methods are designed to stimulate thinking, to replace boring passivity [which occurs unfortunately often when "learning from others"] with exciting mental activity."


Sometimes explanation-based learning is criticized with argument-by-analogy that compares learning a physical skill (would you teach tennis by explaining it?) and learning a mental concept.  But when we're thinking about effective instruction, we must distinguish between a learning of physical skills and mental concepts.  Although there are some similarities,* there are significant differences, so effective teaching strategies differ, and must be optimized for each type of learning.    {* Relationships between mental & physical skills, and between teaching & coaching, are fascinating, and are explored in Mental-and-Physical Skills & Strategies.}



My Views about Eclectic Instruction (in American education)

In ideas-and-skills education` (for ideas + skills + skills-with-ideas) a worthy goal is comprehensive knowledge — both conceptual (ideas) and procedural (skills) — in logically organized frameworks that make it easier to understand and use the knowledge, and to learn new ideas & skills.  How can we achieve this?  Which approaches are most useful — for teaching various aspects of the ideas-and-skills we want students to learn — in an eclectic blending of instruction, with learning from explanations & by discovery, and during activities?


In my opinion, offered with appropriate humility,

• We should develop-and-use teaching strategies that are more effective in helping students improve their ideas-AND-skills.  When we're thinking about the unfortunate tensions of "ideas VERSUS skills" we should place more emphasis on helping students improve their skills.

• Due to the major differences in “how we learn” when we learn ideas and when we learn skills, different teaching strategies — re: the balance & timing of discovery and explanation, and ways to combine them — are more effective when we are helping students when they are learning IDEAS, and are learning SKILLS.

Inquiry Activities (for science-inquiry to answer questions, and design-inquiry to solve problems) are an excellent way to help students improve their skills (their Procedural Knowledge) in science and design, for general skills and domain-specific skills.  Especially for teaching general skills, a combination of experience (in Activities) plus principles (of Design Process) is more effective than just experience, and guided reflection can promote Discovery Learning of Design Process with experience + reflection + principles.    {an important skill is Coordinating Your Process of Design by combining Metacognitive Awareness with Conditional Knowledge}


And in opinions that are more humble, and are much less important when we're thinking about the main goals of this website, I think:

• The best way to help students develop a comprehensive foundation of logically organized ideas (Conceptual Knowledge) is with a creative blending of high-quality constructivist Explanation-Based Teaching supplemented by Problem-Solving Activities that are applications-and-extensions in which students learn more, and learn how to more effectively use what they already know and are learning, to improve their integration of ideas-and-skills.  There should be some learning by Guided Discovery, especially for important "central core" concepts, but this cannot be the main source for achieving a comprehensive, logically organized, wide-ranging Conceptual Knowledge.  Students will only get this by learning from others, from hearing them and reading what they write, in conversations, lectures, podcasts, videos, blogs, books, web-pages, discussion forums,...

• Although learning by discovery can be an excellent source of Procedural Knowledge, as in Discovery Learning of Design Process,...

learning by discovery should not be the main source of Conceptual Knowledge.  But many discoveries will occur naturally during activities.  Carefully designed Guided Discovery Learning, for a concept and its extensions, can help students form mental representations that are strong-and-clear;  learning by discovery and/or during activities for application-and-extension can be especially valuable for the central concepts in an area, to build a strong core-foundation.  In addition, we can view the process of discovery learning as a valuable skill, as Procedural Knowledge that we help students improve by providing experience (especially in science-inquiry when conceptual discovery is a main focus, but also in design-inquiry) plus principles (such as the creative-and-critical Retroductive Generation we use to generate ideas with creative thinking that is stimulated-and-guided by critical thinking in our evaluations of ideas).


These are just my opinions, based on experience and logic.  I think most readers will agree with some of my claims (to some extent) and may disagree (to some extent) with others.  Although I don’t expect total agreement, I do hope this page will stimulate you to think in productive ways about an interesting, important question: “How should we combine different types of instruction, in order to optimize the benefits for students?”