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Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century: Instruction

What is instruction and why does instruction matter when it comes to teaching and learning in the 21st Century?

Alex T. Valencic | @alextvalencic
October 20,  2021
Teaching and Learning

In this series, I have been using a backwards design model of lesson planning to my approach to 21st teaching and learning. I started by talking about standards, followed by assessment. In this article, I will be discussing instruction through the lens of two questions: What is instruction and why does instruction matter when it comes to teaching and learning in the 21st Century?

Let us start with defining instruction. As with many words we use daily in education, it has been my experience that there is a vague sense of what the word means, but there are rarely times when educators are asked to reflect on it. Before reading further, I invite you to jot down your own thoughts somewhere. What does “instruction” mean to you?

I asked this question on social media, hoping to get feedback from a diverse group of people who work in a variety of fields, not just education. Some shared what I think of as the dictionary definition: “instruction is the act of giving directions.” Others shared that instruction is “the process of teaching.” Some chose to give a definition based on the plural, instructions, or “the list of steps needed to complete a task.”

As I considered this from my own perspective, I thought about the root of the word “instruct” and how it contains the common base word “-struct-” which we find in words like “structure,” “destruction,” and “construct.” This reminded me that this base word refers to building or creating. Construction is the process of building together. Destruction is the process of unbuilding. Instruction, then, is the process of building on, or adding to. In the realm of teaching and learning in the modern era, that is precisely what instruction ought to be: building on, or adding to, what students already know. Interestingly enough, the Century Dictionary notes that the etymological difference between “teaching” and “instruction” is that the former was generally used to describe simply imparting knowledge whereas the former is the orderly arrangement of teaching in a set sequence (1902).

Over the course of time, there have been educators who believe that their students come into the classroom with no prior knowledge and therefore view their role as one of pouring content into empty vessels. This may have much to do with the psychological theory of tabula rasa, or blank slate theory, which suggests that all knowledge and actions are learned after birth—that we do not come to the world “preprogrammed” with information or behaviours. The counterargument to this theory is innatism, which suggests that there are some things that we just instinctively know and understand.

In order to teach effectively, we need to know what our students know so that we can build upon that knowledge and help them develop their skills further.
In order to teach effectively, we need to know what our students know so that we can build upon that knowledge and help them develop their skills further.

I once had a rather heated discussion with an educator about the effectiveness of assessing students’ prior knowledge at the start of a unit. The educator, who believed in tabula rasa, told me that he felt it was a waste of time because he was going to teach all of his students in the same way at the same time anyway. This is, in my opinion, an appalling approach to instruction. In order to teach effectively, we need to know what our students know so that we can build upon that knowledge and help them develop their skills further. This is the very essence of effective teaching and learning in the 21st century!

The importance of effective teaching and learning practices may explain why there have been many books written on the topic of instructional practices in schools today. Google “effective instructional practices” and “books” and you will get approximately 78.7 million results in less than one second. Search the same topic under books on Amazon and you will find a list of over 900 titles. On my own bookshelves, I have nearly 200 books on education, most of which are related to effective instruction. With all of this information, it can be overwhelming for a teacher to determine what the best practices or strategies to use with their students are.

Rather than attempt to share an authoritative answer to this question, I will merely suggest this: Go back to the root of what it means to be an instructor. If you wish to be a teacher who is adding on to what students in your classroom know, understand, and can do, then the very first thing you need to know is what they know, understand, and can do! The next thing is to determine where they need to go next. (If you’ve read my articles on standards and assessment, you know that you need to know not only where they need to go but also how you will know they are going to make it there.) Every class and every student you teach is going to be different from the ones you taught before. Yes, there will be common themes across all classes, but the unique lived experiences of each student will require you to adjust your teaching practices to those students you have in front of you. A friend once shared this advice from his father: “There is nothing wrong with teaching for 30 years; just make sure you aren’t teaching the same year 30 times!”

With this in mind, I would argue that the most effective teaching practice is the one that meets your students where they are at and helps them move toward their learning goals which you, as their trusted teacher, are helping them set. I once taught a class that had four students whose conceptual understanding was far beyond what one might think of as “typical” fourth graders. Whether it was solving complex math problems, grappling with intellectually challenging texts, conducting in-depth science experiments, or understanding social studies concepts at a much greater depth than most children their age, they consistently showed that they were ready to go further in their learning. A few years later, I taught a class with four students with severe learning disabilities. Three of them were non-verbal. They needed constant support from adults in the classroom to help them complete even basic tasks. Both classes were the same grade level, but the composition was drastically different. The challenge for me was to provide quality learning experiences for every student. This is, again, the essence of effective teaching, of effective instruction. Know your students. Provide opportunities for them to grow. Guide them. Support them. Encourage them. Involve them.

I would argue that the most effective teaching practice is the one that meets your students where they are at and helps them move toward their learning goals which you, as their trusted teacher, are helping them set.
I would argue that the most effective teaching practice is the one that meets your students where they are at and helps them move toward their learning goals which you, as their trusted teacher, are helping them set.

This last part is essential. If you are going to work on building up your students, you need to take the time to involve them in the process. Whether you do this through surveys, conferences, group discussions, anonymous feedback, anecdotal evidence, assessment data, or informal conversations, effective instruction must involve your students. This does not mean turning the classroom over to the students and allowing them to do whatever they want whenever they want to do it. Rather, it means allowing them to have voice, providing choice, while using your professional expertise to guide their learning every step of the way. Doing this will create a learning environment in which students feel safe and supported in continuing their journey toward becoming lifelong learners.


Whitney, William Dwight, ed., The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, New York: The Century Co., 1902.

Alex Valencic is an educator, former small business owner, Boy Scout, volunteer drug prevention specialist, unrepentant bibliophile, and a geek of all things. He worked as a substitute teacher for three years before achieving his lifelong dream of teaching fourth grade, which he did for seven years in Urbana, Illinois, before accepting his current position as the Curriculum Coordinator for 21st Century Teaching and Learning in Freeport, Illinois, where he not only supports innovative educational practices in the classroom but also oversees the social studies, career and technical education, physical education, health, art, and music programs in the district.

: coordinatingthecentury.wordpress.com

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