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The levels of instruction

Teaching strategies

The levels of instruction: a guide for classroom teachers and teacher aides

  • Modelling
  • Shared learning
  • Guided learning
  • Independent learning

We explore the four main levels from the ‘levels of instruction’ and its application to the classroom practice.

Modelling

Modelling – the teacher demonstrates and describes how to complete a task.

Teacher assistant in a school pointing at a white board.

Modelling is when a teacher demonstrates a learning task in front of students while explaining the main steps and workings. Students may be called on to answer questions such as ‘what do you think I should do next?’ but ultimately the teacher, not the student, completes the task. Several other strategies are commonly incorporated at this point, such as think-alouds, worked examples, teaching aids and props, visuals and graphic organisers.

No book about strategies (or any education topic) is worth its weight without a discussion of modelling. Modelling is simply showing a learner how to do something. This can be riding a bike, solving a maths problem, writing a sentence, creating something, or completing a workplace task. Best-practice modelling requires the teacher to divide the task into steps or chunks, to explain each step clearly and slowly (think-alouds), while also asking questions and providing feedback. Exactly how a teacher does this is a professional judgement call based on the capabilities of their class. Metacognitive skills such as applying processes and deconstructing the problem or question should also be emphasised particularly for older students.

Best-practice modelling requires the teacher to divide the task into steps or chunks, to explain each step clearly and slowly (think-alouds), while also asking questions and providing feedback.

The most common form of modelling is the worked example. This is where the teacher demonstrates how to do something (like solve a maths problem, use a formula or write a paragraph) usually on the board. Facing the class as often as possible, the teacher writes on the board, explains each step clearly and succinctly, checks for understanding, answers questions and helps students to avoid common errors. A worked example should not be rushed – some can take 15-20 minutes or more. Worked examples should always be followed by opportunities to practise. Modelling can be implemented at the beginning of a lesson and throughout as needed. To extend learning even further, teachers might spend a couple of minutes modelling a problem or task that is well beyond students’ current abilities. Students enjoy watching experts so they can see where their learning is headed, observe how experts think and solve problems, as well as to develop their metacognitive skills.

Shared learning

Shared learning – the teacher helps a student by completing parts of a task that the student cannot complete on their own.

Teacher assistant working with a group of 7 students in a school setting.

Shared learning is the second strategy in the scaffolding sequence (in between modelling and guided learning). It is usually employed immediately after the modelling phase of a lesson. Shared learning is where a task is partially completed by the teacher and partially completed by one or more students. The exact division of labour is the teacher’s call - it can be up to 90% teacher / 10% students or the inverse. Shared learning can be combined with guided learning or even skipped depending on the student’s capabilities and level of understanding.

The teacher usually does the more difficult parts of a shared learning task and the students complete the easier parts. As students build competence, the teacher gradually reduces support and students complete a higher portion of the task. At some point, the teacher’s participation in the task is no longer needed – students complete the task themselves with no more than verbal guidance from the teacher.

Different task distributions between a teacher and a student.

The left task is shared 50/50 between the teacher and student. In the middle task, the teacher completes about 1/3. The teacher completes most of the task on the right and the student receives extensive support. The division of labour on any shared learning task depends on the student’s abilities.

The purpose of shared learning is for the teacher to undertake aspects of the task that students are incapable of successfully completing at this point in their learning. This prevents students from becoming stuck half-way through the task and becoming frustrated (or making a critical error that effects the whole task). Like modelling, a common way of implementing shared learning is by using a worked example; a problem is written on the board and the class works through each step of the process to find a solution in a lockstep fashion. This is a teacher-led strategy where the teacher maintains full control of each part of the process. The teacher asks questions and prods for additional details such as ‘why did you do it that way’ and ‘are there any other ways we could have done that’? When the class is stuck, the teacher jumps in to keep the process moving. When this happens, additional explanations and examples are provided to plug the knowledge gap. For example, if a student is struggling with an essay, the teacher might write a series of sentence starters (called stems) to get the student back on track.

The purpose of shared learning is for the teacher to undertake aspects of the task that students are incapable of successfully completing at this point in their learning.

Guided learning

Guided learning – the teacher provides guidance and advice to help a student complete a task that they could not do on their own.

Teacher assistant demonstrating guided learning in a classroom.

In guided learning, the teacher’s role is limited to providing advice, preventing mistakes and answering questions. As with shared learning, there are varying degrees of guidance that can be provided. Guided learning is implemented to help students progress further along the learning path towards independent learning. In a guided learning strategy, the teacher will help students at each step but will not actually complete any of the steps themselves. The teacher provides structure, guidance and advice only.

Guided learning can be thought of as ‘teacher-as-scribe’ in a worked example scenario.i For example, the teacher writes a maths question on the board and calls for volunteers who suggest solutions. The teacher writes these suggestions on the board, interjecting only if the student makes a mistake or gets stuck. The most important aspect of guided learning is that the teacher is a guide – not a participant. This is not always possible and for practical purposes teachers use a combination of shared and guided learning in tandem. Guided learning is usually found toward the start of the lesson before students practise on their own or with their peers. While guided learning is commonly used for whole of class instruction, it is also used for one-on-one and small group instruction – the teacher guides a student through a problem without completing any aspect of it whatsoever – that is the student’s job.

Guided learning is usually found toward the start of the lesson before students practise on their own or with their peers.

Hint: many teachers and teacher aides fall into the trap of giving students the answers instead of trying to teach concepts and processes – they are worried about task completion and not concept understanding. The problem with this approach is that students are not learning anything (other than an effortless way to get their work done). Scaffolding is especially useful in this regard. Do not give students the answer – show them the process to find it themselves so they can apply the same process with the next question. When students ask for help, one of the first steps is to ‘go back to basics’ and to build up from there. In other words, scaffold using the levels of instruction (modelling, shared, guided).

Independent learning

Independent learning – a student engages in learning tasks with limited support from the teacher.

Literacy activity in a classroom.

Reaching this point is the goal of many lessons. When this happens, students have enough knowledge to independently work on practice problems and tasks with only occasional support from the teacher. Students apply higher level rules and processes to tackle new challenges. They may even work in pairs or groups at some point (independent learning refers to independence from the need for teacher support and not isolation from peers). However, the teacher still has a lot of work to do – they will circulate, check for understanding, answer questions and work one-on-one with students who are struggling. Advanced students can be provided with more challenging tasks to further expand their understanding.

Hint: teachers need to be wary of implementing this strategy too early as students will then pretend to practise, guess, copy others, or engage in one or more task-avoidance behaviours.

Foot notes:

  1. The term ‘teacher as scribe’ and similar terms are common in writing programs such as the well-known First Steps program.

About the author

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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