Meaningful Instruction

What is meaningful instruction?

Meaningful instruction is the heart of the proficiency based education model. Educators know that good teaching is personal, relevant, engaging, responsive, dynamic, and rooted in strong student relationships. Meaningful instruction includes plans for how instructors will provide multiple ways for students to learn, engage, and practice what they need to know, understand, and do. Teachers use engaging instructional strategies designed to meet a variety of learner needs. Instruction is adjusted in response to formative feedback, student interest, local connections and contexts, and the needs of the school community. Not all students receive the same instruction or will find meaning from the same work. We design instruction in response to the needs, profiles and interests of students, engaging students in learning that is inquiry-based, personally relevant, and connected to the local and global community.  

Why it’s important: 

The reason America’s schoolchildren are not learning what we want them to learn is that in too many instances they are being asked to do things they do not see as worth doing in order to learn things adults want them to learn. If educators want students to work hard and be persistent, they must find ways of designing work that students believe to be worth doing. – Phillip Schlechty, “Shaking Up the Schoolhouse: How to Support and Sustain Innovational Education”

Meaningful instruction is engaging instruction. It’s grounded in learning students believe is worth doing. It is responsive to the needs and interests of the learners; it engages learners in personally meaningful work; and it provides student voice and choice. It is the lifeblood of proficiency-based learning because it’s the context in which teachers are helping students gain critical proficiencies with strategies designed to meet their learning needs. And whereas traditional assessment strategies fail miserably amidst such rich and responsive instruction, proficiency-based assessment provides the relevant formative and summative feedback to drive the learning forward.

This can sound onerous, like you have a unique instructional plan for each student. It needn’t be, though. Designing for engagement allows us to plan for a variety of learner needs and interests ahead of time, building in opportunities for student voice and choice. Student engagement is linked to many positive outcomes for students, including increased student achievement, graduation rates, civic engagement, health, and wellness. As educators we become scouts and guides, providing multiple pathways for students to travel towards the same goal. 

How it fits into the proficiency-based education ecosystem:

In the proficiency for personalized learning model, meaningful instruction leads students toward the learning goals. Teachers plan engaging instructional strategies designed to meet a variety of learner needs as they progress towards the goals. In those plans, teachers provide multiple ways for students to learn, engage, and practice what they need to know, understand, and do. Instruction is adjusted in response to proficiency-based formative assessments and feedback. After formative and summative assessments, teachers and students can identify areas for possible further instruction. 

What meaningful instruction looks like in practice: 

Let’s imagine a math teacher who sees an opportunity for their sixth grade students to apply mathematical thinking to a genuine challenge the school is facing: purchasing equipment and supplies for a new maker space. The teacher is confident that in the course of preparing a budget, selecting items to purchase, and evaluating unit and bulk pricing, there are rich opportunities opportunities to work toward two of the district’s performance indicators for mathematics and problem solving: “use ratio and rate reasoning to solve real-world and mathematical problems” (CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.6.RP.A.3); and “generate and critically evaluate a variety of solutions” (from the Transferable Skills). 

And sure enough, when the teacher conducts a K-W-L process with the class, students light up with excitement and started raising challenging questions of their own. They quickly agree on a central guiding question for the project: What is the best buy for the money? Already this project is well on its way to meeting several indicators meaningful instruction: it’s a challenging inquiry, relevant to students’ lives, and grounded in students’ own questions and concerns. 

The K-W-L process also yields lots of additional information about what students already understand about budgeting and what else they need to learn. To deepen engagement and honor learning opportunities outside of school, a homework assignment encourages students to tap family and friends’ prior experience with making things, budgeting and purchasing. Throughout the project, students also seek information, advice and critical feedback on their work from maker space experts and companies that create and sell makerspace materials. 

To foster autonomy and self-direction, the teacher directs students to form small groups and choose the maker space products they wish to research. Students work alone or in groups to research prices for snap circuits, LEDs, conductive copper tape, wooden planks, and other materials. They grapple with cumulative costs and how best to distribute the limited funds across different priorities for the maker space, such as electronics, robotics, manufacturing, textiles and modeling. They use spreadsheets, tables, and formulas to explore ratios and develop multiple proposals for outfitting the maker space. And at the end of the learning, students publicly present their budgets and purchasing recommendations to the teacher, principal and the school’s technology specialist.

From the start, the teacher leverages information from the K-W-L, the homework assignment, each students’ personal learning plan, and other prior knowledge about the students to design learning opportunities. Along the way, students regularly use learning scales they helped create to reflect on their progress toward proficiency in using ratios and problem solving, the project’s key learning goals. And groups check in with the teacher on a daily basis. With deep background knowledge of each student and continuous formative assessment the teacher assigns roles, adjusts groupings, modifies how students pursue and represent their learning, and develops resources, lessons and workshops to scaffold students’ progress toward the learning goals.

How do I know if I’m on the right track with meaningful instruction?

Indicators Meaningful Instruction Learning Scale
Engaging instructional strategies designed to meet a variety of learner needs. I choose and implement single strategies.  I use strategies to engage my students based on their developmental needs.  I engage students in personally or community-connected learning (virtually or locally)

I engage students in learning that is personally meaningful to them

I design learning opportunities that are rooted in student questions (inquiry)

I co-design strategies with all of my learners. 
Provide multiple ways for students to learn, engage, and practice what they need to know, understand, and do. I place all emphasis on the learning that happens in my own classroom. I offer students choices regarding instructional content, process and product. I recognize and honor students’ learning across and outside of school

I empower student autonomy by offering opportunities to choose or direct varied aspects of their learning

I collaborate with other learning providers to create opportunities for all of my students.
Instruction is adjusted in response to formative feedback I design instruction that is based on my own needs of curriculum and content. I design instruction that is grounded in some knowledge of student needs in my classroom.  I design instruction that is based on my knowledge of each individual student (learning styles, interests, goals, cultures and identities) and offer multiple pathways 

I offer students opportunities to pace their own learning

I scaffold instruction and skills to meet each learner where they are

I co-design instruction with my students that represents each student and offers pathways suitable for all students. 

 

Meaningful Instruction Toolbox:

Learning Goal If you are curious about …. Resources to Explore
I design instruction that is based on my knowledge of each individual student (learning styles, interests, goals, cultures and identities) and offer multiple pathways  Creating opportunities to share, celebrate and honor student identity 
Learning more about the importance of learning about each student and supporting their unique identities. 
I offer students opportunities to pace their own learning
I scaffold instruction and skills to meet each learner where they are
I engage students in personally or community-connected learning (virtually or locally)