Alignment of classroom instruction
|Cultivating student learning|
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Alignment of classroom instruction refers to approaches that endeavour to better align classroom instruction with (1) children’s current learning levels and (2) subsequent learning progress. It is one of four key principles underlying the ALIGNS framework. Such alignment can be achieved by influencing several levers, including formal curriculum standards, content taught in classrooms, pedagogical approaches used to deliver this content, assessments used to evaluate students' progress, and instructional materials provided to teachers and students.
Incoherence within education systems
The rapid increase in student enrolment rates in recent decades has demonstrated a stark fact about education in many developing countries: education systems are primarily coherent for schooling (i.e., getting more children in school for more years) rather than learning (i.e., ensuring that students acquire knowledge). These systems have historically prioritized activities related to boosting enrollment rates, such as undertaking the large-scale logistical tasks of building schools, procuring supplies, and training and hiring teachers. And to a large extent, these systems have been successful in meeting ambitious enrollment targets. For evidence of this, visit the World Bank's Open Data platform, which contains fifty years' worth of data on gross and net primary and secondary enrollment rates by country. However, while enrollment is an important element of ensuring education access, there is growing recognition that designing education systems to be coherent for schooling is not sufficient, on its own, for achieving learning for all.
One major reason that incoherence persists is that education systems are comprised of a multitude of actors in the curriculum design, instruction, examination, and financing processes whose motives may not be aligned. The outcomes we observe from an education system, such as the trajectories of students' learning profiles, are the direct result of the interactions among this variegated set of actors, and the degree to which the are working toward shared goals. For more information on the actors within an education system and the relationships of accountability among them, see the education systems framework article.
To change the status quo and improve student learning, education systems need to become coherent for learning rather than schooling. To achieve this, instruction must be aligned with children's current learning levels and their targeted learning progress.
In recent years, advancements have been made on approaches that improve foundational learning outcomes by better aligning instruction with children's current learning levels and their targeted learning progress. Through post hoc analysis and synthesis of these successful approaches, Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) has developed the ALIGNS framework: a set of four principles that are common across a range of programmes that have successfully improved student learning in low- and middle-income countries.
- Set clear goals for children’s learning progress in line with current learning levels.
- Align instruction to be coherent with both current learning levels and targeted learning progress.
- Provide effective and coherent support to teachers and instructors.
- Tailor implementation to the opportunities and constraints of the context.
Alignment of instruction as a component of ALIGNS
The second principle of the ALIGNS framework is the focus of this wiki article. Through varied means, ALIGNS approaches all endeavour to better align instruction to be coherent both with (1) children’s current learning levels and (2) the progress needed to achieve learning goals. There are several levers through which programs can improve alignment between instruction, current learning levels, and tareted learning progress. These include:
- Formal curriculum standards,
- Content taught in the classroom,
- Pedagogical approahces used to deliver content,
- Assessments used to evaluate students' progress, and
- Instructional materials provided to teachers and students.
Many successful ALIGNS approaches change multiple instructional components simultaneously—bringing the components into alignment with each other as well as with children’s learning progress. For a detailed explanation of all four principles, refer to the RISE Insight Note on ALIGNS.
Why is alignment of instruction important?
A range of findings from cognitive science (focused on the individual learner), educational research (focused on the classroom), and evaluations of ALIGNS approaches (focused on programs and reforms) show that aligning levels of instruction to the learning levels of students can be a powerful enabler of learning.
Findings from cognitive science
Research in cognitive psychology on the architecture of the human brain and how it incorporates new knowledge supports the claim that aligning instruction with current learning levels and goals for subsequent learning progress leads to improved learning outcomes. This is the case for two reasons: (1) human learning is cumulative and (2) learning involves focusing working memory on new knowledge.
The cumulative nature of human learning
The cumulative nature of learning is a result of how our working memory and long-term memory interact. Working memory has a very limited capacity for actively processing new knowledge, but this capacity expands greatly when building on knowledge that has previously been incorporated into long-term memory. A foundation of prior knowledge in long-term memory enables children to use their working memory to build new knowledge on top of this foundation. In an education system, if a teacher asks a student to complete a learning task for which they lack sufficient prior knowledge, then either:
- They will fail to complete the task;
- They will complete the task superficially, but will remember the new content inaccurately because they lack the prior knowledge needed to construct accurate mental representations of the new content; or
- They will complete the task superficially, but will not remember any of the new content because their working memory was fully occupied with strategies for completing the task, leaving no room for thinking about the meaning of the new content.
This implies that the content of instructional tasks must be suitably challenging relative to students’ prior knowledge (i.e., their current learning levels). If educators want students to learn, they must introduce new knowledge that builds on their foundation of prior knowledge.
Focusing working memory on new knowledge
Humans learn by actively focusing working memory on new knowledge. As such, the design of instructional tasks should orient students’ working memory toward the desired new knowledge. We can use an example from (Hwa et. al. 2020) about teaching a child who can read simple words to read full sentences and paragraphs (see figure 1).
- Cell A: if a child can read simple words but lacks fluency in reading sentences and paragraphs, then asking them to read a complicated text aloud by repeating after the teacher would be both misaligned with their current learning level by presenting a text that is too difficult, and misaligned with learning progress by allowing the child to simply repeat what the teacher says rather than trying to decode the text. Thus, this instructional task would be coherent with neither current learning levels nor subsequent learning progress.
- Cell B: a second scenario, asking the child to read a series of letters of the alphabet, would be coherent with the child’s current learning level, but incoherent for cultivating subsequent learning progress because the child has already mastered the skill of decoding individual letters.
- Cell C: asking the child to read a novel independently clearly involves new conceptual and procedural knowledge of reading (i.e., it is oriented toward learning progress)—but it would also be unrealistically challenging given the child’s current learning levels. Rather than helping the child to develop greater reading fluency, it could instead result in the child losing interest and motivation to practice reading. As such, orienting instruction toward toward subsequent learning progress is necessary, but is not sufficient for effective instruction on its own.
- Cell D: asking the child to read a few simple sentences, with teacher feedback when they falter, would be both appropriately challenging given their current learning level and appropriately oriented toward the desired goal of building fluency in reading. Successfully completing the task would require the child to focus their working memory on the process of decoding and understanding the sentences, which would help consolidate their long-term procedural knowledge of reading.
Findings from educational research
Educational research has long supported the claim that matching classroom teaching to students' varied learning levels is a core component of differentiation. A concept related to this is Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which posits that there are three types of instructional tasks that children can or cannot perform:
- Tasks that children can perform independently;
- Tasks that children cannot perform independently but can perform with the support of a more capable peer or adult—these tasks constitute the ZPD;
- Tasks that are beyond children's capabilities.
The implication is that learning and instruction should be concentrated in the ZPD, because guided practice on tasks in the ZPD will eventually enable the child to perform these tasks independently. In practice, a pedagogical method such as teaching at the right level (TaRL) is a good example of what teaching within the ZPD can look like, as students are grouped together based on their current learning levels such that they can draw from their foundational knowledge while receiving support from an instructor to acquire new knowledge.
A similar concept that emerged later is scaffolding. In a scaffolded task, the teacher helps a child to complete a challenging task by providing guidance that simplifies the task and orients the child’s attention toward the goal—or, in other words, to channel their working memory away from extraneous elements and toward the salient new knowledge.
Findings from evaluations of ALIGNS approaches
Evaluations of a range of instructional approaches that apply ALIGNS principles have found positive effects on student learning. For example, mastery learning is a long-established approach in which instruction only progresses to new content once students have demonstrated mastery of the initial content, with appropriate feedback and support to help them achieve this mastery. A summary of meta-analyses of dozens of mastery learning evaluations, conducted mainly in the United States, concluded that mastery learning can be challenging to implement, but can lead to an added five months’ worth of learning progress over the course of the intervention.
Measuring alignment of instructional elements
Surveys of enacted curriculum (SEC) offer a set of practical and reliable data collection, analysis, and reporting tools that are used by researchers, as well as education agencies to systematically analyze the academic content of the education curriculum and measure the degree of alignment between instructional elements. Though this resource was developed and initially applied to the U.S. context, it has subsequently been used in developping country contexts to quantify the content and coherence of system elements such as curriculum standards, examination, and classroom teaching. By providing a structured systematic tool for quantifying the content of instruction across multiple instructional components, the SEC methodology can provide valuable insight to education systems on how to improve the coherence and alignment of instruction, and ultimately learning outcomes among students.
Another tool that is helpful is assessing levels of alignment of instructional elements is the pedagogical production function (PPF). The PPF is a model that simulates how much, on average, a child at a certain skill level learns over a certain period of time (usually one year) at a certain grade. Findings derived from this tool provide real-world insights to policymakers who want to understand the learning trajectories of children and how different reforms, including efforts to increase alignment of classroom instruction, will improve learning in their education system.
Measurement applied to Uganda and Tanzania
In a recent paper, Julius Athuhurra and Michelle Kaffenberger apply the SEC to the Ugandan and Tanzanian education systems to analyze and quantify the content and coherence of the primary curriculum standards, national examinations, and actual teaching delivered in the classroom. In both countries, researchers found high levels of incoherence across each instructional component.
- Curriculum standards and national examinations: in Uganda, only four of the fourteen topics in the English curriculum standards appear on the primary leaving exam, and two of the highest-priority topics in the standards are completely omitted from the exams. In Tanzania, only three of fourteen English topics are covered on the exam, and all are assessed at the “memorization” level.
- Teaching delivered in the classroom: in Tanzania, two mathematics topics (number sense and measurement) constitute two-thirds of the curriculum standards content but make up less than half of teachers’ instructional focus. Conversely, teachers place 25% of their mathematical instructional focus on operations, which accounts for only 10% of the curriculum standard’s content. While the curriculum standards, in both countries and for both subjects, tend to prioritize low- and mid-level cognitive skills, teachers’ instruction covers a broad set of skill levels, often stretching from the lowest order (memorization) all the way to the highest order (application to non-routine problems).
Global examples of successfully aligning classroom instruction
Kenya's Tusome program
Between 2009 and 2012, systemwide assessments of student learning in Kenya, including Uwezo’s citizen-led assessments and early grade reading assessment (EGRA)/ early grade mathematics assessment (EGMA), provided a “wake-up call” around a lack of foundational literacy and numeracy. For example, EGRA results showed that 40 percent of students could not read with comprehension by the end of Grade 2. Following these disappointing outcomes, Kenya invested in a national literacy program called Tusome with a specific focus on reading pedagogy in Grades 1–3. It was implemented in all 23,000 public primary schools and 1,500 low-cost private schools in the country between 2014–2019. Tusome pursued a set of newly articulated goals centered around foundational literacy and realigned instruction through a comprehensive series of changes to core instructional components: the content taught in classrooms, instructional materials, classroom pedagogy, and formative assessments. In practice, Tusome took the allotted 30-minute classes in English and Kiswahili and transformed what happened during them. This meant creating a “clear, specific, year-long scope and sequence of curriculum-based content” that was packaged, via a teachers’ guide, into structured lessons. New student books, in turn, were aligned with the new teachers’ guides. Most of the major decisions that mediate the interpretation of curriculum standards into what actually occurs in the classroom—such as pacing, level, and activities—were structured in the teachers’ guides and student books. This helped to achieve tight internal coherence between instructional components. For further details on the Tusome program, read the case study included in Hwa et. al. 2020.
Teaching at the right level
Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) was pioneered by Pratham, a leading Indian NGO, in the early 2000s. The approach is centered around setting clear learning goals for foundational reading and math skills that are directly tied to children’s current learning levels. This goal grew out of a series of government and independent assessments of student learning in India that highlighted the severity and ubiquity of the learning crisis across the country. In response to this, Pratham developed TaRL to align classroom instruction with sutdents' learning levels and learning progress. The approach, which has been implemented across a variety of delivery models, involves several instructional components: an initial diagnostic assessment of children’s learning levels; engaging pedagogical practices; level-appropriate instructional materials; and regular use of formative assessments. To date, TaRL has been successfully adapted to very different contexts in part because of a willingness to experiment with different modes of implementation. Six randomized studies of TaRL implemented in seven Indian states have proven the model's efficacy, producing some of the largest effect sizes in to come out of education literature. When applied in learning camps in Uttar Pradesh, for example, TaRL doubled the number of children who could read a paragraph or story in just 40 days of instruction. For further details on the TaRL, read the case study included in Hwa et. al. 2020.
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