ERIC Identifier: ED326352
Publication Date: 1990-10-00
Author: Reck, Carleen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
Successful Instructional Practices for Small Schools.
If schools are to succeed in their current restructuring efforts, they
need a renewed vision of the learning process. Essential to that vision
are successful instructional practices. This Digest presents recent findings
about effective instructional practices for classroom teachers in small
schools. Because of their characteristics, small schools are in a good
position to continue moving toward their new educational goals.
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE SMALL SCHOOL
Often, the small school is defined by a specific enrollment figure.
In terms of instruction, however, small schools have the two characteristics
*Broader scope of teacher responsibilities: Generally, teachers are
responsible for many or all classroom needs. They have help from fewer
administrators, specialists, and other support staff.
*More instructional levels per classroom: In many cases, broader ranges
of age and ability exist within the classroom.
INSTRUCTIONAL OPPORTUNITIES THAT BUILD ON THESE CHARACTERISTICS
Teachers in small schools have two special opportunities. The first
is to develop the student as learner. Teachers with little time for their
many roles tend to help students share more fully the responsibilities
of the learning process. Many students in small schools also share responsibilities
at home. The second opportunity is to include collaborative learning experiences,
which use more fully the varied knowledge and background of the broad range
DEVELOPING THE STUDENT AS LEARNER
Learning is the combined result of many variables. Some are under the
teacher's control and have strong effects on students' behavior, attitude,
and achievement (Berliner, 1984). These variables include the following:
*skills of management and planning,
*appropriate learning activities, and
High expectations are essential. Students need to believe in their potential
to learn. Because students base their beliefs on their teachers' behavior
toward them, teachers must remain especially sensitive to their own classroom
behaviors that might express low expectations. When a student deals with
a limited number of teachers "as in a small school" the effect of a few
bad experiences is magnified. Such damaging behaviors include, for example,
offering some students less time to think, less choice on assignments,
less opportunity for self-evaluation, and less respect as individuals with
unique interests and needs (Good & Weinstein, 1986).
Teachers cannot assume that students know how to learn. Effective teachers
spend the first few weeks of the school year practicing with their students
the skills of management and planning. Although many teachers cooperatively
develop classroom rules, research shows that the positive effect depends
on only two factors. These factors are the actual practicing of the procedures
and the teacher's regular feedback about their execution (Kindsvatter,
Wilen, & Ishler, 1988).
In general, teachers who effect the most student achievement establish
task-oriented classrooms in which learning is clearly the business at hand
(Brophy & Good, 1986; Silvernail, 1986). The organization of classroom
space is important. In the classroom that serves two or more grades, careful
room arrangement makes it easier to have many learning activities at the
same time. Room arrangement, for example, can help peer tutoring, computer
work, checking with answer keys, and student use of equipment to take place
alongside group sessions (Reck, 1988).
More important than the length of the school day is "engaged time."
Teachers need to ensure that students actually use enough instructional
time in productive ways. Research emphasizes that time is quite easily
lost in transitions--starting up, changing activities, moving from place
to place, and putting things away (Berliner, 1984). Clear directions are
important, especially when teachers are not immediately available. Achievement
on individual student work is high when students can consistently complete
work with few interruptions caused by confusion or need for help (Brophy
& Good, 1986).
Equally important is success rate. When students are reviewing or practicing--engaging
in drill activities or completing homework--their responses should be rapid,
smooth, and almost always correct (Berliner, 1984). Success must be built
into such lessons, particularly when the teacher is unavailable for help.
Teachers need to anticipate where students will experience difficulty,
then plan that only 20 percent of the items will be at or beyond that level
(Kindsvatter et al., 1988).
Success rates increase when teachers explain the work, practice examples
with students, circulate to monitor work, and provide help--BEFORE students
begin independent work (Brophy & Good, 1986). Other activities that
build success include occasional reviews and catch-up days (Kindsvatter
et al., 1988). Teachers must choose appropriate learning activities, those
that match lesson objectives and student needs. To choose effectively,
teachers need to understand that the structure of each activity either
limits or enhances the learning process in some way (Berliner, 1984). Activities
vary. Computer-managed instruction, for example, can offer short or long
practice sessions, immediate testing, and private diagnostic feedback.
Instructional television can provide more extensive course offerings and
can include students in cultural events not common in remote areas. Computer
networks, moreover, can help both students and teachers overcome feelings
of isolation and motivate learning (Helge, 1983).
Effective questioning can be the core of meaningful learning experiences
for students. In fact, the more often teachers ask questions, the more
students learn (Silvernail, 1986). Mixing both factual questions and higher-order
questions throughout the learning activity produces better results than
using either type alone.
Higher-order questions are, however, essential for all students. This
may be a problem, since up to 95 percent of the questions in workbooks,
tests, and teachers' manuals are lower-order (factual) questions. Teachers
should beware of relying too heavily on questions from these sources.
The benefits of higher-order questioning are substantial. A typical
student exposed to a lesson without higher-order questions may be expected
to perform at the 50th percentile on a related test. In contrast, that
same student's exposure to the lesson with many intelligent higher-order
questions would perform at about the 75th percentile (Berliner, 1984).
INCLUDING COLLABORATIVE LEARNING EXPERIENCES
The typical classroom in the small school tends to have students with
a broad range of age, knowledge, and experience. Even when small groups
or tutoring pairs are not formally structured, interdependence among students
is a striking quality of classrooms in small schools (Dodendorf, 1983).
Students who attend small schools often approach each other for help and
learn by teaching each other. In small schools, collaborative learning
can provide a way to capitalize both on students' variety and on their
Teachers use collaborative learning experiences when the focus of instruction
is on multiple ways to solve problems. Students could, for example, be
asked to decide how the country might differ today if certain explorers
had changed their routes. Teachers encourage students to listen to diverse
opinions, support claims with evidence, think critically and creatively,
and participate freely in meaningful discussions. Students ask and study
related questions that interest them.
The extended times in a small school when students need to learn without
direct teacher help require sustained student involvement. When students
work collaboratively, they are more involved in setting their learning
goals, choosing among options, and monitoring their own progress (North
Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1990).
Varied models of cooperative learning--which have peer interaction,
cooperation, and communication--produce positive effects on achievement
and attitudes. Student-to-student links can lead to more complex thinking
processes than are common during teacher-student contact (Kindsvatter et
al., 1988). Use of such groups can also help students to move toward self-regulated
learning (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1990).
Collaborative learning requires special preparation. Teachers need to
organize groups so each student can contribute. They need to find resources.
And they need to explain and model how to think critically and how to work
Supporters of the collaborative classroom value heterogeneous grouping
so all students can share and learn. Another view, however, is that sometimes
homogeneous grouping for instruction is needed. Some educators continue
to believe that grouping for beginning reading instruction--and for dealing
with very heterogeneous classes--is justified. Groups may, in these circumstances,
be based on students' ability, achievement, or language dominance (Brophy
& Good, 1986).
WILL EFFECTIVE INSTRUCTIONAL PRACTICES ALWAYS RAISE ACHIEVEMENT?
In two small rural schools, teachers increased their use of some of
the techniques of effective instruction. The changes, however, had little
effect on student achievement (Marzano, Guzzetti, & Hutchins, 1984).
The lesson is that educators should not assume that change in a few variables
will improve achievement.
Real improvement requires the interaction of many variables. Improving
students' management skills, for example, may not help them think and solve
problems. When combinations of effective practices become a regular part
of teaching routines, however, they are much more likely to improve achievement
The characteristics of small schools can be a teacher's ally. In small
schools, one teacher, using a variety of successful techniques, can exert
influence across the entire range of variables that cumulatively lead students
toward high achievement.
Berliner, D. (1984). The half-full glass: A review of research on teaching.
In P. Hosford (Ed.), Using what we know about teachers (pp. 51-84). Alexandria,
VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 240 088) See also the series of articles by
Berliner and Casanova in Instructor magazine (September 1985 through December
Brophy, J., & Good, T. (1986). Teacher behavior and student achievement.
In M. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (pp. 340-370). NY:
Dodendorf, D. (1983). A unique rural school environment. Psychology
in the Schools, 20(1), 99-104.
Good, T., & Weinstein, R. (1986). Teacher expectations: A framework
for exploring classrooms. In K. Zumwalt (Ed.), Improving teaching (pp.
63-85). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Helge, D. (1983). Technologies as rural special education problem solvers:
A status report and successful strategies. Murray, KY: National Rural Project,
Murray State University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 241
Kindsvatter, R., Wilen, W., & Ishler, M. (1988). Dynamics of effective
teaching. NY: Longman.
Marzano, R., Guzzetti, B., & Hutchins, C. (1984). A study of selected
school effectiveness variables: Some correlates that are not causes. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 253 328)
North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. (1990). Reconnecting
teachers and learners (Guidebook No. 3: The collaborative classroom). Elmhurst,
IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory and the Public Broadcasting
Reck, C. (1988). The small Catholic elementary schools: Advantages and
opportunities. Washington, DC: National Catholic Educational Association.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 303 290)
Silvernail, D. (1986). Teaching styles as related to student achievement.
Washington, DC: National Education Association.