Does whole group instruction engage today’s student?

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What do you think of when you think of whole group instruction?  Is it bad for today’s student?  Do most whole group instruction based classrooms look something like the results above?

When I think of whole group instruction, Ben Stein’s famous scene is one of the first things that pop into my head.  On the other hand, I also think of Mr. Welle, my high school biology teacher.  Although biology isn’t a subject I was particularly interested in then or now, Mr. Welle taught me a lot about biology.  We did spend plenty of time doing labs and dissections, but when I think of Mr. Welle, I most think about his lectures.  I can’t remember a time when he didn’t have my full attention with his unique, funny, and unpredictable style.  As a high school sophomore most interested in playing sports and chasing girls, I hung on Mr. Welle’s every word not knowing what he would say next.  When I think back to his class, it still puts a smile on my face.  (There is Mr. Welle below in my hometown newspaper with his wife on their 50th wedding anniversary)

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Every day as I walk through classrooms as a principal, the number one thing I am looking for is student engagement.

How would you define student engagement?  If you ask most people, engagement means if students are awake, quiet, looking at the teacher, and raising their hands periodically.  As I spend more and more time inside classrooms, I realize that it is so much more, but difficult to quantify.  I don’t know a good way to judge engagement without sitting with students, asking them questions, and listening to them.

Are they interested?  Are they taking ownership?  Are they curious?  Are they asking questions?  Are they excited?  Are they focused on the task at hand even if their teacher is far out of earshot or doing other things?  Are they aware of the relevance of what they are doing?  Will they seek to learn more on the subject even after class is over?

As many principals will tell you, I’ve learned so much about teaching since I no longer had my own classroom.  I get to watch great teachers every day!  I’ve seen great whole group lecture based lessons with very high student engagement and I’ve seen small group project based lessons where students spent more time talking about what they would do this weekend than engaged in any kind of meaningful learning.  I’ve seen small groups of students that were so engaged that their teacher could have literally left the room and the students wouldn’t have noticed, they were so wrapped up in the moment.  I’ve also seen whole group lessons where students looked much like Ben Stein’s student above.  I see very different teachers finding ways to engage their students in very different ways.

The question I am pondering in all this is, “What is the right balance between whole group instruction and small group/individualized instruction?”  I believe whole group instruction has an important role to play in education, but how much is too much?  Could you put a percentage to it?  Would it vary from teacher to teacher?  Subject to subject?  Grade level to grade level?  Is a good teacher just a good teacher regardless of their style?  Or should we have an expectation that whole group instruction be limited or capped in some way?

My district is currently discussing an effort to take data on our current practices and collaboratively define with our teachers what our balance should be.  Many times as administrators, we take walkthrough data, but don’t do anything meaningful with the results that improves teacher practice or our overall school environment.  Just as in a classroom, if our assessment data isn’t used to improve student learning, there isn’t any point in continuing to take that data.    We plan to use the Instructional Practices Inventory developed by Jerry Valentine to gain some data on our current practices to share with our teaching staff and start a conversation on both where we are and where we want to be.

How much whole group instruction is currently in use in your school or classroom?  How much do you think there should be?  I would love to hear from other educators or parents on this topic.  I am always grateful for someone who can stretch or challenge my thinking…