Non-Existent Formula

200X Blueprint : DWN 009

The focus on instructional strategies by school leaders and educators is nothing new. At best, we are looking for new or trying to enhance current strategies. At worst, we are hoping for some sort of blue print that we can overlay upon each classroom and teacher to create the ultimate instructional machine.

This leads to poor implementation of things like Marzano’s instructional strategies as a magical forumla for instruction: if a teacher uses these, they are a good instructor; if a teacher uses these, learning will occur; if a teacher uses these, the classroom is effective.

In other words, the question driving the organization is how well are we instructing.

The problem with that is that if we continue to focus on the question “how well are we instructing”, we will continue to search for a non-existent formula. Instead, leaders and teachers need to focus on the question “how well are we learning”.

In a recent article for ASCD’s Educational Leadership, Marzano himself alludes to this despite holding tightly to the instructional strategies focus:

“Over the years, researchers have reported the effects on student learning of various instructional strategies. However, these commonly vary from year to year and from researcher to researcher… The research on instructional strategies will continue to provide teachers with guidance concerning the types of instructional strategies they might use in their classrooms. However, a strategy is just a tool that teachers can use at different levels of effectiveness” (Marzano).

Marzano continues by saying it’s how you use instructional strategy and goes on to explain four different levels. The critical take-away is his thoughts on the two final levels: applying and innovating:

“At a minimum, teachers should strive to use strategies at the applying level, continually monitoring students to see whether the strategy is having its intended effect on student learning. Ideally, over time, teachers should move toward the innovating level, adapting strategies to meet student needs and maximize learning” (Marzano).

It is here that Marzano hits upon the real focus: how well are students learning with WHATEVER instructional strategy is being used. And, that is what we need to focus on with teachers.

Place the Focus on Learning

We focus too much on how we want teachers to teach: this strategy, this technology, this belief. And, it is this focus that leads us to a standardized learning environment that is based upon the hopes of a researcher’s blueprint.

In fact, I’m not overly concerned with how any teacher is teaching so long as the learning we desire is happening. I’m concerned with teachers connecting with students, recognizing when learning is or isn’t happening, knowing how to adjust if it isn’t, and having a diverse range of strategies to draw upon.

This means…

  1. We need to define learning and what it means in our community (learner profile)
  2. We need to know what it is we want students to know, to do, to experience, to be
  3. We need to ask ourselves constantly: are our students learning in our classroom, in our department, in our school at the depth and breadth we want? If the answer is no, we need
  4. We need to embrace a diverse range of teaching styles and methodologies but constantly building a breadth and depth of strategies for all
  5. We need to a curriculum that is designed backwards while remaining true to “Making Learning Whole

In other words, it isn’t enough to focus on strategies, a teacher’s toolbox, or an instructional blueprint. The key is focusing on the learners, the community, and the learning vertically and horizontally.

(Image: 200X Blueprint : DWN 009, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from lzcreations’s photostream)


  1. Hi, Ryan,
    Our district has been involved in using the Learning Focused Schools framework for many years. I didn’t know anything about it before I arrived four years ago. This comment isn’t meant to knock LFS or the work they’re doing in schools, but as I evaluated the framework which consists mostly of canned graphic organizers, instructional strategies (borrowed from Marzano and the like), and a system of common language, I wonder- don’t we want our teachers to recognize that these elements of instruction can be powerful and use them as they best see fit? Why the standardization with lesson plans? When admin were trained, we were given a list of essential “look fors” to help ensure LFS framework was being implemented with fidelity. So, if I don’t see an essential question posted on the board, learning isn’t going on? I have a real issue with that. The framework in itself is not inherently bad, but the danger is that teachers lose the creative edge and individuality with practices that make each of them special- they focus more on the framework and neglect relationships with students as the most essential element of teaching and learning. Are there teachers who benefit from LFS b/c their “bag of tricks” isn’t as robust as seasoned teachers and they need more support with fundamentals? Yes, but we all know there’s no perfect recipe for effective teaching. It’s why when I’m observing in classrooms I watch and listen to the children – and I watch and listen to how the teacher is engaging the students- in conversations, in activity, in learning. That looks different in every classroom, and that is okay. Thanks for this post!

    • “and I watch and listen to how the teacher is engaging the students- in conversations, in activity, in learning. That looks different in every classroom, and that is okay.”

      This says it all, doesn’t it? Well said!

      Thank you so much for your comment. It is a practical example of what potentially goes wrong when the focus is so heavily on instruction.

      Now, how do we get others to see this?

  2. Ryan,
    Much of what you said resonates with my personal philosophy of focusing on learning (output) rather than instructional strategies (input) when it comes to professional development. I wrote a response with a few more questions over at my blog. I don’t expect you to respond, but thought I’d let you know that I appreciated reading what you had to say.

  3. As I told you on Twitter, I believe there needs to be a companion point that is stated (not just understood) to go along with number 2: We need to know what it is we want students to know, to do, to experience, to be

    We need to know what it is students want to know, to do, to experience, to be.

    I agree that the sentiment should be part of the process, but I do not think it always (or even often) is. It needs to be.



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