by Nilka Avilés, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2017

The understanding that changes in school organization and practices can improve teaching and learning has profoundly influenced educational reform over the past decades. A new trend has emerged that focuses on high quality teaching that embraces evidence-based approaches, but with limited attention to aligning these approaches to the strengths and realities that define a diverse student context. It is particularly important that we re-examine how teachers teach and focus on developing what is commonly known as 21st century skills and mindset focusing on the assets that students bring to school.

Schools have a responsibility to foster such a mindset in guiding students’ cognitive development and strengthening non-cognitive factors that speak to resiliency and persistence of students to succeed. In essence, the school must play a critical role in individual empowerment and change. If a school is to renew itself, it must become serious about supporting and empowering teachers and students. The school itself must be a self-actualizing, reflective, learning and knowledge-creating organization for all students, not just a few.

In many cases, the essential organizational changes involve building capacity to continually develop a safe learning environment where staff and governance truly support the academic success of all students. In short, we as educators must reconsider how we think when we interact with students and parents if we expect changes in student learning.

Throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, the emphasis of education was on how schools should work. The primary focus was on management and bureaucracy rather than how a student acquires information and learns.

During the 19th century, teaching required knowledge of a subject, an aptitude for teaching, and classroom management, according to Horace Mann (Cooney, et al., 1993). The emphasis was on what subjects to teach rather than how to better reach students and assure their academic success.

Much remained the same until 20th century pioneers, such as Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, John Dewey and Albert Bandura, laid the groundwork that addressed the student side of the educational process. How students learn and process information became the new norm, replacing the old focus on what should be taught (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2013; Spring, 2001; Gutted, 2000).

Today, the movement is toward interaction and involvement of the whole child in the learning process where structured teaching results in independent learning (Fisher & Frey, 2014). In other words, in a structured teaching classroom, the responsibilities of teaching and learning shift from teacher-centered to student-centered, where students are encouraged, engaged and equipped to become self-directed learners assuming “responsibility” for their own learning (Cordeiro & Cunningham, 2012; Knight, 2008).

It is essential that teachers thoroughly understand pedagogy and how students think and process information. Gardner’s research on multiple intelligences can provide the teacher with information and tools that students use to acquire and internalize information (Gardner, 2011; Carreón-Sánchez, 2015). Subject mastery is also necessary.

The purpose of structured teaching is to transfer the center of learning from the teacher to the student through teacher-structured processes within lesson design. It begins with teacher-focused instruction and ends with independent learning by the student. The teacher models his or her own metacognitive thinking processes and then, through guided lesson designs and collaborative learning ideologies, results in the student achieving independent metacognitive skills of their own.

Using the Fisher & Frey model for structured teaching, “teacher responsibility” includes focused and guided instruction, and “student responsibility” includes collaborative and independent learning (2014).

Focused Instruction Phase – “I do it.”

Focused instruction is designed to establish a clear purpose for the lesson. Purpose must be connected to relevance and application to real world experiences. In addition in this phase, metacognitive thinking is demonstrated by the teacher through modeling. It should be noted that this phase is directed specifically by the teacher.

Guided Instruction Phase – “We do it.”

This phase challenges the student to apply what was learned in the focused instruction phase. The teacher guides the students though relevant questioning, prompting and cuing. Planning is the most important concept for guided instruction. Learning is now beginning to shift from the teacher to the student.

Scaffolding and checking for understanding is emphasized in this phase. This is where the teacher first becomes aware of how the students demonstrate their thinking processes. Based on assessment, differentiated instruction occurs in this phase. Further, guided instruction requires interaction with peers as well as with the teacher providing students with multiple ways to access content to enhance learning.

Collaborative Learning Phase – “You do it together.”

The students now are expected to assume increased “responsibility” in their learning. In this phase, teachers provide students with multiple ways to demonstrate knowledge and skills, while increasing engagement and learning. The cognitive and metacognitive method of learning is the focus of collaborative learning. Students are expected to apply what they have learned in focused and guided instruction.

This phase requires student to interact and support with one another. Students must provide evidence that supports their learning. Of equal importance is developing effective communication, inquiry, decision making, goal setting, self-monitoring, problem solving and other non-cognitive factors.

During this phase, students use academic vocabulary and begin to demonstrate their thinking processes modeled by the teacher. The teacher then has the opportunity to monitor and assess where the students are and to see if there are areas that need to be retaught or to continue to scaffold, enrich and move students to the next level. This phase provides teachers with more accurate understanding of their students’ knowledge and skills.

Independent Learning Phase – “You do it alone.”

The outcome of the previous phases culminates with independent learning. In this phase, students use cognitive skills they have learned, leading to the realization of their own thinking processes. Students have learned an understanding of what they are trying to accomplish, what strategies are best used to accomplish the goal, assess the value of the strategies, and how to expand their knowledge into other tasks.

Formative assessment is essential for the independent learning phase. The teacher must continue to be instrumental in checking in with the students and continue to assess their progress. Instruction should be well-informed as much as possible by detailed knowledge about students’ specific strengths, needs, and areas for growth.

Teaching Effectiveness

To determine the effectiveness of structured teaching, it is imperative that teachers continually reflect upon their input into the process and assess the outcomes. Is the teacher grounded in the current theories and practices that are researched and evidenced based? Is the teacher using Bloom’s taxonomy, multiple intelligences, cognitive and metacognitive theories, and instructional practices that affect all students, including English learners?

Lastly, it is the teacher who ultimately has the most positive impact on learning. That is why student success is bound with passionate teachers who inspire innovative learners to achieve their maximum potential. They are responsible for creating ways to improve their teaching skills and improve student success. Teachers must understand it is their duty to strengthen their practice by being fully informed, become competent, skilled, and prepared to provide a quality education to all students by leading and helping them take control of their learning and move forward. When teachers unlock instruction, they are preparing today’s learners to become tomorrow’s leaders.

Listen to the podcast episode: Reflective Teaching


Carreón-Sánchez, S. (2015, September). “Considering Multiple Intelligences Theory for English Learner Classrooms,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Cooney, W., & C. Cross, B. Trunk. (1993). From Plato to Piaget: The Greatest Educational Theorists from Across the Centuries and Around the World (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, Inc.).

Cordeiro, P., & W. Cunningham. (2012). Educational Leadership: A Bridge to Improved Practice (Boston: Pearson).

Fisher, D.B., & N. Frey. (2014). Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility, 2nd Edition (Alexandria, Va.: ASCD).

Gardner, H. (2011). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York, N.Y.: Basic Books).

Grayson, K. (2009, February). “Defining Teaching Quality Beyond the Certificate,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Gutted, G. (2000). American Education 1945-2000: A History and Commentary (Long Grove, Ill: Waveband Press, Inc.).

Knight, G.R. (2008). Issues and Alternatives in Educational Philosophy, 4th Edition (Berries Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press).

Ornstein, A., & F. Hunkins. (2013). Curriculum Foundations, Principles and Issues, 6th Edition (Boston: Pearson).

Spring, J. (2001). The American School: 1642-2000, 5th Edition (Boston: McGraw Hill).

Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., is a senior education associate. Comments and questions can be directed to her via email at

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]