The Irish Context

Exploring Instructional Intelligence: the Irish Context

A group of some 150 teachers from a range of vocational schools across the country marked a significant phase in their professional development at the Mount Wollesley Hotel in Tullow, Co. Carlow, in March of this year.  These teachers, representing the first cohort of educators to complete a training programme in Instructional Intelligence with the renowned Canadian academic, Professor Barrie Bennett, received certificates to mark their graduation from IVEA President, Cllr. Noel O’Connor.  They are now charged with facilitating workshops for teachers in their own schools and local areas so that the principles underpinning Instructional Intelligence can be disseminated to a wider audience.  In wishing the graduates well in their future engagement with the project, Ms. Joan Russell, CEO of Co. Cork VEC and Chairperson of the National Steering Committee charged with directing the project, said that those involved in pioneering Instructional Intelligence in the classroom would be leading “a transformation in teaching and learning” in Ireland.  


Professor Barrie Bennett
Professor Bennett has emerged as one of the world’s leading proponents of Instructional Intelligence, having devoted much of his life to researching the ideas and principles that inform the theory as a whole.  Professor Bennett has written and lectured extensively on the theme of teacher thinking/learning/action focused on instructional practices - how teachers acquire an instructional repertoire, how they extend it, integrate it, and what effects this practice has on student learning (pre-school to adult). He is also interested in educational change and has argued that the success of Instructional Intelligence as a project depends on systemic change, involving all of the partners including the DES, principals/ school leaders and across the primary and post-primary sectors.   But aside from his undoubted academic prowess, the personality and character of Professor Bennett, together with his passionate commitment to the moral integrity of his ideas, have been central to the manner in which teachers have reacted so positively to Instructional Intelligence. 


What is Instructional Intelligence?
So what is meant by the term “Instructional Intelligence”?  In its literal sense, the notion relates to the extent to which teachers are “intelligent” about their instructional behaviour; or in other words, the manner in which teachers consciously or overtly modify their instructional actions so as to maximise the impact on student learning.  More broadly, the theory may be defined as the conscious and deliberate utilisation by the teacher of a range of interventions or teacher actions categorised as skills, tactics and strategies that impact positively on student learning in the classroom, based on extensive research into how students learn.  In addition, the theory fosters in teachers a greater awareness of how their actions can impact on critical factors or concepts that affect student learning, such as motivation, novelty, authenticity, safety and accountability. Furthermore, teachers who are instructionally intelligent are acquainted with the extent to which learning may be affected by a range of instructional organisers such as diverse learning styles, multiple intelligences, brain research, ethnicity, gender or “at risk” environments.

Collectively, the integration of these italicised categories may be defined as pedagogy.   While skills, tactics and strategies may be classified or defined as discrete groupings, the ability of the teacher to weave these processes together in a thoughtful manner so as to create a more powerful learning environment constitutes what Bennett characterises as the art of teaching.  In order to develop a greater appreciation of the potential of Instructional Intelligence, it may be useful to look at each of these categories in more detail.


Instructional Skills
Skills may be classified as those instructional actions that a teacher uses to enhance learning that are not, of themselves, complex or research-based, but serve to increase the chances that more complex instructional processes are successful.  Let us consider some examples. Asking questions is a skill that teachers engage in constantly.  Yet research indicates that many teachers do not frame questions effectively. As Bennett argues, by choosing a respondent from a group of students who raise their hands to answer a question, the teacher can only be sure that the student who responded knew the answer, and cannot be as sure about those who did not raise a hand.  A more effective approach is to ask students to think about a question before discussing it with a partner.  Such an approach involves every student, thus heightening accountability, while also enabling them to rehearse an answer, thus increasing safety. By choosing students randomly, having allowed them time to think, teachers can “check for understanding” (also a skill) more confidently. Other skills include allowing students appropriate wait-time as they formulate answers to questions, sharing the objective of lessons with class groups, and linking learning with students’ past experiences.


Instructional Tactics
Tactics are more powerful interventions than skills.  A tactic may be defined as an action used to enrich or strengthen the application of a strategy.  Examples of tactical interventions include the employment of “Think-Pair-Share” or “brainstorming”, but a particularly powerful tactic is the employment of a graphic or visual organizer to enable students to learn.  For example, the use of a Venn diagram might be thought of as traditionally the preserve of the Maths class.  Yet, as a means of helping students to understand the similarities and differences between Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini in a History lesson, it can be a very effective visual device.  Many different types of graphic organisers exist which can be applied to various subject areas and enable students to go beyond text or notes-based resources to learn effectively.


Instructional Strategies
Strategies represent the most powerful and complex teacher-led intervention in the classroom.  While skills drive tactics, skills and tactics together drive strategies.  Strategies are usually grounded in theory and research and involve a number of related steps.  Examples include co-operative learning/ groupwork, concept attainment and team teaching.  It is instructive to observe that while many teachers try to incorporate a form of groupwork into their lessons, Bennett observes that teachers should be aware that there is extensive research into the effectiveness of groupwork that suggests that the strategy can be counter-productive if applied wrongly.  He cites the work of brothers Roger and David Johnson of the University of Minnesota who have devoted many years to the theme of co-operative learning. 

Instructional Concepts
Bennet contends that tactics, skills and strategies constitute what teachers “do” in the classroom.  Concepts and organisers cannot be done, but by bearing them in mind and understanding their importance, teachers can do things to make them come alive.  Let us consider the notion of concepts first.  Concepts may be defined as “lenses” that enable teachers to understand how, when and where to apply and integrate skills, tactics and strategies.  For instance when teachers frame questions effectively (skill) and use tactics such as “Think-pair share”, they are invoking such concepts as student accountability and safety.  When teachers take time to relate the learning to students’ experiences (skill), they are helping to make the students’ learning more novel and authentic, as well as promoting student motivation. 


Instructional Organisers
Organisers are frameworks or bodies of research that assist teachers in organising an array of skills, tactics and strategies into a coherent set of teaching methods.  They are the lenses that clarify or enhance thought about how we instruct.  Organisers increase teacher wisdom about the teaching and learning process, based on the needs and inclinations of the learner.  For example, by appealing to students’ intelligences other than the traditional logical-mathematical and linguistic, teachers can devise tactics and strategies that can powerfully influence student learning.  Similarly, emerging research on the human brain and on diverse learning styles can also inform approaches to more effective instructional practices.


Why investigate Instructional Intelligence?
Therefore, it is the conscious and informed integration of these five areas that constitutes instructional intelligence.  Bennett argues that teachers need to move from being tacitly skilled in a limited number of instructional methods to being explicitly skilled in a higher number of instructional methods so as to increase learning and to facilitate teachers in differentiating their instruction to meet diverse students’ diverse needs. He cites David Perkins: “It is an everyday observation that often people do not develop robust intelligent behaviours in areas where they have a great deal of experience.  We do not automatically learn from experience, even extended experiences.  For instance, people play chess or bridge for years without ever getting better at it”.  Bennett characterises as a “tragic flaw” the notion that our deep knowledge and passion for our subject is all that we need to foster effective learning.   He refers to such a view as naïve and urges teachers to rethink their instructional repertoire in terms of how they engage students, arguing that there is an ethical imperative on teachers to do so. 


The future?
Professor Bennett has now commenced work with a second cohort of teachers who will, over the next two years, explore the ideas briefly outlined in this article and attempt to apply them in the classroom.  For the first time, those schools participating include some form outside the vocational sector.  As Bennett strongly maintains, the successful implementation of Instructional Intelligence in the classroom can only be realised by structured, systemic process of change, thus necessarily encompassing other partners in the education process in Ireland.  The vocational sector can be justifiably proud of its ole in spearheading this pioneering project. Not only has it responded to the need for provision of sustained and high quality Continuous Professional Development to the teaching community, but it has done so in the context of radical systemic change focused on how students learn.  The formulation of a Steering Committee under the astute guidance of Joan Russell, who has done so much to give vision and leadership to the project to date, will help in providing a framework to support the foundations laid by Professor Bennett to date. The opportunity to extend that vision and achieve systemic change must not be missed.  The mission of transforming teachers from a state of, to paraphrase Bennett, “accidental adequacy” to “conscious competency” is a worthy one.  The vocational sector is well placed to continue on this mission.

An edited version of this article was reproduced in the IVEA journal ‘IVEA News’ in Winter 2011.