A Balanced Approach

Common sense should tell us that there is rarely one way of doing things that works for all learners, yet the “reading wars” between phonics instruction and whole language are not a distant memory. We also know that education is cyclical, with broad pendulum swings from one “extreme” to another. The voices of reason have written about the necessity of a balanced approach to literacy, and I whole-heartedly agree with this “best practices” direction toward casting a wider net. This “balanced approach” needs to take into account the diversity of learners in today’s classrooms, the need for brain-compatible teaching, and meld “best practices” with the findings of science-learning research.

Much has been written about multiple intelligences, learning channels, multi-modal learning . . . and more recently, differentiated instruction and Response To Intervention. The philosophy behind these concepts is one of providing a “wide net” of instructional methods and strategies for the diversity of learners in our classrooms today. As Marie Clay stated in the Foreward to Teaching Struggling Readers – How to Use Brain-based Research to Maximize Learning Effective (Lyons, 2003),  . . . effective individual instruction of children with diverse needs can never stem from “a set of instructions for everyone to follow”.

Consider that only 25% of all learners are primary auditory channel learners, that 85% of what we learn is by association, that visual imagery is very powerful, and that the cerebellum (a part of the brain that is very important for attention & learning) operates at high capacity during movement. Also consider, from the work of Edgar Dale (1969), of what we know we learn approximately 80% through sight. When we give this information some thought, it isn’t difficult to understand the need to shift teaching to include more visual and movement (kinesthetic) instructional strategies . . . strategies that will facilitate attention, focus, and memory.

A number of years ago, a sage colleague stated that educators need to have a collection of sense-making activities & brain-compatible strategies available in their classrooms in order to meet the needs of diverse learners. The ability to deftly “plug in” a differentiating strategy relies on intuitive observations . . . what I refer to as the “noticing” in another article on this site (It’s All in the Noticing). It is common knowledge that one of the most powerful factors in a student’s success in school is their relationship with their teacher. When a teacher “notices” the elements of connection the student is making  vs. how many math problems they missed or which words they misread or how many times they have been out of their seat, there is an “uptick” of motivation and more of the capability of that student emerges. An ancient Suphi scholar once said that “when the teacher is ready, the student appears”. Conversely, it has also been said that “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.” When we think about education, we should remember that we don’t take a year of Algebra from Mr. Jones . . . we take a year of Mr. Jones teaching about Algebra (from Spirit Whisperers by Chick Moorman, 2001).

Common sense should also tell us that the “evidence” used to make decisions about when and how to differentiate instruction needs to come from more than standardized test scores, in spite of the “line in the sand” belief by our federal & state governments that true student achievement can be measured with a “one size fits all” instrument. Educators need to be able to use evidence-based data that comes from dynamic assessments because one size never fits all.  As Louis Rossetti, a sage of early childhood practices once said, “One size fits all is devoid of common sense.” I agree with Rossetti and propose that his statement is not true of just infants & toddlers.

Anyone who has attended an in-service, seminar, convention presentation, training or graduate class I have taught has heard the plea for educators to raise their voices about being able to “prove” student achievement with growth in skills + standardized assessments, and not just the latter. How fair is it to the student and the teacher to say that a student has not made sufficient gains in their achievement just because they have not reached the “standard” even though they may have made more growth in their skills than classmates who did reach the standard?

We need more balance in what can be used as “proof” of growth in student achievement, and in the instructional methods used to generate & facilitate growth in learning. There may not be many “easy” answers to the dilemma of measuring improvement in student skills. Perhaps we aren’t asking the right questions loudly enough relative to the constraints on true student achievement that “one size fits all” testing brings.


Dale, E. 1969. Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching, 3rd Edition.  Austin TX: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Lyon, C. A. 2003. Teaching Struggling Readers – How to use Brain-based Research to Maximize Learning. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann.

Moorman, C. 2001. Spirit Whisperers – Teachers Who Nourish a Child’s Spirit. Merrill MI: Personal Power Press.

© 2010  Dave Krupke  All Rights Reserved