I’ve never heard of anyone worrying that musicians were being turned into robots because they performed music written by a composer, or that actors were being turned into robots because they performed in a play authored by a dramatist.
In general, we celebrate these performances as great works of art. We buy into the logic of separating writers from performers, because it allows performers to focus on improving their artistry and it enables writers to preserve and share their work with audiences across space and time. We see musical compositions and theatrical scripts as valuable blueprints for beautifully designed works of art.
And yet, critics sometimes jump to the conclusion that using “scripted” or guided lessons written by someone else will destroy the art of teaching and turn teachers into robots. These critics see the guidance as a threat to teachers’ creativity and autonomy, rather than a platform that will enhance their delivery.
I, too, have thought this way. While I’ve willingly invested in piano lessons where I exclusively practiced music written by others, I’ve also rejected a job offer to teach at a school that used scripted instruction because I didn’t want to be treated like a robot. But after more than a decade of teaching middle schoolers, training teachers, and designing lessons for schools all over the world, I’ve changed my tune.
Today, I work for Bridge International Academies (Bridge), an organization that aims to help children in low- and middle-income countries access a high-quality early childhood and elementary education. Around the world, there are approximately 264 million children not in school, plus 330 million in school but not learning. Bridge is complementing the work of governments and others to help address this imbalance in the supply of quality education. We are an organization that uses detailed lesson guides. We give local African and Indian teachers a handheld e-reader device, and we train and support them to use the structured lessons. Our detailed lesson guides are being used by both Bridge and government teachers in places like Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and southeast India.
Here are three reasons why I’ve changed my tune about lesson design:
1. Guided instruction doesn’t sound or feel robotic.
When using a structured teacher guide, teachers’ individual personalities and styles still shine through. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the same is true when musicians perform music written by others and actors perform scripts written by others. That said, let’s take a walk through three very different Bridge classrooms, all of which leverage guided instruction, to get a better sense of what it sounds like.
Teacher Dan speaks with a soft and steady pace, a calm and comforting presence. When interacting with his students, he is patient, and you can feel the mutual respect between them at all times. Unlike other teachers who call on high performers to answer questions when checking for understanding, Teacher Dan calls on a different student every time. It’s clear that teaching isn’t about him; it’s about ensuring each and every child is learning.
Teacher Phoebe speaks with a loud, clear voice, offering a confident and commanding presence. She is unflappable and attentive to student engagement in an “all business, all the time” kind of way. When demonstrating a math problem on the blackboard, she teaches at a fast pace. Mid-sentence, upon noticing a student slouching, she whispers, “Sit tall, David,” and continues the rest of her sentence at full volume without missing a beat. It’s clear that, to Teacher Phoebe, learning is a serious endeavor to be undertaken by her students with nothing less than 110% effort at all times.
Teacher Stephen is joyfully urgent. He speaks with excitement interwoven with humor. When students are called on to answer questions, he expects them to speak clearly and with reciprocated energy. “Be audible, my friend!” he encourages. Throughout the lesson, students are abuzz with excitement, eager to ask him follow-up questions, eager to complete their work so he can check it. To Teacher Stephen, learning is an exciting adventure to be approached with wonder, awe, and authentic curiosity.
In the same way that I’ve never left a concert and thought, “Well, that sounded disappointingly robotic—they followed the score,” I’ve never left a Bridge classroom with the impression that leveraging a teacher guide had somehow undermined the teacher or made the lesson poorer. On the contrary, I’ve grown to believe that teacher guides are a way to enhance teachers’ ability to be their best, authentic selves and dedicate themselves to the children in their class.
2. Guided instruction doesn’t destroy autonomy, squash creativity, or lower the ceiling for high-performing teachers.
Although guided instruction does distinguish between the lesson designer and the teacher (in the same way we distinguish between songwriter and singer), the distinction between the roles doesn’t imply that one is all-powerful over the other!
At Bridge, we deliberately design our lessons to leverage the expertise of both roles. We rely on instructional designers to carefully craft math problem sets and sequences of reading comprehension questions, taking into consideration what the latest research says about the most effective pedagogical approaches. We rely on our teachers to take the lead on checking and responding to how each and every student is performing, taking into consideration each child’s strengths, areas of growth, and potential.
How does this translate to the nuts and bolts of a typical 40 minute lesson? Each lesson is 50 percent classical symphony, 50 percent jazz improvisation. Minute by minute, that’s:
• I do – (teacher demonstration, 10 minutes)
• We do – (guided practice, 10 minutes)
• You do – (independent student practice, 20 minutes)
Devoting 50% of instructional time toward students practicing independently sets up our teachers to be autonomous, thoughtful, and creative as they move around the room to provide one-on-one feedback, responding to the individual needs of each student as they practice. During this time, teachers actively decide who to check in with and how much time to spend with each child as the teacher works to address misconceptions, offer extension questions to further challenge students, and answer students’ follow-up questions. That is why we call lesson plans teacher guides rather than scripts: we are sharing best practices and enabling rather than confining teacher behaviours.
Often, critics then wonder: How can you raise the floor for lower-performing teachers without lowering the ceiling for higher-performing teachers? The answer lies in the combination of simple instruction and the jazz-like nature of independent student practice time. Let’s take another walk through Bridge classrooms to see how this plays out.
All teachers receive a simple instruction to “Check, Respond, Leave” using the provided answer key. This instruction is a reminder to all teachers—low- or high-performing—that their goal for the next 20 minutes is to give one-on-one feedback to as many students as possible. The answer key equips teachers with the correct answers.
Our goal is to raise the floor for lower-performing teachers by ensuring they don’t just stand there and wait for students to complete their work. Instead, this instruction prompts them to actively walk around and, while students are working, check specific answers for correctness. They can then give students simplest form of feedback by saying, “#3 is correct, good effort,” or “#2 is incorrect, try this one again.” Is this the most effective possible feedback? No. But is it better than no feedback? Yes. Is it a strong foundational practice to build upon? Yes. That’s how we raise the floor.
This same, simple instruction to “Check, Respond, Leave” is specific enough to prompt all teachers into action without constraining our highest-performing teachers who can then leverage this time to employ a range of different strategies to provide feedback. I’ve seen Teacher Phoebe respond to partially correct answers using more nuanced specific prompts. I’ve seen Teacher Dan re-teach the same math objective to a small group of struggling students, quietly peppering them with questions to check for understanding after each step in the method. I’ve seen Teacher Stephen provide high-performing students with additional, more challenging questions. There is no ceiling on the many ways a teacher can improvise in order to tailor their feedback to the specific needs of their students.
I’ve never left a Bridge classroom with the impression that leveraging a teacher guide had threatened a teacher’s autonomy, creativity, or constrained a high performer. On the contrary, I’ve grown to believe that teacher guides are a way to leverage teachers’ judgment about how to respond to the unique needs of each student in a way that raises the floor for low-performing teachers by setting a simple and clear minimum expectation while keeping the ceiling wide open for higher-performing teachers by giving them plenty of time to employ a wide array of tactics to enhance the learning of their students.
3. There’s a growing body of research supporting the effectiveness of guided instruction.
Stories alone shouldn’t convince us of the effectiveness of preprepared instruction, so it’s important to also look at the data behind what the stories tells us. Here at Bridge, we are reaping the benefits of this teaching support model, as our pupils have excelled their peers in government exams in Kenya and Uganda and in independent tests in Liberia. Beyond Bridge, there is an ever-growing evidence base suggesting that teacher guides are an effective tool in helping pupils to learn more. We are also eager to participate in the emerging, more nuanced discussion about how the structure, specificity, and length of teacher guides influence their impact.
So, what is happening in schools across Sub-Saharan Africa when detailed teacher guides are not used? One of the most recent and thorough studies, which was conducted by Tessa Bold and colleagues, concluded:
The main finding of this paper is that teachers in Sub-Saharan Africa perform poorly in several, likely complementary, dimensions. They teach too little, and they lack the necessary skills and knowledge to teach effectively when they actually teach. If “adequate” teaching is characterized as being taught by teachers with at least basic pedagogical knowledge and minimum subject knowledge in language and mathematics for the full scheduled teaching day, then essentially no public primary school students in these countries offer adequate quality education.
Overall, in the last ten years, these stories and the numbers behind them have convinced me that detailed lesson guides are an effective way to approach instructional design and an empowering way to support teachers. After all, a beautifully designed lesson is a work of art —making guided instruction not a threat to our craft but instead a way to honor it, preserve it, and share best practices across time and space.
— Sara Merlo
Sara Merlo is the instructional design quality director at Bridge International Academies. She oversees instructional design teams across Africa and India. Prior to working for Bridge, Merlo was a teacher and curriculum specialist in Democratic Republic of Congo and Belgium. The Bridge International Academies run hundreds of high quality elementary schools across Africa and India using local teachers.