Re-thinking instructional power

By Dr Barrie Bennett

This article first appeared in the January 2017 edition of Western Teacher.

Adlerians argue that one of the key needs in life is the need for power, to have control over one’s life.

For example, if you understand how to calculate a common denominator, then you have control or power over the addition and subtraction of fractions.

That need for power (aka skills and disposition to solve problems) is also important for teachers in the classroom. So the focus of this article is on power as it relates to instruction.

That said, I’ll start by stepping back and away from instruction. Let’s say you had to beat two eggs and a bit of milk together to make the batter for French toast, and someone asked you to identify the most powerful tool for mixing the batter: a fork, a hand whisk, or an electric mix-master. What would you say?

Of course multiple issues come into play, one being time, another being cleaning up. When we think more carefully about the options, we realise that power is not always what it seems.

One tool may indeed be more powerful but be simultaneously less efficient. Personally, I’d take the fork; easy to find and easy to clean and I’d be done before someone had even set-up the mix-master.

Of course if I had to mix four cups of flour and a half-pound of butter and a cup of sugar, I’d use the electric mix-master.

That analogy holds for a lot of tools. Take for example taking wood off a plank. If I wanted to take a lot of wood quickly off a big plank of rough-cut lumber, should I use sandpaper, a wood rasp, a hand plane, a power planer or a table saw?

Well, the power planer and table saw clearly have the most power. That said, if the question changes to taking off enough wood for a fine smooth finish on an antique table then sandpaper has the most power.

Clearly the idea of power shifts as the problem shifts.

So now, if we return to instruction and ask, “Which instructional method has the most power?” we end up in a similar but more complex situation.

In education, power is known as effect size, the idea of how much of a difference a specific approach or method has on student learning.

John Hattie’s (2009, 2012) research in his texts Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Student Achievement and Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, provide a most useful and insightful synthesis of the power of different methods to impact student learning.

I highly encourage you to read those texts. That said, that research also has a wee tragic flaw.

The flaw emerges when Hattie argues that teachers avoid those methods with lower power (see Hattie, 2009, page 20, top of page) and use the methods with the most power.

That statement has a logic, and in one sense Hattie is definitely right; however, in another sense his statement needs a slight re-think.

The flaw goes back to the idea of which tool has the most power. If I want to blend one egg and a bit of milk for batter, I’d take the fork.

If I wanted to take a bit of wood off a plank, I’d use sandpaper. The situation determines the power not the tool.

The electric mixer and the table saw are definitely more powerful in one situation; but less powerful in another.

For example, if we take three instructional methods: wait time in questioning (researched at Deakon’s University by Tobin back in the early 1980s), Think Pair Share (developed by Lyman back in the 1980s) and Concept Mapping (developed by Joseph Novak also back in the 1980s) and asked which one is more powerful, then as educators, we end up having to ask “What is the problem we are trying to solve?”

If we want to have students summarise their thinking at the end of a unit of inquiry and to push their thinking at virtually all levels of Bloom’s taxonomy then use Concept Mapping.

In terms of power, think of Concept Maps as akin to a table saw or electric mixer. (Note that Hattie discusses the power of Concept Maps, and Concept Maps have high power.)

That said, if we want students to feel safe when responding to questions in the classroom then I am going to select the instructional skill known as wait

time (the time to think privately before sharing publicly).

I would then integrate that time to think into a Think Pair Share, to have students discuss with a partner before they are randomly asked to share publicly (eg “Michael, what were you and Jan thinking?”).

That way, when the teacher selects Michael, and he gets the answer wrong Michael does not “die” alone, Jan “dies” with him.

In that situation, wait time and Think Pair Share (which have lower effect sizes [lower power] for academic achievement) are in fact more powerful than Concept Maps related to invoking safety.

The problem determines both the tool and the power.

Ditto with increasing talk time and accountability. Think Pair Share is more powerful than Concept Mapping, unless the teacher is integrating wait time and Think Pair Share into having students discuss key ideas from their Concept Map.

But now the teacher is simultaneously integrating multiple instructional methods. Of course, real power emerges when teachers integrate multiple methods or stack one method on top of another.

Logic and experience informs us that the teaching and learning process is too complex to think that one method applied in isolation will solve the problem. Students are more complex than a piece of wood or a mixture of milk and eggs.

So where does a teacher start? If you have the Graphic Intelligence book (available at and you look at the pictures on page 206 you will see a grade one student (not the teacher) at Rostrata Primary School in Western Australia teaching a kindergarten student how to do a Venn diagram.

Next year that kindergarten student will be in grade one and, well you get the idea. Start at the very beginning, it is a very good place to start.

To take the idea of practice a bit further and to finish this article, if you go to page 429 of that same text, you will see a grade four student who integrated a Word Web, two Venn diagrams, a Fishbone diagram, a Concept Attainment data set (on renewable and non-renewable resources) and several cross sectional diagrams into a Mind Map to summarise a unit of study prior to writing a unit quiz.

When I asked this student’s teacher how many times her students had done Venn diagrams, she stated about 40 that year, but about 70 since kindergarten.

In her school, the teachers plan when and how they implement their instructional methods so that each year the students become more skilled and more powerful.

So instructional power is important. But it must be situated alongside the problem, the needs of students (such as safety and success and interest) and of course, a lot of practice over time.

Sources: Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge. Hattie, J. (2009). A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.

Dr Barrie Bennett is an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He is an expert in the fields of teacher learning, instructional intelligence, and pedagogy.