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Best, First Instruction

Best, First Instruction (BFI) aims to give all students the best opportunity to learn standards-based, grade-level content and skills the first time they receive instruction. BFI can be understood as a framework combining culturally responsive teaching, practice-based teacher learning, and the implementation of high-quality academic standards and curriculum. Together, BFI should:

  • Build Relationships: BFI should deepen student agency through caring, positive, and authentic connections with peers and adults.
  • Meet the Needs of All Students: BFI should include accessible, equitable, and flexible instruction to meet the changing needs of diverse student populations.
  • Create Relevancy: BFI should engage students in authentic, meaningful, real-world, and engaging work.
  • Foster Disciplinary Literacy: BFI should position students to work, think, talk, and plan as experts in the content would.   

Culturally Responsive Teaching

Teaching is complex, but its most fundamental elements are content, instruction, and students. Students need a welcoming, stimulating, and relatable learning environment to maximize their chances for success. For this reason, BFI requires culturally responsive teaching (CRT) as a necessary starting point.

CRT has grown in breadth and depth in the several decades since it was first formulated. Over two decades ago, Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) described it as a form of teaching that calls for engaging learners whose experiences and cultures are traditionally excluded from mainstream settings. Geneva Gay has since refined CRT to be "using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them" (2018, p. 36) This includes instructional techniques, instructional materials, student-teacher relationships, classroom climate, and self-awareness to improve learning for students. Other scholars have helped connect CRT with other ideas, such as Hammond's (2014) work to connect CRT to neuroscience and Paris's (2012) arguments that the work of teaching should not just be culturally responsive, but to sustain cultural pluralism and cultural equality.

Collectively, these scholars promote asset-based approaches as alternatives to popular deficit-oriented teaching methods, which position the languages, cultures, and identities of students as barriers to learning. While these pedagogies are not identical, they share a common goal: defy the deficit model and ensure students see themselves and their communities reflected and valued in the content taught in school.

Practice-Based Teacher Learning

Many researchers and teacher educators have attempted to describe good teaching as a collection of practices and/or strategies. Some of these collections of practices apply to teachers of any content area, while others are content-specific. One example of such teaching practices is the list of "high-leverage practices" from the TeachingWorks project at the University of Michigan. For the most part, no one list of practices is necessarily better than any other. What's more important is how teachers use practices. This includes how practices inform lesson planning and execution, how teachers get feedback about and reflect on what works in their teaching, and how teachers improve their teaching over time.

Prior teacher education reforms have focused on teacher competencies, which was popular in the 1960s and 1970s, and teachers' specialized knowledge (Shulman, 1986), which came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. These were positive advancements for their time but were often too divorced or isolated from the actual act of teaching. Most preservice teacher education programs were organized around where prospective teachers were placed, and less about what they were doing in those placements. With a practice-based approach, there is a very deliberate focus on specific practices of teaching and opportunities to study and practice each one. These opportunities might include reviewing videos of teaching, simulated classrooms in front of peers, teaching in laboratory environments, or in K-12 classrooms with coaches or other observers (Forzani, 2014). By shifting closer to practice, the learning captures more of the complexity of teaching:

Practice in complex domains, from a sociocultural perspective, involves the orchestration of understanding, skill, relationship, and identity to accomplish particular activities with others in specific environments. Cultivating practice during professional education thus requires attending to all of these elements. Core practices in teaching are identifiable components (fundamental to teaching and grounded in disciplinary goals) that teachers enact to support learning. Core practices consist of strategies, routines, and moves that can be unpacked and learned by teachers. They are distinct from other efforts to focus on teaching competencies in that core practices are deeply connected to the goals of disciplinary learning and are not simply a checklist of competencies or techniques divorced from principles and theory. (Grossman, 2018, p. 4)

In CDE's professional development sessions that may only last an hour or two, or even a day, it is difficult to experience practice-based teacher learning. A better example of practice-based teacher learning was used for the CDE's 2018 Best, First Instruction Institute. Teachers attending the institute spent three days together in the summer exploring teaching practices and the institute concluded with teachers performing lessons in front of each other in order to "rehearse" the use of practices for the purpose of gathering critical feedback. Then, for the following school year, attendees met monthly to dive deeply into the practices, apply them to their teaching, share how they worked in classrooms, and get peer and expert feedback. This approach—continued engagement with practices and critical feedback opportunities over time—represents the hard work of BFI that needs to be sustained after the PD session ends.

Foundational Readings in Practice-Based Teacher Education

Academic Standards, Content, and Curriculum

The final piece of BFI involves the knowledge and skills we want students to learn. For most content areas, these goals are described by the Colorado Academic Standards. Putting the goals into action involves the creation, selection, and use of curriculum, the organized plan of instruction, and the associated materials such as textbooks, software, and other curriculum materials. "Learning the standards" is a misguided phrase that falsely implies that the outcome we want for students is that they know lists of facts or merely to accumulate skills. What's more accurate is that standards and curriculum should serve to guide students' development of disciplinary literacy.

Disciplinary literacy is the intersection of content knowledge, experiences, and skills necessary to demonstrate understanding through the ability to read, write, communicate, and think critically using approaches unique to a specific discipline. Shanahan and Shanahan (2012) contend that disciplinary literacy emphasizes the knowledge and abilities possessed by those who create, communicate, and use knowledge within the disciplines. It honors the thinking within disciplines of study and invited students to engage in the academic discipline while developing a voice as a member of that community.

What does it mean to read, write, think, and communicate like a scientist? What about as a historian, writer, musician, artist, engineer, or mathematician? In today's diverse and global world, these are questions teachers and their students should be considering. Doing so supports students' literacy, learning, and ability to more readily engage in the disciplines they study (Moie, 2008). These considerations also serve to develop teachers' instruction so they can apprentice students to negotiate and create texts in discipline-specific ways (Brozo, Moorman, Meyer, & Stewart, 2013). For example, students will read and write narratives, poetry, and speeches within an English classroom, be expected to read and perform musical scores in their orchestra classroom, read and write about scientifically based phenomena in their science classroom, and understand and generate art in their art class.

Disciplinary literacy requires students to read and write in specialized ways for specialized purposes determined by the discipline (Moie, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). Each discipline requires students to employ particular knowledge, tools, and abilities to communicate, create, and use information within that discipline (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012). Teachers must apprentice students through scaffolded instruction and guided practice, helping students "develop the capacity to read disciplinary-specific texts through an insider perspective" (Buehl, 2017, p. 9).

Foundational Readings in Disciplinary Literacy


Best, First Instruction Questions and Answers

Q1: Why "First?" If BFI represents best instruction, shouldn't teachers apply it all the time? Is there a Best, Second Instruction?

A1: By "First," we're positioning this within the realm of "universal" or "Tier 1" instruction like it is described in Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS) and Response to Intervention (RTI). Although cultural responsiveness, practice-based teaching, and quality content are just as important in Tier 1 instruction as they are everywhere else, BFI is distinguished by its focus on the experience of all students the first time they receive instruction on a topic, and the amount of energy and attention teachers need to devote to crafting these experiences. In short, the BFI framework seeks to avoid the trap where time spent on reteaching and interventions takes away from time needed for best teaching the first time, which may result in an ever-greater need for more reteaching and interventions.

Q2: Is differentiation a priority in BFI?

A2: It's better to prioritize Universal Design for Learning (UDL). One key difference between UDL and differentiation is that UDL is meant to proactively evaluate instructional and environmental needs prior to learning, while differentiation reactively retrofits and modifies instruction and the learning environment after an attempt at learning. Differentiation is responsive to individual student needs, but UDL seeks to guide the design of learning environments that account for predictable, systematic variability across a classroom of learners. There is overlap—both UDL and differentiation are strategies that seek to meet students' needs and provide multiple ways to develop and express knowledge and skills—but UDL is the more appropriate tool for planning and enacting BFI.

Q3: Does "all students" really mean all students? Is BFI compatible with tracking and ability grouping?

A3: All means all, and it is unlikely that teachers will really be giving their best, first instruction if they are segregating students by ability. Traditionally, tracking and ability grouping exposes different students in a grade level to different content, different teaching practices, and different sets of expectations. While meeting the needs of all students is a goal of BFI, the practices of tracking and ability grouping too often disadvantage students based on race and other demographic factors and lead to inequitable outcomes. A masterful teacher performing their best, first instruction is the teacher who can successfully advance the learning of all students, regardless of ability, together in a lesson as one group, and not a teacher who depends on predetermining which students are "fast" or "slow" or "high" or "low" and dividing them accordingly before deciding what and how to teach each group.