The Shifting Paradigm

Issues with the legacy instructional model in K-12 education

GUEST COLUMN | by Charles H. Heinle

The typical instructional sequence beyond the early grades (K-3) of teacher-led core classes consists of explanation/lecture/discussion > practice > test, with reading and assignments provided in a textbook outside of class. Typically, there is little provision in such instruction designed to assess incremental learning along the way to identify the basis for re-teaching to address gaps in student knowledge as each new concept is introduced and “taught” but not necessarily well-understood. Knowledge gaps not addressed accumulate, and students may fall behind and never develop more than a superficial understanding of the material.

To be most effective, instruction should be self-paced, stepwise, and customized for individual students to achieve mastery. For beginners, listening to explanations or lectures and/or reading may be too passive and may not result in learning in-depth. Lectures and reading a chapter in the textbook may not provide the degree of interaction with new content and the level of engagement for “active cognitive processing” to occur that generates learning. Active cognitive processing is critical for learning to occur.

Students are not passive recipients of information but are active sense makers of new information. They engage in active cognitive processing during learning, including attending to relevant information, mentally organizing it into a coherent structure, and integrating it with what they already know. Exposure to new (unfamiliar) content requires mental manipulation, comprehension checks, analysis of critical features; stepwise, incremental interactive instruction with immediate feedback and alternative explanations when understanding has not occurred. Effective instruction must also include abundant guided and independent practice to anchor concepts and skills in long term memory and to develop procedural fluency. Online interactive instruction and enhanced eTextbooks can provide or contribute to an instructional environment that supports the active cognitive processing required for learning to occur.

For many subjects in the core, and for most beginning students, the most effective teaching model is direct, explicit, instruction. Such instruction is typically scaffolded, increasingly with technology as the enabler: Expert Model > Guided Instruction w/ immediate explanatory feedback > Independent problem solving and practice, with coordinated animations, visuals and graphics to better represent directly concepts and principles of the content.

New Solutions: Evolution of the eLearning/Content Delivery Eco-System

At the present time, there seem to be two separate tracks in the development of eLearning solutions: (1) the eTextbook, initiated by traditional publishers in response to the changing market, and (2) online interactive learning, initiated by some educational publishers and dedicated online eLearning companies, who see instructional, accessibility, and cost/price advantages.


Original eBooks were largely “static” print books in electronic form delivered on e-readers, with subsequent enhancements like word specific clickable access to dictionaries, highlighting, text-to-speech audio support, and note-taking and sharing functionality. With the publication of Apple’s iBooks Author and other tools (Kno’s iOS app, Textbooks for the iPad, Inkling interactive books) functionality was further enhanced with embedded video, interactive 3-D objects, hyperlinks to related resources, support for downloading and reading PDFs from the web and the like. Functionality is designed to enhance the reading experience, support study skills, and to provide interactivity to promote learning. The appearance of tablet computers has allowed publishers and eLearning providers to go beyond the capabilities of standard eReaders, facilitating a transition from static digital renditions of print editions to lively, colorful, multimedia, interactive and commercially enabled objects.

Online Interactive Learning 

With online interactive learning (OIL), typically based on recognized instructional design models like ADDIE (Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate), instruction is web-based or delivered as an “app” and is typically fully multimedia and interactive. It is increasingly based on evidence-based principles of learning and cognitive science. Design is often based on fully guided instructional principles (a detailed scope and sequence of concepts to be taught, direct, explicit instruction, including extensive, monitored, guided and independent practice). The best online instruction now includes assessment and reporting, and adaptive, personalized, customized learning based on continuous student assessment.

Activities introduce, explain, check for understanding, practice, and apply each critical concept in the sequence and proceeds from modeling, to scaffolded guidance, to independent practice and application to new situations. All this is designed to develop understanding and skilled application or transfer. Everything the student needs to effectively learn a concept is explicitly provided; nothing is left to chance. And, at each step along the way, the student’s understanding is checked and verified, and appropriate practice is provided to anchor the concept in the student’s long term memory.

Differences between e-Textbooks and Online Interactive Learning

Because they are derived from print textbooks, standard e-textbooks have tended to be more “reading” oriented in their approach and include study aids functionality borrowed from the print textbook model like highlighting, note taking and what one can do to text to learn from it. In contrast, online interactive instruction is focused on a “learning” model that segments knowledge into a scope and sequence of concepts, principles, and skills and provides interactive stepwise instruction and rich media content for each key teaching point, including explanatory feedback and re-teaching as necessary. Such instruction does not assume that learning occurs primarily through reading connected text but rather through active engagement with concepts and principles and the “active cognitive processing” of content required by the instructional design.

The two time-honored teaching practices in education, Lectures and Reading, rank 6th and 7th out of seven ranked teaching practices with learning and retention rates of 5 percent and 10 percent respectively, whereas online interactive instruction incorporates the top two, Teach Others, through online social learning and peer-to-peer collaboration, and Practice by Doing, through interactive, scaffolded instruction, with rates of 90 percent and 75 percent each.

The Blended or Hybrid Model

More recently, there has been growing interest in, and support for, hybrid or “flipped instruction” In this model, teachers no longer just dispense information, they focus on supporting students as they understand, assimilate, integrate, and apply it. This model combines the best of F2F instruction, with its emphasis on interaction between instructor and students and online instruction, with its self-paced, systematic, multimedia, interactive coverage of basic concepts and principles of the discipline.

e-Learning Convergence

It seems likely that these two tracks for the development of eLearning solutions, eTextbooks and Online Interactive Learning, will converge and ultimately complement each other. As e-textbooks become more interactive and learning enabled, differences between the two solutions will be minimized if not disappear. Reading, as one of the primary pillars of learning, even more interactive reading, will give way to more stepwise, pedagogically driven, interactive instructional design. Traditional textbook development practices and the authoring process will evolve and new instructional design/development models will emerge.

Implications for the Future

So, will “bricks” be replaced by “clicks”? Or will “bricks and clicks”– F2F, teacher-led, and collaborative, online instruction — be combined to deliver the most cost-e effective, flexible, and effective instructional solution, a best of both worlds approach? While online or mobile instruction will replace print textbooks as the primary instructional tool in schools, the really interesting question is whether technology enabled instruction that is truly personalized and adapted to the needs of individual students will break the grade-based, lock step, industrial-age model currently in place and enable the transformation of schooling? Technology-based, adaptive instruction will allow students to proceed at their own pace and in their own way, and this opens up interesting possibilities in terms of customized, student-centered learning that can address the range of abilities, prior experiences, needs and interests of individual students.

There will likely be an intermediary transition from print to static/enhanced e-textbooks to interactive, multimedia instruction on tablets/laptops in the context of an increasingly hybrid model. The big three educational publishers expect it. HMH plans to offer educational materials across the digital spectrum. McGraw-Hill believes the enhanced e-book is but a stepping stone to the introduction of larger pedagogical shifts around personalized instruction and mobile learning. Pearson has been actively acquiring eLearning education companies in anticipation of the shifting paradigm.


Charlie Heinle is a former executive editor in educational publishing. For the past five years he’s been developing online/mobile courses. He is passionate about e-learning and new product development. Write to:

  • Joe Beckmann


    The “new paradigm” is neither as sequential nor as logical as this presentation: kids learn by experiencing questions they deem worthy of answers, and by manipulating data to achieve goals they think important. The entire hierarchies of “common core,” of “critical skills,” of “acquiring data” are simply gone if you watch a five year old play a game or a seven year old ask a question and then question the answer. Most surely technology effects these changes, but it is no longer the driver: the driver’s now the kid. Probably always was, but we had all sorts of tools to keep them at bay. Tech transfers those tools to the hands of innocents (or innocence, depending on your schtick).

    For just one example, tablet book reading accommodates comments, but most people – including kids – neither know that nor do it. Most look, read, and use rather than mark, memorize, and report. That is a huge change that Heinle’s OIL slides right by. (Incidentally, the true mark of a dated view of the world are alphabetical aphorisms like OIL. If the idea’s simple, skip the word-like over simplification; if it’s too complicated, it’s useless.)

    Heinle’s approach is to accommodate new technology with a nuanced vision only slightly skewed from the drill-and-practice of, say, 1840 or so. Phooey. That is all gone, and, eventually, teachers will realize that their goal is to keep up with kids, and coach rather than pour the wisdom of old into the brains of new. Meanwhile, Heinle’s clients, the publishers, will – rather sooner than they expect – discover their future is as bleak as a bookstore, and as dated as a quill. When kids can answer any question with a smartphone, your medium is no longer the massage it once was.

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