Meeting Needs: Effective Use of First Principles of Instruction

Now, please pay attention. This is important. For schools to be successful in providing current and future students with the right support to rise to the level of expectations embodied by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS 2010), school librarians must lead the way to improving school environments using effective, theory-based design of problem-based instruction that includes acquisition of content knowledge and information literacy skills (Dow 2013). What is effective design of problem-based instruction? What does integration of instructional components in problem-centered instruction look like when school librarians and classroom teachers work together?


There are “first principles of instruction” (See Table 1) that can be found in some form in almost all instructional design theories and models, and a four-phase cycle of instruction related to the principles: “activation, demonstration, application, and integration” (Merrill 2007, 63). According to Merrill, “effective instruction involves all four of these activities repeated as required for different problems or whole tasks” (2007, 63). Merrill’s research reveals that many instructional products completed by students fail to provide practice beyond “remember-what-you-were told-questions” and “rarely are focused on real-world problems” (2007, 69). When traditional forms of instruction are standard educational practice, school librarians can make change come about by providing classroom teachers direct support and students direct instruction that will enable schools to move away from ineffective practices.

TABLE 1. First Principles of Instruction.
1. Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems. 
2. Learning is promoted when existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge. 
3. Learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner. 
4. Learning is promoted when new knowledge is applied by the learner. 
5. Learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world (Merrill 2007, 63). 


“Problem-centered” instruction involves authentic, real-world problems and tasks (Merrill 2007, 64). When teaching a range of content complexity levels within upper elementary through high school life science, an authentic task should revolve around a common problem.

Example 1. Grass does not grow well, or sometimes not at all, under tree limbs. Does the practice of trimming trees up from the bottom, allowing sunlight to reach the ground, improve tree, grass, and/or other plant growth? This problem is authentic because it is relevant to the teenager whose summer job is mowing lawns and trimming trees.

This problem as the center-piece for teaching experimental design and control variable experiments can be stated as a hypothesis in scientific question form: “If grass seed, temperature, soil type, and water availability are the same, will grass that has dense shade, medium sunlight, or bright sunlight grow the best?” The research design will require specific mathematical calculations. Along with content teachers, the school librarians can assist students in determining appropriate search terms and selecting publications related to the scientific principle and the subject area: biotic and abiotic factors, energy flow, regional biomes and habitats, and regional grasses.

Example 2. In the curriculum area of history and government, an authentic problem appropriate (with varying complexity levels) for upper elementary through high school students might be the young person’s observed divide among Washington D. C. lawmakers. Students could compare and contrast the present Tea Party Movement and the historic Boston Tea Party Movement of 1773. This problem is authentic because it is relevant to listening and understanding today’s news broadcasts. It is also relevant to future participation in the election of legislative officials either as a voter or as a holder of public office.

The task might be for students to conduct research, hold a debate. and publish conclusions relative to anti-government, anti-spending, anti-immigration, and/or anti-compromise politics, both past and present. Along with content teachers, school librarians can assist students in learning about the problem through direct instruction of components of the problem expressed in appropriate search terms.

The school librarian’s role in direct instruction includes locating and retrieving appropriate information about the problem that can be used by the classroom teacher to extend and expand the textbook content of the course. It also involves instructing students to access significant content, evaluate information, and make reference to published sources in the student’s project. The classroom teacher, as a content expert, shows students the whole task as it is to be completed, and how students will solve the problem as a result of the instructional activities.

School Librarian Role. In both these examples of problem-centered instruction, the school librarian uses the instructional opportunity to teach students through direct instruction and/or use of electronic research guides located on the library’s website about the topic or problem focus. School librarians instruct students to: 1) access and select significant primary and secondary sources of authority; 2) quote and/or appropriately paraphrase and reference published sources using the required writing style guides; and, 3) use computer software to create a completed product that communicates new knowledge.

Classroom Teacher Role. It is the role of the content teacher to serve as the subject and related curriculum expert. The content teacher and school librarian join together to ensure timely completion of assignments, as well as accuracy and quality in students’ work.


School librarian’s involvement in planning theory-based, authentic, problem-centered instruction moves traditional teaching from the typical, student-dreaded, read-and-report assignments to effective design of instruction that enables students to reach out for meaning and learn how to learn. Authentic, problem-centered instruction moves awareness of job-specific responsibilities to focused education on thinking processes.

Effective design of instruction takes students beyond the limits of the course textbook to incorporating current information and ideas found in publications available in electronic reference books, databases, and websites. Instruction that incorporates clear (to the learner) and complete procedures for information retrieval, evaluation, and use shows the student what to do and helps them practice in small steps the parts of the process in the context of the overall task. With the school librarian’s participation in instruction, students learn to evaluate information found in selected sources on the basis of accuracy, validity, importance, and content. Clear instruction shows the student the whole task to be done or the whole problem to be solved as a result of completing the task. The process that is learned can be replicated by the student in many subject areas and with different problems and tasks. Merrill encourages educators to briefly describe each of the four phases of instruction, “activation, demonstration, application, and integration,” and to provide examples of learning tasks relevant to each principle (2007, 63). Building on the examples given of authentic, problem-centered tasks and the advice of Merrill, consider the following examples of learning tasks for each phase of instruction in a school librarian and classroom teacher partnership.


To effectively get students started with authentic, problem-centered learning, the instruction must build on prior knowledge, be relevant to the student’s life so that the student is motivated and confident enough to “jump in.” It should be outlined in an organizational structure for gaining and demonstrating new knowledge that causes the student to say, “I see what I will do.” Instruction can begin with the student’s experiential knowledge of a summer job or a current topic in the news and the student’s prior learning of content knowledge in general studies areas.


Students must see what to do rather than to simply be told what to do. Contrary to popular opinion, showing students good examples is not cheating. Providing students with good examples of completed science reports and projects or other content area artifacts such as photographs from student debates, electronic copies of past student presentations, and/or posters, reports, or inventions is essential and the only way to show students what they should learn to do. (Obtaining permission from students to share completed work with future students is another way to reward and respect quality and relevance.) Students can observe what teachers expect in completed work through definition of concepts with examples, providing a sequence of actions and decisions, providing visual models of how something works, and/or example statements of cause and effect.

Instead of simply telling students to use the library, it is exemplary practice to direct students to relevant information through a guided tour of an appropriate electronic database and by creating research guides and/or pathfinders that get students to the most relevant content necessary for the project. Animation, video, illustrations, speeches, and pictures can be incorporated, rather than just using information in the form of words or onscreen text.


Throughout the course of completing an assignment, students must have many opportunities to apply and practice new knowledge and skills. This requires classroom teachers and librarians to give feedback that causes students to continue to move forward with what they are doing well, or corrective feedback that points out what must be improved and how to do so. The application phase is critical to student learning and achievement of standards. Further, the application phase is a very good time for librarians and classroom teachers to develop positive collaborative relationships with students.


Learning is best with transfer of new knowledge or skills into daily lives. A young person who mows lawns may discover through a problem-centered assignment a special interest in life science that will inform a career in professional lawn care and landscaping, park services, pasture management, or horticulture. Through authentic, problem-centered instruction, young people who before dreaded the study of American History or U. S. government, might discover relevance to a dream of holding public office, providing leadership in a political party, becoming a community organizer, biographer, lawyer, or judge. Opportunities to publicly demonstrate new knowledge or to follow through a completed project by creating or inventing new ways to acquire and apply scientific findings or to model and scale a solution to a problem makes classroom learning “come to life.”


There is no turning back. So, please share this with the teachers in your building and the curriculum leaders in your district. Lead a discussion that focuses student learning through the prism of the library and the specialized expertise of the school librarian. School libraries and professional librarians really matter!

Further Reading

Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS). 2010. (accessed January 13, 2013).; Dow, M. J. School Libraries Matter: Views from the Research. Libraries Unlimited, 2013.; Merrill, M. D. "First Principles of Instruction: a Synthesis." In Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology. 2nd ed. by R.A. Reiser and J. V. Dempsey. Pearson Education, 2007.

Mirah J. Dow

MLA Citation Dow, Mirah J. "Meeting Needs: Effective Use of First Principles of Instruction." School Library Monthly, 29, no. 8, May 2013. School Library Connection,

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Entry ID: 1967396

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