First Principles of Instruction

As an educator, I see so many theories or frameworks or models of advocated by school leaders, scholars, vendors, philanthropists, and others. I share the frustration of those educators who wish their endless series of “innovative” (an adjective used by the advocates) practice would end, and we would decide what we should do and just do it. From some, the frustration is grounded in the divergent pedagogies implicit in different models; this is particularly frustrating when the same individual advocates for divergent practices and is oblivious to the differences–even then they are pointed out. For others, the frustration is grounded in the work of determining exactly what he or she should do to conform to new expectation that the model be implemented in the classroom.

At different times, these frustrations have affected me and my classroom. Increasingly, however, I am frustrated by our collective need to follow a model, but our collective inability to understand the characteristics of good teaching and learning. This leads us to expend teaching and planning energy labeling our practices.

As I look at the wide range of practices described in (for example) the Cambridge Handbook of Learning Sciences (ISBN: 9781107626577), I see common themes. The advocates for the different models use a similar rationale to argue for the inclusion of their preferred model in classrooms.

Occasionally, I decided that I should review those and compile a list of characteristics; this will be my own version of a meta-synthesis of these models. Of course, such a metasynthesis is unnecessary. In 2002, Merrill completed the review I have long-delayed and he identified the first principles of instruction. These seem to apply equally well now in 2018:

  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, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational technology research and development50(3), 43-59.