A Thought Piece by Adam Snell 16 March 2018

In a new series focussing on teaching methodology used by teachers across E-ACT, Adam Snell, Assistant Headteacher at The Crest Academy, discusses his use of direct instruction as his preferred teaching method.

Guided instruction, direct instruction, explicit instruction. The difference between the terms may only be in nuance. However, for a long time they were the three heads of Cerberus; the underworld they guarded the more “traditional” school of educational thought. For too long, the idea that our lessons should be teacher-led was considered wrong, a misdemeanour, a devilment.

Turning away from ‘chalk and talk’

The Civitas Report ‘Playing the Game’ showed that Ofsted had a clear inclination for child-centred methods and ‘jazzy’ lessons, replete with ‘group-work, role play and active learning’. Indeed, the teaching apple had fallen so far from the traditional educationalist tree that ‘the idea of putting on a chalk and talk lesson or learning from a textbook with an Ofsted inspector in the room has become inconceivable within the teaching profession. (Peel, 2014, p12).

It’s not entirely clear what was the chicken and what was the egg in this scenario. Was Ofsted simply mirroring the teaching fashions of the time, or were teaching fashions being shaped and driven by Ofsted demands? Nevertheless, it forced those who refused to relinquish the role of traditionalist teaching underground. But more recently there has been a return, resurgence, and acceptance of these ideas, with Cerberus no longer a creature to be feared.

Critics of direct instruction propose that novices learn better when provided the opportunity to discover some of the essential information themselves with only partial guidance. Advocates of direct instruction, on the other hand, argue that novices and experts learn differently, and that learners should be presented with all the essential information, practising it through explicit instructional guidance. (Clark, Kirchner, Sweller, 2012).

Naturally this summary does little more than superficially capture the debate and on the surface, perhaps the two approaches don’t look that different at all. However, the debate encompasses a host of accompanying ideas, beliefs, and values, and when the different approaches are witnessed in the classroom they are markedly different.

Why direct instruction?

Firstly, it would seem counter intuitive for any teacher not to want to maximise the learning of as many students as possible, in as efficient and plausible a way as possible. Direct instruction best lends itself to achieving this. We can all recall times when we were learning something for the first time – from driving a car to learning to play a game. The notion that it would have been effective to do this with minimal guidance seems unlikely.

Our classrooms are full of a range of students with different dispositions, abilities, knowledge and experiences. Approaches with less direct instruction results in increased student frustration as they struggle to partake in what is being demanded of them. Perhaps worst of all, students often recall more freely what they stumbled upon, even if it was a misconception and wrong, as opposed to what was intended (Clark, Kirchner, Sweller, 2012). It thus seems unreasonable to think that leaving students to their own devices benefits their learning experience.

Further still, even in the best of scenarios, where students have somehow managed to get to where was intended without direct instruction, it is very likely that this has taken more time than the alternative approach would have (Clark, Kirchner, Sweller, 2012). In a school climate increasingly fraught with large amounts of content, limited amounts of time, and students starting behind national floor standards, this isn’t time that can be given up so freely.

It is finally worth noting that when asked, it is the higher attaining students that normally opt for direct instruction while the students that find the work more challenging ask to be left more to their own devices (Clark, Kirchner, Sweller, 2012). The result is a widening of the achievement gap, and a classroom that is much harder to manage and facilitate.

“I’ve never seen that student work so much.”

At all stages,the experience of my classroom from both a teaching and a learning perspective has been greatly enhanced by adopting direct instruction.

Behaviour is better and easier to manage. There is less opportunity for distraction as the students aren’t ostracised by working ‘independently’, which can often see them struggling with the best resource available to them, their teacher, passively watching on, grimacing.

Lessons can really focus on what students need to learn rather than devising creative activities where learning becomes almost secondary to task. A greater emphasis is placed on practising and demonstrating learning and understanding, rather than spending time trying to discover something that has taken the greatest minds of the past centuries to find.

Students with higher attainment are able to make complex connections, while students with lower attainment are able to participate in the requirements of the lesson. Remarks from teachers such as ‘I’ve never seen that student work so much’, are commonplace. Feedback can be more immediate and responsive: misconceptions are addressed at the point that they are encountered, and you can be confident that students are learning what you want them to. Through direct instruction the whole classroom, from the teacher through to the most struggling student, is elevated to a position where the desired learning becomes the explicit and total focus of all that is happening within that lesson.

I am a complete convert to direct instruction as a method of teaching. I struggle to see a case for not using it as the preferred methodology in the classroom, both in terms of the studies and the evidence, and also my experiences within the classroom. It feels as though direct instruction isn’t a trend or a fad, but a philosophy grounded in research and realities. There are a number of ideas and philosophies that feed directly into direct instruction, for example cognitive load, that further strengthen its credibility. However, that discussion is perhaps for another time, when Cerberus has been fully tamed.

Let us know what you think of direct instruction in the classroom by Tweeting us at @EducationEACT.