Direct Instruction: A No Brainer?

This morning, I took part in a Twitter discussion around Direct Instruction and it has prompted me to write this blog, in order to elaborate my thoughts on the matter.

To me, direct instruction is a no brainer. We’ve all learned through direct instruction, and wouldn’t be where we are without it. It is the most natural thing in the world, and has been going on since time immemorial. Fundamentally, it is the process of someone with knowledge of something, communicating that knowledge to someone who doesn’t have it. Michael Fordham in a blog entitled “Teaching: a natural act?“, describes it as thus:

“Humans have been teaching one another for as long as humans have been around. Children quite naturally teach one another (the rules to a game, the words to a rhyme) and they do not need any particular training to do this. In this sense humans are teachers by nature: without much prompting, we teach one another.

And what does this natural propensity entail? In short, it is communication from one who knows to one who does not.”

In this instance, we can substitute the word “teach” with “direct instruction”, for that is what I believe direct instruction to be: communication from one who knows to one who does not. This communication can take many forms. It can be an hour-long lecture given by a professor at a university. It can be a PE teacher showing pupils how to bounce a ball. It can be a Reception teacher teaching pupils what sound a letter makes or modelling on the board how to write that letter. In all these examples, we see someone communicating knowledge (both in the “know-that” and “know-how” sense) to others who do not have this knowledge. So the term direct instruction is very broad in what activities it might entail, but narrow in the objective: the transfer of knowledge from one who has it to one who doesn’t.

It is in this sense that I can state with conviction that direct instruction is a no brainer. Everyone, even the most ardent progressive, uses some form of direct instruction at one point or another. It’s impossible not to. Perhaps it is more helpful to discuss what is not direct instruction and to explore what that might look like in practice.

In the Reception example I gave earlier on, direct instruction takes place when a teacher tells pupils what sound a letter makes and shows them how to write theĀ  letter. The alternative to direct instruction would be to give pupils picture cards with the word written underneath, and let them infer over time what those symbols are. As to writing, the approach would be to let pupils experiment with paper and pen, and try to replicate the symbols on the page as best they can. The opposite of direct instruction is letting children work things out for themselves, the so-called constructivist approach. Some children can and will work these things out for themselves. Many of us have come across children who are practically self-taught when it comes to reading (or taught at home by their parents). But I don’t think we would want to encourage this survival of the fittest methodology in our schools.

This is why you will not find, in Reception classrooms across the land, children being completely left to their own devices, without some element of direct instruction to ensure they learn their letter sounds. So the debate is not really about direct instruction versus non-direct instruction, but about the grey area in between. To what degree does the teacher directly teach something? At what point does the teacher step back and let the pupil work independently?

From thence comes that common mantra: “limit teacher talk to 10 minutes”. It is a deeply unhelpful piece of advice. Firstly, because of the arbitrariness of it when everything in teaching is context-dependent. Are we really going to tell the college professor to limit her lecture to 10 minutes? Obviously not. If, however, you are teaching a class of 5-year olds, you might want to limit your talk to even less than 10 minutes, such is the attention span of young children. Secondly, being told to limit teacher talk is unhelpful because implicit in the statement is the idea that by talking, a teacher is somehow inhibiting the learning of pupils, that talking is a necessary evil in teaching that must be kept to a minimum. All kinds of unhealthy attitudes to teaching stem from such an idea, the very worst one being that teachers should not really teach but facilitate.

Ironically, most teachers are deeply aware that a facilitating-only approach leads to very poor outcomes, unhappy parents and Ofsted banging on the door and branding their school as requiring improvement. They know that at some level, direct instruction is needed. But they are pulled this way and that by the conditioning they receive in teacher training where they are told (implicitly or otherwise) that teacher talk is bad, that pupils learn better when they discover something for themselves, and by the judgements made of them when they are observed teaching. This conundrum was resolved by Andrew Percival, now a deputy headteacher, as follows:

Where does this leave us? Well for starters, we need to rehabilitate the words “direct instruction” and not let them be taken for some evil, autocratic force in education. Everyone learns through direct instruction and it should not be controversial to say so. We also need to move the debate on from arbitrary measures of how much a teacher can talk in a lesson, to looking at the curriculum and its pedagogic implications in each subject, recognising that context, and subject, is king.