Tes focus on... Direct instruction

Despite a reputation for being authoritarian, this method is evidence-based and versatile, according to Paul Kirschner. He tells Simon Creasey why every teacher should use it – and probably already does, whether they realise it or not
30th November 2018, 12:00am
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Tes focus on... Direct instruction


Let’s get something straight from the start: Direct Instruction and direct instruction are not the same thing, although they may overlap in certain areas.

The former is a method of instruction developed by Siegfried Engelmann, which places an emphasis on well-developed, carefully planned lessons focusing on small learning steps with clearly defined and prescribed learning tasks.

Tried-and-tested lesson scripts are produced for teachers to follow. And there is research to suggest that this method can be very effective (the educational experiment Project Follow Through compared 22 models of instruction on 200,000 students over 10 years and found Direct Instruction to yield the best results, although the findings are a lot more nuanced than is often acknowledged). It’s a prescriptive way of teaching that is being used in some UK schools in certain subjects, but it is still relatively niche.

By contrast, direct instruction (with no capital letters) is something you are likely to do every day. But you probably don’t call it that or say that this is what you are doing, according to Paul Kirschner, a professor at the Open University of the Netherlands. “It’s incredibly widely used, but some people actually don’t want to admit that they use it because it sounds very archaic, very dinosaur-like and is very authoritarian,” he says.

That perception exists because direct instruction is seen - partly due to the association with Engelmann’s Direct Instruction and potential misconceptions around that - as chalk and talk, lecture-style teaching with little student interaction. It is viewed as being something that is done to children, rather than with them, that robs a teacher of their autonomy and goes against the training many educators have received on what makes for excellent teaching.

‘Prerequisite’ for learning

Direct instruction is actually nothing like this, argues Kirschner. “What is direct/explicit instruction? You have to set the stage for learning, you have to make sure learners have the prerequisite knowledge to learn, which can also include creating a learning context for them,” he says. “You have to make sure there is a clear explanation of what is expected of them and what you want them to do - to give them the procedural knowledge to carry out what they are doing.

“You have to model the process, show them how it is done, and try to explain what you did and why you did it. You have to provide guided practice time, which gradually gives way to independent practice. Finally, you should assess it formally, informally and formatively throughout.

“I don’t know very many teachers who don’t work with small groups or labs, have discussions, give workshops, observe, actively learn, give practical assignments and who don’t select the learning objectives, structure it in a [particular] way and give good feedback. All of those types of things.”

The reputation of direct instruction has been gradually rehabilitated in some schools, as academic research has become more widely embraced in education. Many teachers argue a direct instruction approach is aligned with evidence of how memory works - such as retrieval practice and cognitive load theory - as well as theories from the likes of US academic ED Hirsch on the importance of a fact-based, knowledge-rich curriculum. Those teachers now proudly say they use it.

Others, Kirschner argues, use direct instruction but have no idea they are doing so. “They might discuss the things with their students that they need to understand and know before they give them a specific task and then call it ‘problem-based learning’, but what they’re actually doing is giving instructions so students can carry out a task,” he explains. “There’s nothing wrong with that - let them call it whatever they want. The only thing I say is, realise that learning comes from good instruction and from good teaching and not just standing by and watching.”

‘Effective and efficient’

Whether direct instruction is being used consciously or not, Kirschner argues the evidence suggests that it is more effective than other approaches. “If you look at human cognitive architecture and if you look at the research, you see that enquiry-based learning, discovery learning, those types of approaches, they’re not very effective and not very efficient and that direct instruction - I prefer to call it ‘explicit instruction’ - is effective and efficient, and students have quite a lot of success with it,” he says. “Quite a lot more success than in the discovery-based pedagogies.”

That’s not to say direct instruction cannot be used in ways that look like more “progressive” approaches. Kirschner believes it is applicable across a broad range of pedagogical tools and techniques. For example, on the Tes Podagogy podcast, Kirschner gives a detailed explanation as to why group work can be extremely effective if the tenets of direct instruction are in place (see bit.ly/Kirschnerdirect). He also says that discovery learning can be compatible with it.

So how might his steps for direct instruction look in the classroom? “Get the students’ attention and ensure the availability of prior knowledge [of a subject] - this can be achieved through an advance organiser, a quiz, and so on,” he states.

Then set a specific task, monitor the results and give students good feedback, not only on the “product but more importantly on the process”. Also, bear in mind that the results of learning don’t always have to be purely cognitive. “They can also be social, effective and enjoyable,” Kirschner says. “Enjoyable means having a feeling of self-efficacy, having a feeling of accomplishment, having a feeling that you know you can do it, and you also see that in student motivation because it’s not the case that motivation leads to success.

“Success leads to motivation. If you’re motivated but constantly hit walls or fail, then the motivation quickly dies off. If you’re successful, if you see that something is working, that you’re doing something, that you’re achieving the results you wanted to achieve, then it motivates you to continue and to learn more.”

He cites the example of a footballer who wants to “bend it like David Beckham”, saying: “If you are a motivated girl or boy and want to bend a free kick around a defensive wall, you may set up a cardboard wall and start kicking. After a couple of hundred tries where the ball constantly hits the wall of cardboard defenders, with a random success - which the child probably cannot replicate nor does she or he know what was done to get the ball to curve - then, eventually, that child will stop and say, ‘I can’t do it.’

“But if you have a coach or trainer who teaches that child, in small steps, how to properly do it, where to place the foot, how to take the steps and allows the child to practise it and also gives the proper feedback. If that child’s been taught in this direct instructional way and sees the ball curve, then that success will motivate them to continue to try to curve it more and curve it in different ways.”

‘Ingredients’ of good teaching

Providing teachers see that, by taking the direct instructional approach, their methods are much more efficient, effective and successful, then Kirschner believes more of them will ultimately embrace it and use it more regularly in the classroom.

“If you experience success in doing something, if you see that your learners are learning more effectively, efficiently, and enjoyably, and if you have experience that your task of being a teacher is more effective, more efficient or more enjoyable, then it would be a very strange teacher who would say, ‘Well, I’m going to do it in a different way’,” he says.

This is empowering for a teacher, Kirschner argues: if you know the principles of good instruction, you can use them to teach in myriad ways and, indeed, that is exactly what a good teacher does do.

“I always make the analogy between a top teacher and a top chef,” he adds. “A top chef has a deep conceptual knowledge and finely honed skills to combine the tools, techniques and ingredients they have at their disposal for creating a tasty, good-looking and nutritious meal. A top teacher is capable of making good use of the tools, techniques and ingredients of good teaching to make effective, efficient and enjoyable or satisfying learning experiences.”

Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist. He tweets @simoncreasey2

Meet the academic

Paul Kirschner is a professor at the Open University of the Netherlands and a popular voice in grassroots teacher-research movements, as well as on Twitter (see @P_A_Kirschner).

He is an expert in instructional design and has spoken extensively on the research base that supports what he calls an “explicit instruction” teaching model.

Further reading

Rosenshine, B (2008), Five Meanings of Direct Instruction, Center on Innovation and Improvement, bit.ly/Centerii

Archer, AL and Hughes, CA (2011), Explicit Instruction: effective and efficient teaching (Guilford Press)

Andersen, IG and Andersen, SC (2017), “Student-centered instruction and academic achievement: linking mechanisms of educational inequality to schools’ instructional strategy”, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38/4: 533-50

Brophy, J (1979) “Advances in teacher research”, Journal of Classroom Instruction, 15: 1-7

Furtak, EM, Seidel, T, Iverson, H and Briggs, DC (2012), “Experimental and quasi-experimental studies of inquiry-based science teaching: a meta-analysis”, Review of Educational Research, 82/3: 300-29

Rosenshine, B V (1976) “Classroom instruction”, in N Gage, ed, The Psychology of Teaching Methods: 75th yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, (University of Chicago Press)

Rosenshine, B V (1979) “Content, time, and direct instruction”, pp 28-56 in PL Peterson and HJ Walberg, eds, Research on Teaching: concepts, findings and implications (McCutchan Publishing)

Stockard, J, Wood, TW, Coughlin, C and Khoury, CR (2018), “The effectiveness of direct instruction curricula: a meta-analysis of a half century of research”, Review of Educational Research, 88/4: 479-507

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