Since when did complete control over learning become a taboo?

29th September 2017 at 00:00
Direct instruction is often seen as a dry, didactic way of teaching, but Ben Wilcox argues that this unfairly maligned approach is long overdue rehabilitation

No fidget spinner can focus a child’s attention quite like a teacher in full flow. Those moments when we hold a class in suspense as we set the scene for students’ learning, or even better, as we share just the right anecdote or example to add meat to the bones of our task, are truly golden.

Yet despite much support for direct instruction from cognitive science, talking from the front of the classroom has developed a bad reputation. Ingrained in many teachers is either the belief, or fear, thanks to dodgy lesson observations, that to direct our students is to “tell” rather than to “teach”.

The alternative? Teaching must be engaging and fun, we are told, perhaps with a knowledge safari for students who would independently lead their own learning having initially been inspired by a mic drop of a starter; we must observe, Attenborough-like, as small groups of students work in packs to hunt their way through and perfectly complete a gap-fill exercise; we must step back, as our new GCSE specifications need no explanation…

Where did it all go wrong?

I think at its heart, this is a story about a misconception: teachers believing the ‘ghost stories’ about direct instruction, fuelled by didactic school leaders who favour so-called ‘progressive’ pedagogy and shun everything else. But when you look at the basics of direct instruction, it doesn’t seem so scary.

The main characteristics contain many elements we would widely recognise as being great practice:

  1. Lessons are planned through high teacher control with all questions and explanations carefully scripted for maximum impact.
  2. Lesson planning also promotes student engagement, including consideration of ways to ensure their commitment towards the objectives (yes, despite the rumours, direct instruction is concerned with student engagement).


What can raise alarm bells in some is that in all these aspects, and more besides, the teacher is in complete control. For some teachers, students should not just be there to be told what they need to know, but to be co-planners, co-teachers and discovery learners.

It’s true that student-led lessons can be a sight to behold with often improvised moments leading to lifelong learning. Research can also support this view, with academics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2011) contrasting discovery learning with direct instruction; their findings suggest the latter makes “children less curious and less likely to discover new information”.

But that research has been highlighted as being problematic because delivery and enthusiasm for the pedagogy in question may have skewed its results. And that is a key point here: people’s opinion of direct instruction often means it does not work as effectively as it should and they are then turned off it.

Direct instruction is not stale, didactic teaching, but it could be in the wrong hands.

But the same could be said of any teaching technique, wherever it sits on the spectrum of progressive to traditional teaching. What we cannot do is take one experience and generalise it. Education writer Doug Lemov is excellent on this point, stating that “the solution to poor execution is better execution” rather than dismissal.

So I recommend you try to see direct instruction afresh. Look again at those basics set out above. Look at the research that so strongly indicates that direct instruction is one of the most successful, if not the most successful, methods of teaching. And then seek out someone in your school regarded as being an excellent practitioner of direct instruction and observe them over a few lessons. See what good practice is really like.

Then why not give it a try? You don’t have to go into full direct-instruction mode, but by introducing each of the points below into your teaching, you will be building the foundations of direct instruction into your practice. And then you can really judge whether it is for you or not.

Build lessons around learning

Activities should “teach to the top” of being challenging, with engaging objectives and scaffolded support where needed. What success looks like by the end of the lesson – or lessons – or what it specifically looks like in model work is an integral part of this. Explicitly share this with the class when the time is right, building drama if required.

Study the art of explanation

Perhaps more than direct instruction itself, explanation rarely finds its way into school CPD, yet many of us would consider it a core skill for effective teaching. Allison and Tharby (2015) hope to address this with some inspired strategies to reclaim this “master art”. Plan explanations as carefully as activities, making sure they reference students’ prior understanding and are judicious in their design. Effective explanation can be like earworms for our students, playing through their mind when they reflect back on lessons. Build up complexity slowly to help these narratives to become the prior understanding needed for future learning.

Aim for the right engagement

Cognitive psychology tells us that the mode of instruction should match the nature of the subject being taught to ensure all students learn. ‘Hooks’ into lessons are like gunpowder for learning, but so too is the joy of learners realising that real progress has been recently made.

Don’t be afraid of teacher talk – learning styles are a myth, whereas the impact of worked examples is clear from practical experience and a wealth of research.

Such engagement with our students, whether unpicking complex equations together or analysing a successfully executed badminton serve, becomes the structure upon which they hang their future learning. Skilful questioning, peer teaching and formative assessment can then reinforce it.

Use assessment innovatively and link it to future learning

This has been called ‘dynamic testing’, whereby assessment outcomes are used to guide future learning. This makes it clear to students that mistakes or gaps in knowledge are a normal part of the journey, and are in fact invaluable for learning and lesson planning. Our work in school then becomes all about positive progress, not negative nitpicking of weakness.

Ben Wilcox is an assistant headteacher at The Magna Carta School in Surrey, part of the Unity Schools Trust. He is also an associate on PiXL’s executive board for history

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