Why I’m a convert to the ‘other side’ of teaching

9th January 2015 at 00:00
A self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ discovers some benefits of old-style direct instruction

As a “progressive” teacher, I have always embraced constructivism, project-based learning and any pedagogy that will make pupils take charge of their own learning. For 10 years, poor Mr O’Donnell had to suffer me as his subject leader. Unlike me, Mr O’Donnell was a “traditional” teacher, with chalk ’n’ talk being the staple fare of his classroom.

After seeing the impact of my creative approach to teaching, he began to explore new pedagogies; he is now one of the most innovative teachers in the school. Being a great teacher, his GCSE results are always a nose better than mine. I often think about why he outperforms me. We share resources and lesson plans, and we both have strong relationships with the pupils and high standards for their learning.

Could it be that his success, for all of his innovation, is down to the fact that direct instruction is still at the core of his lessons (although now he is more likely to be delivering these lessons dressed as a Native American or a bewigged, mini-skirted, blue-faced Boudicca)? I looked into it. I tried to understand his world. And the result? If you are suspicious of direct instruction, then read on and discover how I, a self-confessed teacher from the “other side”, became a convert – under strict conditions – to teacher talk.

The case for the prosecution

I have several concerns about teacher talk being a key feature of lessons. The pupils are passive. If they are all looking at the teacher in silence, then there is no guarantee that they are actually making any attempt to encode the words into their long-term memory.

There is also the danger that the teacher will try to impose their own templates for understanding knowledge on to pupils. Pupils are not processing the new knowledge with their own templates and linking it to their existing knowledge and experiences.

Also, much of the teacher talk that I have observed is unplanned and of poor quality. It often acts as a time-filler in lessons when a teacher knows that the prepared task won’t last long enough. Those teachers who spend a significant amount of time on explanations rarely check to see if every single pupil has understood before moving on.

Do we want our pupils to finish school as creative, resilient and independent learners or outstanding passive listeners?

The case for the defence

But my belief in the evils of teacher talk has taken some damaging hits recently. It is not only that Mr O’Donnell is outperforming me with direct instruction as his main weapon of choice, it is for other reasons too.

1 ‘Good’ teacher talk is being shown to be effective

John Hattie highlights in Visible Learning that the method of direct instruction is one of the strategies that has a significant impact on learning. The direct instruction that Hattie refers to is a clear structure for learning. This involves teacher explanation, followed by supported exercises and then independent work. It is a method that has effective teacher talk at its very heart.

There are also some compelling arguments in favour of teacher talk in David Didau’s The Secret of Literacy. Perhaps if so much teacher talk is boring then we should focus on getting teachers to be better at explaining things, rather than doing away with the whole pedagogical technique?

Indeed, Mr O’Donnell has shown me that well-planned and skilfully executed teacher talk can have a significant impact.

2 It’s a useful tool for modelling

It is also important to model impressive subject knowledge and skilful use of the English language to pupils. We should follow the example of our colleagues in China, where teacher talk is used to fill the pupils with awe and wonder at teachers’ intellectual and linguistic dexterity. As the personification of a whole academic field, we do have a duty to demonstrate to our pupils what an expert in our subject looks like.

3 It cuts down wasted time

The direct nature of teacher talk is appealing. The teacher does not need any gimmicks to act as a vehicle for the knowledge. In any newspaper article task, pupils can fritter away a whole lesson thinking up a witty newspaper name and writing the headline in carefully drawn letters, rather than focusing on what is supposed to be learned.

4 It cuts down teacher workload

Teacher well-being and work-life balance is a huge issue at the moment. An effective explanation using teacher talk does require planning and thought – it does not require the vast amounts of time that some teachers spend cutting out card sorts, designing and printing worksheets or devising numerous tasks for carousel activities.

5 It may be more suited to the current curriculum demands

Perhaps the answer is that, as always, well-planned and well-delivered lessons are effective, no matter whether our pupils are “active” or “passive”.

Yet, with GCSE specifications all of a sudden nearly doubling the content, along with exams becoming more rigorous, we have little time to waste in secondary schools any more.

This method of direct instruction may enable teachers to embed precise knowledge with more rapidity and efficiency than other, more creative and progressive forms of pedagogy.

I have now embedded direct instruction as one of the key weapons in my teaching arsenal, although I have not quite thrown out all of my progressive methods to make way for it.

I have found this old-fashioned weapon particularly effective when introducing new knowledge to GCSE classes.

If I stick to my guns, maybe this will be the year that my Year 11 GCSE results nose ahead of Mr O’Donnell’s.

What is ‘good’ direct instruction?

Teachers will no doubt debate this fiercely, but as a cynic of the method who is slowly coming around to its benefits, this would be my guide.


Have a clear idea of what you want your pupils to learn.

Have a hook. Perhaps an activity, an object, music, a picture, a quotation or a story.

Define any subject-specific vocabulary before you start your explanation.

Use teacher talk to explain and model the knowledge you wish your pupils to learn. My guideline would be to take no longer than 20 minutes, but some teachers can talk for an hour and the whole class remains engaged. It depends on the class, the topic, the weather and the time of day.

Allow the pupils a few minutes to digest what you have told them. Perhaps they could talk about what you have just told them, or write a summary of the key points.

Use Assessment for Learning techniques to judge if all of the pupils have understood. If some pupils have not, do not be afraid to take the time to re-explain it in a different way.

Give pupils some exercises in which they can apply the new knowledge with some support until they are confident in using it.

Give pupils a task that requires them to apply the knowledge with no support. Perhaps an exam paper.

Do not:

Simplify your language or the subject content. Model a high standard of knowledge and oral literacy for your students.

Talk at length to your pupils unless you have a clear plan.

Stop at regular intervals to ask closed questions. Pupils will lose the thread.

Move about the classroom while speaking. Pupils focus better if the sound is coming from one fixed spot.

Stop doodlers from doodling or note-takers from note-taking.

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