Why you have got direct instruction wrong

Direct instruction has been mis-sold, misinterpreted and badly served in education, argues academic Paul Kirschner. And yet, most good teachers, he says, will be doing it without knowing it

Tes Editorial

Direct instruction

“If you look at what most good teachers do, they are using direct instruction. But if you say to them that they are using direct instruction, they look at you as if, and this is a Dutch phrase, water is on fire, and they say, ‘No I am a progressive,’” says professor Paul Kirschner, university distinguished professor at the Open University of the Netherlands. “They have a blind spot, they tend to see the straw man of direct instruction.”

Kirchner is one of the world’s leading researchers into instructional design and on this week’s episode of Tes Podagogy, he explains that direct instruction is widely misinterpreted in schools. He believes most teachers see it as “drill and skill, authoritarian, isolated fact accumulation, one size fits all” when it is nothing of the sort. 

“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. 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. That gradually gives way to independent practice. Finally, you should assess it, formally, informally, and formatively throughout,” he explains. 

He believes these tenets are applicable across a broad range of pedagogical tools and techniques, including many more commonly seen as progressive. For example, he gives a detailed explanation as to why group work can be extremely effective if the tenets of direct instruction are in place. He also says discovery learning can be direct instruction if following the principle points. 

Indeed, he warns against just trying to teach one way only, labelling this ineffective and akin to being a fish and chip restaurant. 

“They only have one way of cooking, which is frying,” he explains. “A good chef does not limit themselves to just one technique, tool or ingredient and neither should a teacher. The teacher should be making use of everything they have to achieve effective, efficient and enjoyable learning.”

In the episode, he also ruminates upon why direct instruction has got such a bad name. Partly, he blames the likes of Sir Ken Robinson and Professor Sugata Mitra for pushing a narrative of a pedagogy fit for the 21st century. 

“21st-century skills is the biggest piece of snake oil that I have ever come across,” he says. 

To hear Kirschner explain in detail how direct instruction should work and what makes for effective teaching, you can listen to the podcast below, or find the full series available for free on iTunes and Podbean.

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Tes Editorial

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