Whatever Happened to Direct Instruction? (Part 1)


It has been and is ubiquitous in teacher lessons. So why even mention it?

Because there is no one version of direct instruction (see here, here, and here) yet research studies and meta-analyses of Direct Instruction (note capital letters, please) have repeatedly concluded that students exposed to such a pedagogy outperform students receiving other forms of instruction, especially student-centered (e.g., project-based learning, “discovery learning”). Sounds like just another silly intellectual argument when it comes to the linkage between educational practice and research. Not so.

The research evidence that direct instruction (lower-case “d and “i”) and Direct Instruction (capital letters) have positive effects on student learning–as measured by standardized test scores–has been around for decades yet most educational researchers, policymakers, and practitioners who urge school and classroom decisions to be data-driven and evidenced-based have hardly popped champagne corks welcoming this clear direction for what teachers should incorporate in their classroom lessons (see here).

This is puzzling. I need to disentangle different reasons for the arm’s length distance from the research on direct instruction. One thread wrapped into this tangle of yarn is that direct instruction is and has been part of teachers’ repertoires since the mid-19th century founding of the age-graded schools. Historically, teachers have lectured, conducted demonstrations, and assessed students to see that they have learned the content and skills. It is ubiquitous among teachers then and now. Most teachers have a knapsack of techniques they use with their students that are hybrids of teacher- and student-centered approaches. Blending high student-participation in whole group activity from a discussion to a quiz game, small-group work, and lectures, say in a U.S. history or Algebra 2 class, is common. Mixed strategies of teaching is the norm among elementary and secondary teachers (see here and here). Yet lecturing, demonstrating, and oral or written questioning to ascertain how much has been learned has gained a negativity so is minimized as a standard part of most teachers’ repertoires.

And another thread to the puzzle is the confusion between upper- and lower-case direct instruction.

Lower-case “direct instruction” as noted above is prevalent among most teachers although a certain reluctance to admit it exists among most teachers. “Direct Instruction” (upper-case letters), however, has been associated with the original Follow Through experiment involving young children in the late-1960s where one of the pedagogical approaches had teachers using scripted lessons (called Distar or Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading).   Sigmund Englemann has continually promoted this form of Direct Instruction through generating new curriculum materials and conducting research on its effects on student learning. Other  similar programs using scripted lessons combined with other approaches would be Success for All and Open Court reading program.

And there is a final thread caught up in this tangle of yarn. Most university teacher educators and school practitioners–but not all– emotionally lean toward student-centered teaching (and far more student substantive student talk in lessons) but find it hard to implement on a daily basis given the constraints of the age-graded school, district and state curricular demands, testing,and accountability.

Thus, university teacher educators and practitioners accepting direct instruction (lower- or upper-case) openly as an evidence-based mode of instruction because of its superior performance in raising test scores would hold it at arms’ length; it would be a betrayal of their beliefs, and here is the kicker, even though on a daily basis they mix teacher- and student-centered techniques in their lessons.

In my study of teaching methods since the late 19th century, recent observations in classrooms, and many other studies of teaching, it has become clear to me that most teachers (and teacher educators) blend teacher- and student-centered techniques into their classroom repertoires. The mixes will differ by academic discipline, age of students, beliefs about how students learn, and other factors but hybrid approaches are dominant.

Nonetheless, even with a decided intellectual tilt toward student-centered instruction and the prevalence of hybrids of teaching techniques, teacher talk still exceeds student talk in classroom lessons–given the constraints of the age-graded school and policies concentrating on standards, testing, and accountability mentioned above. So one question is: what is the ideal ratio between percentage of teacher- and student-talk in a lesson. Is it 80-20? 70-30? 60-40? 50-50? Other questions spill out: what are the categories of teacher talk? What are the different kinds of student talk during a lesson? What are teachers’ verbal moves that encourage further student talk?

No one yet knows answers to these questions.  And this is where a conversation I had with an former teacher-turned entrepreneur enters the picture. See Part 2.








Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

22 responses to “Whatever Happened to Direct Instruction? (Part 1)

  1. David F

    Hi Larry, for clarification, I think most educators I talk to refer to direct instruction (lower case) as explicit instruction see https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2017/03/15/what-is-explicit-instruction/

    I think the big issue in teacher- vs. student-led instructional techniques is the difference between novices and experts. Our students–even when they become undergrads–are mostly novices in our content fields, thus the sorts of teaching where we want students to “think like an historian/scientist” are problematic in that they don’t have the same background knowledge, etc. See this, especially the chart: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/psychology/novices-become-experts/

    • larrycuban

      “Explicit” instruction is surely another term that can be used for “direct instruction.” The research literature uses many phrases to capture this kind of instruction, from “traditional” to the terms both of us and Greg Ashman use. What you call the big issue, David, i.e., between studentsbeing novices not experts in the content area is surely one issue just as much as the teacher’s belief system and disciplinary training as well as the structures of schooling–all of which in my mind shape the kind of instruction teachers use. Thanks for the comment.

  2. mike g

    This may confuse things. I want to separate two things, explicit instruction from “using a script.”

    In the developing world, teachers using scripts are often — perhaps ironically — the best way to drive “student-centered learning” (kids actually discussing things, for example).

    I.e., without a clear prompt for teachers to utter something like — “Okay, kids, now we’ll spend 5 minutes where you’ll discuss X questions with the other 2 kids at your bench” — the status quo is teachers lecture ~100% of the time.

    PRIMR is an example, from Kenya, done as a RCT. What is arguably a non-progressive tool (the script) turns out to the best way to get a pedagogically progressive result (kids doing more, teacher doing less).

    Do you think that’s why objection to D.I. (presence of scripts) is even higher than to d.i. (lecture without necessarily any scripts)?

    • larrycuban

      Nice point, Mike. I am largely ignorant of direct instruction using scripts in classrooms in developing nations.Your point that such scripts lead to more student participation and involvement in lesson and less teacher talk is of great interest to me. I have sat in Open Court classrooms in Oakland (CA) and saw teachers use scripts and also saw something similar to what you describe for PRIMR (which I will find out more about). Thanks for the comment.

  3. jeffreyeducator

    Greetings Larry,
    Thank you for shedding light on the differences between direct instruction (lower case) and Direct Instruction (upper case). Your comments about the emotional slanting many educators have toward more student-centered approaches was also enlightening and thought provoking. I find it interesting how so many educators desire more student-centered approaches yet their actual practices include both teacher and student centered method. Also, many school system leaders promote a student-centered approaches but their curriculum, professional development, and instructional framework are really rooted in a direct instruction framework. I look forward to the second part of this post.

  4. Regarding the time split, I wonder if the gradual release model should be considered. I do (Specific direct instruction), we do (check for understanding), you try (individually and/or group with monitoring and possible small group pulled back for additional SDI)… The amount of time spent in SDI, is based on student understanding and execution…

    • larrycuban

      Sarah, thanks for the comment on ratio between teacher/student talk. Your notion of “gradual release model” (if I understand it) in re-adjusting the ratio toward more student talk sounds reasonable.

  5. EB

    Engelmann’s goal for Direct Instruction was not only that teachers teach explicitly. Added to that, is the goal of having the instruction be very clear and free of any ambiguity that might lead a child to misunderstand what’s being taught (hence the frequent use of scripted lessons, since he and his colleagues had actually tested them to make sure that each sentence, literally, was 100% clear) . In addition, Engelmann included that the children would be talking back to the teacher to demonstrate whether they do or do not understand what was just explicitly taught.

    I used Open Court with first graders in a very low-income school in the early ’70’s. It was great; the children progressed and enjoyed their growing skill at reading (both decoding and reading for meaning). We used a similar math program. What people often forget, too, is that even in a DI or di program, you don’t do it all day every day; the method is effective so there is plenty of time to do the more student-centered types of learning that are also important for children. The teacher just has to accept that lessons that have been tested and proven are a more efficient way to help children learn than having each teacher devise their own curriculum, or even their own methods of presentation.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Jane, for your comment.The key point, I believe, is that DI or di is not done all day; it is part of the teacher’s repertoire for other lessons and parts of lessons taught during the school day.

  6. Chester Draws

    Larry, there’s an more important aspect to the puzzle that you missed, and that is timing.

    An direct instruction exponent will lead with a teacher direction and only once they are sure the students have understood will they pass over to students. That need not be a lot of talking.

    I will often write a very explicit set of instructions, describe it with worked examples and then let them at it. That might not involve a lot of talking by me, unless a student asks a question. I might barely speak to class as a whole in the second half of a lesson. I will still let them discover things for themselves, but in a much more controlled process. They are given the basic process and then build up from that. (I do “lecture” but it is rare, and I only do it as a last resort because it isn’t hugely effective.)

    A discovery learning advocate may reverse the process. The students are given far less guidance at the start but might be called to do some extensive plenary and explanation at the end. That may well involve far more talking to the whole class than I do (even discovery activities need to be explained —
    you can’t just say “go to it!”). The students will definitely be talking more, but how much of it is to the class? The teacher will be wandering around talking, just explaining less explicitly.

    So how much the teacher is talking isn’t really a helpful guide IMO. What interests me is are the students given a framework at the start of the process or when they wrap up at the end? The amount of actual talking is by the by.

    what are the categories of teacher talk?

    I might give a detailed process on the board rather than talking. A discovery teacher may give out a worksheet with instructions for the activity. But to me anything the teacher hands out or writes is “teacher talk”, regardless of whether spoken or not.

    That a supposedly “student centred” teacher might direct the class just as much as an teacher centred one — just indirectly — is often overlooked.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for suggesting timing during a lesson, Chester. That is a factor that should be considered. There are categories of teacher-talk such as oral directions, questions, admonitions, mini-lectures, discussion, etc. Many teachers distinguish between these form of teacher talk. How much of each, well, largely unknown. Part 2 takes up this point. Thanks for comment.

  7. David F

    Hi Larry, One more thought…in the UK, there’ been a movement to develop “knowledge organizers” which are developed by teachers and provide the overview/vocabulary/key points that the teacher wants to impart to the students. These then provide the context for assessments and supplement the main lesson. I attended a researchEd presentation on them in Brooklyn this past fall and was impressed, though they do take a lot of up-front time for the teacher to develop. They might fit into the context of direct instruction, more constructivist models or even a blend, depending on how they are used. I’m thinking of developing a set on my own for my US Government an Politics class this summer for next year, where I often get large numbers of students with various learning issues.

    See here for an example: https://pragmaticreform.wordpress.com/2015/03/28/knowledge-organisers/.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, David, the “knowledge organizers” you describe–I did look at the link you sent–remind me of content-rich courses that clearly lay out the concepts, break them down into pieces, and connect activities to them. Precisely laid out units for both teacher and students to follow. And as you say and I agree: “They might fit into the context of direct instruction, more constructivist models or even a blend, depending on how they are used.” Thanks for commenting.

  8. Pingback: Talking and teaching | bloghaunter

  9. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Nice post, also in line with what I describe about DI in my new book.

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