Consider “direct instruction,” one component–note that I say only “one”–of teacher-centered instruction. Direct instruction has been and is ubiquitous in teacher lessons. For many, but not all teachers, it is the sole means of teaching. The phrase is commonly used by researchers. 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 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, had students recite sentences from textbooks, 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 bad reputation,often minimized by many observers of teaching even though it is a standard method in 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 tend to hold it at arms’ length; it would be a betrayal of their beliefs, and here is the kicker, even though on a weekly 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. Thus, researchers have a devilishly tough time in studying the effects of particular teaching strategies because of the blending of both approaches in so many classrooms.
Now here is a puzzle in need of a solution for university researchers, many of whom work in university departments and schools of education. Even with a decided intellectual tilt toward student-centered instruction, university researchers will face decades-old evidence of teacher talk still exceeding student talk in classroom lessons. Such on-the-ground evidence, of course, can not answer the obvious question: what is the ideal ratio between percentage of teacher- and student-talk in a lesson taught using “direct instruction” or whole class discussion; and a lesson taught using small-group activities, cooperative learning, or project-based learning?
Is it 80-20? 70-30? 60-40? 50-50?
And other questions pop up as well: what kinds of teacher talk occur (e.g., asking questions, lecturing on content, demonstrating experiments, reviewing homework)? What are the different kinds of student talk during a lesson (e.g., answering teacher questions, asking their own questions, giving reports, working in pairs and small groups)? What teachers’ verbal moves encourage further student talk (e.g., asking or open-ended question, avoiding “right” and “wrong” responses to student answers)?
Few, if any, researchers, practitioners, and policymakers know answers to these questions.