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Direct Instruction has a PR Problem

Ben Gordon talks about the benefits of DI, and the misconceptions often thrown its way...

  • Direct Instruction has a PR Problem

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Is it fair to say that Direct Instruction has something of an image problem today?
First, we should make it clear that this question is referring to Siegfried Engelmann’s uppercase ‘Direct Instruction’ as opposed to the more general, lowercase ‘direct instruction’, about which Barak Rosenshine wrote in his paper, Five Meanings of Direct Instruction.

And yes, Direct Instruction has a PR problem, for sure. I think teachers hear the word ‘direct’, and think it means, ‘the pouring of content from one head to another, and take ‘instruction’ to mean teacher-led lecturing.

There is also scripted instruction involved, and the thought of a teacher delivering content this way is often thought of as de-skilling, and even robotic.

This is simply not true, though; my experience of it is that students get a highly interactive learning experience, built on a theoretical framework based on evidence-informed practice that includes superb examples of explanations, reducing cognitive load, sequencing of content, high success rates, interleaving and distributed practice.

With the correct support and training, Engelmann’s programmes – such as Connecting Math Concepts – can be delivered to students immediately; but there is more to it than that. We can extend his work to curriculum design, school structure and even behaviour management.

So, why don’t we?
Despite research clearly showing Direct Instruction to be more effective than other educational programmes, it is still not very widely used in schools.

If we look at the history of education in the 20th century, Engelmann’s ideology had some heavy opposition through Piaget, Bronte and others, who were selling a more naturalistic, progressive ideology of learning.

Engelmann’s highly structured programmes were seen as inferior to these naturalistic views, which were based on students learning things like speech and facial recognition very readily through social interactions. The education system believed that this was the way forward in the classroom.

However, ‘biologically primary’ learning is natural and mostly effortless – learning your mother tongue, for example, come naturally from social situations and constant exposure.

‘Biologically secondary’ learning, in contrast, is effortful and unnatural – such as decoding text and maths. Most of the subject content that we want students to learn in school is biologically secondary, un-naturalistic and sometimes abstract, which requires expert teaching and instruction to help form concepts and understanding over time.

You’re in your ninth year of teaching, and your first in a leadership role; what’s the main thing you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
I wish I’d had some knowledge of what cognitive science tells us about how we learn.

An understanding of how limited our working memory is through John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory, as well as how schemas are built in long term memory, would certainly have helped me to structure units of work more effectively in my early career.

We should never underestimate how fragile a student’s memory is. What we intend for them to learn in our lesson can be very different from what they actually learn.

Graham Nuthall’s The Hidden Lives of Learners gives great insights into the complexities of learning in a classroom from three points of view – the public world of the teacher, the highly influential world of peers, and the student’s own private world and experiences; I would highly recommend it.

If a teacher were going to read just one book about education this year, what would you recommend?
Without question Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? – it’s an absolute game changer.


Ben Gordon is an assistant principal. You can follow him on Twitter at @mathsmrgordon.

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