My schooling was during a time when the idea of being a ‘guide on the side’ was quite fashionable. When I think back to some of my lessons I can remember doing an awful lot of stuff and I struggle to recall listening to my teacher talk. However, two teachers stand out for me in my schooling and both of them epitomise what I mean when I talk about direct instruction. They both were great explainers, and storytellers, who demanded excellence from us. They both questioned students deeply and I remember one lesson when my chemistry teacher spent what felt like ten minutes probing my thinking, believing I could go deeper. It certainly worked as I started my university life studying for a degree in chemistry. A lot has changed since then I can assure you.
This brings me to discuss the need for all teachers to pursue ‘direct instruction’ or a better way to think about it is ‘direct-interactive instruction’ as put forward by Bruce Robertson in The Teaching Delusion.
Before we dive into exploring ‘direct-interactive instruction’. I feel that it is important to discuss the difference between a novice and an expert, how they learn, think and how the use knowledge. It is clear (at least I hope so) that a novice has significantly less prior knowledge, or background knowledge of a particular topic, than that of the prior knowledge of an expert. This plays a key role in how they tackle problem, think about solutions and carry out tasks.
A novice will approach a task from the start and tackle each area of a problem individually, they will require a lot of scaffolding, support and feedback to overcome each step until they get to a solution. An expert on the other hand uses all of their prior knowledge to tackle the solution easily, coming to a conclusion with minimal effort. As John Sweller neatly sums up in a 1988 paper on Cognitive Load During Problem Solving:
Novices, not possessing appropriate schemas, are not able to recognise and memorize problem configurations and are forced to use general problem-solving strategies such as means-end analysis when faced with a problemJohn Sweller, Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning (1988)
If you consider it from a football perspective, a novice has to learn which part of the foot to dribble the ball with, how hard to hit the ball and will often lose track of where they are because they are continually looking down. An expert has the tacit knowledge to know where the ball is without looking at it and can instead focus on bigger concepts such as ‘game strategy’.
To put it simply, a novice needs to build their ‘schema’ and an expert already has a deep ‘schema’ to access. So, a novice then needs to be given facts and other relevant knowledge in order to build their schema, and the best way to do this is to explicitly teach them the facts of our subject matter slowly and steadily until it has moved to their long term memory. Which allows us to define learning as ‘a change in long term memory’ as outlined by Kirschner, Sweller & Clark.
What is direct-interactive instruction?
In What Makes Great Teaching (Coe et al., 2014) the authors summarised robust research evidence that would best support teacher quality. In the report they discuss ‘ineffective practices’ such as discovery learning, teaching to learning styles, use of lavish praise and grouping students by ability but one quote sticks out for me:
Enthusiasm for ‘discovery learning’ is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction (Kirschner et al., 2006). Although learners do need to build new understanding on what they already know, if teachers want them to learn new ideas, knowledge or methods they need to teach them directly.What Makes Great Teaching, Sutton Trust Report.
Greg Ashman has been a prolific blogger on this area and has shown through robust use of evidence that the teacher should ‘ be in complete control of the learning process’. Ashman references Siegfried Engelmann’s Project Follow Through (which is one of the largest educational experiment ever conducted) and this study recognised that Direct Instruction ‘ was not only more effective at at developing students basic skills than alternative models, it was also more successful at developing the ability to comprehend written passages or solve mathematical problems’. (I would recommend looking up Project Follow Through for a more detailed account of explicit instruction).
Direct Instruction is often refereed to as ‘old fashioned’ but the evidence is clear that it is the best approach to take when teaching novices, they need the necessary background knowledge, which is moved to long term memory, in order to make future learning easier to undertake. In The Teaching Delusion Bruce Robertson adds that the instruction should be on the basis of ‘ clear teacher explanations and demonstration which hold students attention’ and should also include checking for understanding’. For teachers to hold a students attention they will be required to involve them in the discussion by asking questions and getting contributions ‘from the floor’. Bruce is clear that ‘great teaching needs to include presenting content directly and interactively to students and checking for understanding’. Teaching in this way will ensure that the students get the relevant knowledge from the expert in the room, the teacher, and by involving them in the process by asking questions and checking for understanding it will allow the teacher to hold their attention on the learning.
Suffice to say a poorly presented lesson which fails to hold a students attention will result in them ‘switching off’ and no learning entering their working memory, on the basis of the idea that ‘we learn what we attend to’. Making it crucial that teachers consider what pupils will be thinking about in each phase of their lesson (Willingham, 2009) through direct-interactive instruction and checking for understanding.
I would recommend reading Andy Tharby’s How to Explain Absolutely Anything to Absolutely Anyone if you want to develop your explanations and get getter at direct-interactive instruction.
What about the ‘interactive’ part?
During a great teacher explanation it is vital that a teacher knows what the students are taking in (even though we know this is them ‘performing’ in our lesson). A teacher can do this in a number of ways and I will write about providing worked examples, questioning and practice in future posts. For now, when you are designing your explanations of key content make sure that you are clear and explicit on what you want the students to learn and think about during the lesson, this will help you shape the questions that you ask as a good question ‘makes the students think hard’.
During this stage in the lesson your aim is to make thinking visible and there is no better way than getting the pupils to write down what they are thinking through your use of questioning. Whether it is in a jotter or on a show me board a great teacher will take responses from a number of students so that they are confident that what they are explicitly teaching is being held in their students working memory. The use of examples, retrieval practice and purposeful practice will help in getting the information to the long term memory. As we said earlier, the more knowledge a pupils has the easier future learning will be and the further they will move along the novice-expert continuum.
Clear explanations are king
Your explanations are king in the classroom and it is so important that we get this aspect of teacher talk right, it is key to effective direct-interactive instruction’. What you directly teach the students is inevitably what they will learn in your classroom so it is important to make sure they are of high quality. So before you start a new topic be sure to consider the following:
- be clear on what you are going to say, clarity is so important
- Script what you are going to say, especially in your early years of teaching
- observe other teachers explaining new content, you can pinpoint what the great teachers do and add it to your armoury
- make eye contact with every student and make sure the students eyes are on you. You are the focal point.
- Stand still, the teacher moving too often is distracting for the students and requires extra attention which is unnecessary
- Repeat your key ideas and include them in your questions when you are making thinking visible.