Direct instruction: It does not explain everything, nor does it explain nothing, but it does explain some things.

I’ve just undertaken some underwhelming research amongst my Facebook community. I asked them to indicate if they clearly saw an image in this old photo by liking it, or if they didn’t, then comment ‘no’. (I did let them know that it wasn’t an intelligence test.)

Mystery pic

Most people could make out the subject of the old scratchy photo.

When I first saw this image I stared at it long and hard and could make out nothing. Was it a hill, a hand grenade? It was not until I received some direct instruction – shown the outline – that I finally saw it.

A few days ago for the first time in about 10 years I saw the picture again, and I could still see the image. I can no longer ‘un-see’ it. That’s when good direct instruction is a necessity. (The answer follows, in case you are like me)

When I started teaching in the 1980s DISTAR was one of the pedagogical flavours available – Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading. Whole schools embraced the model, teaching reading and maths by this method, based on a script for every concept. In fact, I recall the program boasted that anyone can teach this way, a trained teacher wasn’t necessary. It was described in The Journal of Educational Research as:

A carefully sequenced curriculum and a rigidly controlled instructional process.

Teachers present information

Children repeat the information

Teachers ask a simple direct question about the information

Children respond.

If the response is correct the children are praised. If the response is wrong, the teacher corrects the children and the process is repeated until the children repeat the right answer.*

Sounds terrible to me.

Where’s the context for learning?

Who is driving the learning?

What is the motivation for learning?

My simple test reminded me of the effectiveness of direct instruction, but when is it necessary?

Safety procedures must be learnt and known – how to work a fire extinguisher

A skill that is essential to mastery of a complex problem or concept – perspective drawing

A rule-based context where competency must be demonstrated – learning to drive.

A procedure that requires practice – making espresso coffee

Anything else?

In my Facebook exercise there were some who required direct instruction to be able to see the picture, ands others who didn’t. Just like with your students, the pre-test shows who needs further help.

photo (30)

In 2013 direct instruction still has a place, within the context of the broader learning. But… It’s not everything, it’s not nothing, but it does explain some things.


* (from Effectiveness of the DISTAR Reading I Program in Developing First Graders’ Language Skills C. Waynel Sexton The Journal of Educational Research. Vol. 82, No. 5 (May – Jun., 1989), pp. 289-293 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.)

4 thoughts on “Direct instruction: It does not explain everything, nor does it explain nothing, but it does explain some things.

  1. Nicely said 🙂 Respond to the needs of the learner. Provide explicit teaching to those who need, when they need it. One size doesn’t fit all.
    I’ve just discovered your blog and need to go exploring!


  2. I’m sorry, but I think this misses the point of Siegfried Engelmann’s Direct Instruction to a point I find hard to articulate. Perhaps teachers who use DI can express this better than I can:

    Talking about context and motivation to the point of actually sabotaging learning and avoiding the WHAT WILL YOU TEACH ME question is an insult to the kids who come to school trusting that their time will not be wasted, which is what school has done ever since the silent learning fad swept the school system circa 1921.
    I’m no DI expert, but I think your cow picture analogy utterly (no pun intended) misrepresents what DI offers to kids: successful building of skills and knowledge, and the confidence that come with them.
    There are other videos on line, including some at


  3. Pingback: Engaged Learning

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: