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.)