Direct Instruction

Mr ChipsIn the early stages of the Brexit aftermath, one of the many unforeseen difficulties that came up was the Civil Service’s lack of experience in negotiating bilateral trade agreements.  The line of reasoning went that most civil servants had no knowledge of this because they’d always worked in a world in which trade was governed by the laws of the European Union.  One proposed solution, mostly facetiously I’m sure, was to call back retirees from their gardens and barn conversions in Spain to help.

We might be on the verge of a shift in education too, which perhaps while not as significant as leaving the EU, could enormously impact England’s children.  And, just like Brexit, the change may well expose significant gaps in the expertise necessary to make the process work.

The work of influential organisations such as ResearchED, individuals like David Didau and the success of schools such as Michaela have brought direct instruction in from the pedagogical cold. A decade ago this style of teaching was, to be put it mildly, distinctly unfashionable. Good teachers were guides on the side and were supposed to facilitate learning, not explain content as sages on the stage. Teachers who did teach didactically were viewed with deep suspicion and many had a pretty rough time.  Careers were blighted and, according to some teachers I’ve spoken to, lots of great practitioners were forced out of the profession altogether.

This presents schools and teachers who wish to explore direct, didactic instruction and explanation with a problem.  How can this methodology be developed and improved if the educational system as a whole has been purged of those who know how to do it?  Who do we have to teach it, either to ITT students or as CPD to experienced teachers?  A twitter poll I ran before writing this post seems to support the severity of this issue, with the great majority of respondents from a reasonably large sample saying they’d never, not once in their career received any training on direct instruction.  This is a big problem.  Direct instruction won’t improve outcomes if it’s done badly and, if teachers are left to work it out with no support it will not, at least in the short term, be done well.  This could easily cause schools and teachers initially interested in this powerful pedagogy to misunderstand and dismiss it when it doesn’t yield improved results.  There are worrying signs that this is happening already, with confusion surrounding the justtellthem hash tag leading some to dismiss direct instruction as a teacher dryly reading facts to children who are then expected to simply memorise and regurgitate them in tests.

While it is a wonderful image, rounding up the old didactic warhorses along with the old civil servants from their allotments and car-boot sales probably isn’t the most practical solution to this skills gap.  Fortunately, I don’t think it is necessary because, as Mark Enser points out in this blog, many of us have been, whether consciously or unconsciously, directly instructing for years.  The problem is that for a long time many of us have been doing it secretly and would never have dreamed of sharing our practice, for the reasons I explored in this earlier blog post. Now, if we are to best take advantage of the opportunity presented by this change in the direction of the wind, we all need to start sharing what works best.  Toby French has already begun this and anyone wanting to get a good sense of how the didactic works in a typical classroom should look here.

Outlining the lessons I’ve learned isn’t meant to, in any way, give the impression I’ve cracked it when of course I haven’t.  I am eager to hear from others about what they do so I can further improve.  I’m impatient to do so because what little I’ve learned so far took me too long.  It is the accumulation of a frustratingly inefficient decade of trial and error, chance conversations in staffrooms, snatched observations of a few teachers who did directly instruct and influences outside education altogether.  All of this was done stumblingly and secretly because I didn’t believe teaching this way was really allowed so it never occurred to me to ask for help.  Now that the environment has become more conducive my hope is just that some of what I’ve learned might help others improve faster than I did.  This post, part one of two, is focused on how to plan for good direct instruction while the second will be on improving and refining delivery.

  1. Subject knowledge is king

If they are to inspire confidence and attention, anyone speaking about anything has to know what they are on about.  Not knowing the material you want to deliver inside out means hesitation, repetition and deviation, which erodes credibility and causes students to switch off.  If students have questions it is likely we will struggle to convincingly answer them.  Children will quickly sense fakery and, quite understandably, stop paying attention.  Knowing the textbook isn’t enough because this is only ever the visible part of the iceberg.  A book may include material on Henry VII’s pet monkey but without the context it is just a rather silly and distracting story whereas with strong substantive and disciplinary knowledge it assumes meaning.

To teach well didactically, constantly upgrading subject specific knowledge must be seen as a professional duty.  We should read widely, listen to podcasts, and attend museums and lectures.  We must be sages before we step on the stage.

  1. Prepare what, not how

For many years both ITT and CPD emphasised the procedural at the expense of the substantive.  My early planning was almost entirely based around the activities I expected children to do with less thought about the actual material.  This meant that on the rare occasions I did speak to the class as a whole, my explanations were poor.  Feedback often advised me to deal with this by reducing the amount of time I spoke to the class, which robbed me of opportunities to practice and made me worse at it.  To avoid this problem we need to think very carefully about what we’re going to teach a class and how we’re going to explain it.  Strong subject knowledge makes this easier because it means a better understanding of the most significant and important areas of a topic, which can then be better emphasised in the didactic delivery.  I find making my own notes leads to better explanations.  The process helps me identify potentially tricky spots, anticipate questions I am likely to be asked, and think up analogies and metaphors that build student understanding and retention of the material.  For topics on which I know my own knowledge is still shaky, I will script out what I’m going to say after reading up.  I have a physical list of the areas in our curriculum on which I feel I’m weak and try to work on these whenever time allows.

All this means my planning looks very different to how it did when I first trained.  Whereas formerly, it was focused on the activities in the lessons, now most of my thinking goes on the substantive knowledge.  Put simply, I’ve moved away from how and towards what.

  1. Expect perfect behaviour from students

Of all the untruths in education, saying that children will always behave well if a lesson is well planned is perhaps the most damaging.  I’m determined not to make this mistake here; even the best planned didactic delivery will be derailed if students misbehave.  Early in my career there was a culture in which if you taught this way it was assumed you deserved bad behaviour from your classes.  Children became unaccustomed to paying close attention while a teacher talked, which made it harder to teach didactically than it would otherwise have been.  Poor learning behaviour is a serious threat to successful direct instruction because if students aren’t listening carefully, they won’t learn.  This makes it impossible for them to then complete tasks based on the teachers’ delivery, which makes further misbehaviour more likely.  Worse, poor behaviour while a teacher is speaking distracts the teacher themselves, affecting the clarity of their instruction and disrupting the learning of the entire group.  As the quality of the instruction goes down, so does the credibility of the teacher, which causes other students to switch off too.

If direct instruction is to be successful teachers and schools must insist on perfect learning behaviour; children must listen silently, not interrupt and save questions until an appropriate time.  Children not used to this may need to be taught how.  While this process can be exhausting to begin with it is necessary.  It means stopping and starting again if even one child is fidgeting, starting out of a window, daydreaming or tapping a pen.  It means following up these apparently minor misdemeanours with sanctions which are, at least to begin with, likely to make children angry if they’re unused to being picked up.  But it is necessary and, if the accompanying instruction is good, it will work in the end.  It might be helpful to remember, when deep in the fight, that all we’re really expecting is that children listen while their teacher is talking.


7 thoughts on “Direct Instruction

  1. Samantha Bowen says:

    It’s really interesting to read this and I enjoy the pedagogic reflection you’re encouraging. I think there is definitely space for didactic delivery but we have to be careful (I think) that there is not a wholesale return to this approach. As a student, too much passivity and sitting listening several hours a day is not a fair expectation and goes against natural impulses of children to get up, poke around, argue and debate in smaller, less intimidating groups. I remain a committed fan of guided, active learning where teachers instil the curiosity and learning skills necessary for a lifetime of auto didacticism. This includes story telling, energised knowledgeable delivery but also a variety of active, slightly messy, get involved learning. I like my classes noisy and engaged.


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  3. Brian says:

    On the subject of behaviour, I tend to come down on the side that there is no cause effect relationship between good/poor pupil behaviour and good planning. Having said that if the lesson is interesting, my experience is that learners will tend to pay closer attention and they will be less likely to behave badly.

    I think it is also the case that some teachers simply deliver boring lessons and in such a circumstance pupil behaviour is more likely to be poor.I have witnessed lessons that are as boring as you could imagine.

    Surely we should expect pupils to behave positively in response to such lessons, and pupil voice hopefully gives pupils the capability to have the situation sorted via this alternative route.

    The idea that you can have a class of 33 grade 9s, some with learning difficulties including statements and expect them to listen passively and intently while a teacher drones on is for me a little fanciful.

    Incarcerating a group of 33 kids in a small room and compelling to listen to a droning teacher will never be the norm and to that extent I dont see a shift. In my 20 years teaching I have experienced so exceptionally good behaviour and exceptionally bad behaviour. For the the worst behaviour has been dealt with by removing the individual(s) from the class, school or system rather than training them to sit a listen without fidgetting showing 100% compliance.


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