(If you already know what the title means, feel free to comment on ways I could make this explanation clearer. If you have no idea what the title means, then I hope you find this primer helpful.)
Over the past couple years, I’ve been unnerved at academics and other highly educated people using the term “direct instruction” in completely inaccurate ways. It’s becoming increasingly common to see someone start by reciting research on Direct Instruction and then morph to discussing direct instruction.
It’s a complicated topic for outsiders, and detangling it in terms that don’t rely on background knowledge isn’t easy. But I’m giving it a shot.
To begin with, what kind of teaching is not considered direct instruction in any way?
University-based ed schools overwhelmingly emphasize and often even demand what is variously referred to as complex instruction, discovery-based learning, open-ended discourse. I’m going to call the whole category “progressive strategies”. This pedagogical approach argues that only good teaching forces the student to engage with the material, that simply conveying academic content as “passive” consumption provided by the “sage on the stage” is the wrong way to go about education. At best, their argument goes, the student simply absorbs the lecture or content as a rote matter, at worst, the student shuts down and rejects school altogether, feeling uninvolved and disconnected. Progressive strategies begin with John Dewey, but took on increased importance as ed schools began to argue that the achievement gap was exacerbated by teachers’ inability to engage students with “authentic inquiry” and “rich problems”.
A clarifier: “method of instruction” and “curriculum” are entirely different animals. Teachers can commit to one method of instruction or mix it up. They can use a textbook that mixes up instruction methods, going from direct to inquiry based, or textbooks that use only one method. Or they can build their own lessons using whatever method of instruction they like.
Curriculum means the specific sequence of lessons. Textbooks are a form of curriculum; however, many teachers just use textbooks as a source of problem sets without actually using the curriculum itself. Other teachers go through every problem in the book. Some formal curricula use entirely progressive strategies: e.g., CPM at the high school level. Quite a few elementary school textbooks are entirely inquiry based. So progressive strategies can either be a method of instruction or encased in a formal curriculum that districts purchased.
The term “direct instruction” dates at least to 1893. Over time, the term splintered into a variety of meanings that center around the difference between curriculum and method of instruction.
Direct Instruction, hereafter referred to as DI–the body of curriculum built by Zig Engelmann (RIP). DI’s reading curriculum won a major government competition intended to improve results for disadvantaged children.
DI is a collection of formal, highly scripted and formatted curricula–lessons, textbooks, sequencing, the works, for English and math (none of which are referred to as DI individually). DI curriculum is primarily created for elementary school, through middle school in a few topics. Teachers have to teach reading explicit text with sound cues. The students are grouped by ability and can only move on when they have proven mastery. The DI curricula in total was recently the favorable subject of a meta-analysis that I wrote about last year. While DI is generally considered effective, it is not popular, some of the reasons for which I discuss here. It has not been easily adopted, and has often been ripped out of schools despite the active resistance of principals and parents.
di–The most important thing to understand is that di is not DI. di is an instruction strategy, not a curriculum. The only curriculum discussed specifically in this article is DI, above. The next most important thing to understand is that there isn’t one di, but several, which shall be categorized by subscripts.
dib — Broadly, direct instruction is any form of conveying information that is teacher-led. The teacher provides procedures, content, or methods verbally, or by providing materials that directly instruct the student–videos, readings, worksheets. Lectures are direct instruction. Explanations are direct instruction. Written procedures are direct instruction. What most people think of when they hear the term “direct instruction” is the broad definition, the one that dates back to 1893.
dir –More narrowly, as the achievement gap proved resistant, researchers have tried to quantify specific methods of explicit instruction that work best in terms of improving academic outcomes for disadvantaged or low-performing students. Over time, some researchers began formalizing prescriptive strategies (not curriculum) of straightforwardly conveying information. As these methods derived from formal research, we’ll call these dir .
Explicit Direct Instruction is a common research-based strategy. Barak Rosenshein referred to his methods of effective teaching as direct instruction. The bag of methodological tricks advised with the research on cognitive load theory is another. These are prescriptive methodologies (eg, “I do, we do, you do” of EDI). They aren’t curriculum, but they aren’t “just tell the kids what to do” of dib , either. They also apply almost purely to procedural content, which means they are used almost exclusively in math, some applied science, and maybe grammar and phonics. You can’t use EDI or worked examples when teaching history or literary analysis.
dii –The last subscript of di is only distinct because its adherents make it so. There are people, some of whom are teachers, many of whom are not, most of whom have access to a mainstream audience through various media outlets, who hold progressive strategies in contemptuous disdain. People of this mindset use “direct instruction” to describe the method they actively support over progressive strategies. These people are wont to say “I believe in direct (or explicit) instruction” or “I believe in traditional methods”. dii advocates see progressive methods as at best ineffective, at worst harmful or destructive. They feel that education schools are destroying America’s schools by indoctrinating teachers into a failed instruction technique.
It’s important to realize that this is an ideological position, not a curriculum or a strategy. In actual practice, most dii teachers use dib , although some may subscribe to a particular dir . They are stating an ideological position (hence the i subscript).
So DI curriculum exists outside of the di pedagogical strategies, and two of the three di strategies exist in planned and formal opposition to the progressive strategies that dominate in education schools. Got it?
Everything up to this point has been an honest attempt to describe the categories simply, without boring you to tears with unnecessary details. I’m not the first person to describe this ambiguous term–several explanations have been linked in throughout this essay and for just one more, here’s Larry Cuban on the topic. I did not invent the DI/di nomenclature, nor am I the only person to categorize them (e.g., Rosenshein’s group of Five), although the subscripts are mine own.
I’m writing about these terms because very few of these explanations address the penetration levels of these strategies.
Add up all the teachers using strict versions DI curriculum , dir strategies, or any formal, committed, progressive strategy. What percentage of American teachers would that be?
No one knows. Everyone outside the DI/dir proponents would agree unhesitatingly that the combined total is very small. Progressive advocates certainly know they’re in the minority.
My own guess would be about 10% of all the high school and middle school teachers and almost all of that number would be progressive teachers. DI curriculum barely exists for high school, and while districts periodically commit to various dir strategies, they never follow through for long. Others put the total number higher.
Everyone I know of agrees that the numbers, whatever they are, are higher in elementary school, if only because there are numerous elementary DI and progressive curricula and elementary school teachers are more committed to textbook use than middle and high school teachers are. I’d still place it low, at something like 15%, but it may be as high as 30%. Others would argue for more, but in my opinion that would be stretching the definition. Again, this percentage is combined DI/dir and progressive strategies.
Understand my numbers aren’t counting as progressives teachers who run through an occasional inquiry-based lesson, or who demand their students demonstrate they understand the “why”, nor am I counting as DI/dir the teachers who lecture or work an example on the board. I’m talking about full-throttle discovery all the time, or “word what word?” or “I do, we do, you do” every day without exception. It’s….not many teachers.
This debate, which consumes almost all schools of education, no small number of researchers, and and the bulk of education reformers, is almost entirely irrelevant to most actual teachers and their practice.
In the real world, most teachers use dib , without a conscious, fully formed method of instruction or pedagogical philosophy.
You’re thinking wait, ed schools mandate progressive strategies, but very few teachers use them?
So this entire argument punches far outside its weight class. The research gets translated into mainstream publications and the dii folks, those ideologically committed to fighting progressive strategies, are very good at getting published. (I make that sound sinister, don’t I? No, I’m admiringly envious.)
I don’t know whether the DI/di confusion is cause or effect but increasingly I’m seeing a lot of highly educated people with a very consistent set of beliefs:
- Most teachers use progressive strategies.
- Research shows direct instruction is more effective than progressive strategies.
- If more teachers used direct instruction, students would learn more, like they did in the past when schools were more successful.
- Teachers refuse to use direct instruction because they are a) brainwashed, b) lazy, c) ideologically driven, d) some other reason involving their low status brain power
These beliefs are either completely false or, at best, incomplete. I sometimes wonder if these beliefs lead to the Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gates of the world thinking that K-12 education is an easy fix–just get those damn teachers to explain things clearly, and we’ll see a huge boost in academic outcomes.
But it’s not that simple. Nothing in education is ever simple. For example, the more heterogeneous the class ability, the more likely it is that whatever method the teacher uses is going to hamper some students while at best only slightly helping others. There isn’t a smart kid on the planet who is ideally served by a steady diet of DI or di*, and disadvantaged, low-skill student can at worst be actively harmed by progressive instruction methods.
So next time you read an article on DI/di*, see how well the writer manages to make these distinctions clear–and remember that regardless of the writer’s intensity level, most teachers don’t care in the slightest.
Note: Michael Pershan was invaluable in giving me feedback on this piece, and Tom Loveless gave me some important data. Their help should not be construed as agreement. Thanks to both.