Direct instruction has a poor reputation. Regardless of the language used to describe it – command style, teacher-centred, skills and drills, teaching by task – it is considered to be the poorest of relations when it comes to teaching. It is, in short, the Uncle Buck/Scrooge of pedagogical approaches.
I used to use it. I still do (but I’ll get to that later). Once it was my one and only instructional approach. My role in the class, as far as I could see, was to make all the decisions and the kids, well, if they followed my instructions then they would get better and if they didn’t – well, more the fool them. I didn’t choose to be ‘Commander Casey’– at least I don’t recall going into the pedagogy shop and picking this one off the shelf – it just kind of happened. When I started to lead small groups as a teenager in my school’s PE department I used it. When I worked unqualified for two years in the same school I used it some more. I was just following the example given to me by my teachers.
When, as a pre-service teacher, I meet a road block on my teaching practice (practicum) that my command style approach couldn’t get me past I discovered guided discovery. At the time, I really felt I discovered this on my own – through sheer pedagogical genius (oh the arrogance of youth) – but I now suspect that I’d been guided towards this by the staff on my teacher training course. I just didn’t make the connection.
So now I had two approaches. One (direct instruction) was my days of the week approach and the other (guided discovery) was my special occasion/Sunday best approach to teaching.
When, seven years later (still armed with the same two approaches – although I suspect/hope they had refined like a good wine over the intervening time) I started a Masters’ degree and discovered other ways of teaching I was gobsmacked (chiefly Britain, Australia, slang - flabbergasted, astounded, speechless, overawed). I wanted to get me some of this and I did.
The trouble is I then demonised direct instruction. Guided discovery got a better deal because more of the decisions were being made by the kids. But direct instruction was now the antithesis of what I stood for. I cast it out. Sent it packing. Cut off my nose to spite my face.
And I forgot about all the good things I could achieve with it; indeed, had achieved with it.
In short, I tried to throw the baby (Direct Instruction – now a teenager with its own hopes and dreams) out with the bath water (my desire to be a better teacher).
The things I didn’t consider when trying to do this were many. This is not an exhaustive list but I didn’t consider the sheer effort it would take to get even moderately good at using Cooperative Learning, let alone Sport Education, Teaching Games for Understanding/Tactical games, and Games Making. I don’t consider the busyness of school nor the risks that were inherent in physical education (e.g. in swimming, gymnastics, rugby etc.) and the need I’d feel to be making the decisions when faced with the largest risks to student safety. But instead of seeing the good in, and the need for, direct instruction I simply threw it away. Or at least I tried to.
The truth is direct instruction wasn’t going anywhere fast. Like Woody in Toy Story it remained a childhood favourite but was something, in my maturing years, that I couldn’t be seen to be ‘playing with’. At least not in my newly opened eyes. Despite my scorn, however, it saved me on many occasions. When my novice use of Cooperative Learning stumbled I simply (and unconsciously) brought a little direct instruction to bear on the situation. It helped me to fill the knowledge and practice gaps the kids and I had when it came to using a models-based approach.
Despite this, truth be told, it annoyed me. Why wouldn’t it just go away and leave me alone? I wanted to be this new teacher who used models and didn’t realise that it was a journey filled with many steps rather than a Start Trek teleporter. I needed to take the time to learn to teach in new ways and the kids needed time to learn to learn in new ways.
Over the years this journey has got me thinking. Why did I immediately seek to relegate the pedagogy of my youth to the position of least favourite and embarrassing uncle? To being a childhood toy left to gather dust in my toy box? Was it really that bad?
The answer is no.
And the answer is yes.
When used as my only approach to teach it was a Swiss army knife. It was a multipurpose tool used to address every pedagogical situation I faced as a teacher. It was bent and refashioned to do what I wanted but it wasn’t that malleable. The malleable bit was the kids’ learning. That could be tailored to fit my pedagogy but there was only so much manipulation direct instruction would take before a bit broke off.
When it was used alongside guided discovery it was better. Now I had two multipurpose tools. Tools that individually and collectively could address more of the dilemmas I was facing as a teacher. But they were also blinding me to other options. I still dressed #physed up as being about skills and techniques. It was about a specific body of knowledge that had to be taught and in this way my pedagogy matched by philosophy and beliefs about #physed.
One of the fundamental changes that occurred in me was the shift in philosophy. Kids didn’t need to learn how to throw a javelin exactly in the way an Olympian would throw one. They didn’t have to swim butterfly at state/district level or thread a pass like [insert the name of greater passer of the ball from your sport]. Not in every lesson or even the majority of lessons. Yes, learning to throw, swim and pass are life skills but if they (the ball or the person) got from A to B at a pace that suited them and I could help them find the means to improve that then I was doing a good job.
If I could help them develop in the physical, cognitive, social and affective domains then I was an improving teacher.
If I could dream about and practice using a models-based approach and improving as a teacher then I would be making progress. If, in turn, I could have higher/different aspiration for learning in my classroom but not make either of these dreams my master then I could make sustained progress to my goals.
What I learnt – and this was the hardest lesson for me I think – was that direct instruction wasn’t/isn’t an inherently bad thing. That said, it’s not the only instructional approach. It becomes ‘bad’ when used unquestionably. When it is positioned as a hammer and every pedagogical situation is seen as a nail then it gets used for everything. That is when it becomes (and should be) demonised and this is where it gets its poor (and well-deserved) reputation.
I wonder though. Do we demonise our own use of it or just other peoples? Do we know when we use it? Why we use it? Do we recognise it in ourselves? Do we see all sides of it and understand, when used by us, what it can/can’t help us achieve?
In his compendium of instructional models Mike Metzler (2011) positions Direct Instruction (with the by-line ‘teacher as instructional leader’) as one of his eight models. His key caveat, however, is that while the popularised notion of direct instruction may resemble the Direct Instruction Model they are not, and should not be mistaken as, the same thing. In doing this Metzler asks the reader to consider the ways in which the model differs from their own practice.
In presenting the Direct Instruction Model (and the other seven models) Metzler explores the assumptions than are made about teaching and learning when using the model. He also presents six operations that a teacher using Direct Instruction would either follow or closely follow. While it is beyond the scope of this blog to cover these in their entirety I will try and summarise below.
Assumptions about teaching: The teacher is the main source of content and should be centrally involved in planning and implementation; The teacher has the requisite content knowledge and should place that content into smaller learning tasks; The teacher should manage the complexity of the learning environment to maximise engagement.
Assumptions about learning: learning occurs in incremental steps when the learner has a clear understanding of the task and the criteria for success; learning occurs when behaviours become reinforced by positive outcomes; learners need very high rates of opportunities to respond (i.e. engagement) in order to shape their learning into the desired performance form or outcome.
The six operations for teachers (Rosenshine, 1983, p. 338 cited in Metzler, 2011, p. 174):
1. Review of previously learned material.
2. Presentation of new content/skill.
3. Initial student practice.
4. feedback and correctives.
5. Independent practice.
6. Periodic reviews.
When considered and used in this way, and when thought of as part of a programmatic approach to teaching (one that uses a range of pedagogical models/approaches), then direct instruction has a meaningful and important place within #physed. This is what took me so long to understand.
So, in reflecting on your desire to, or inquisitive interest in, adopting a models-based approach think careful about what you already do. Find the good bits and take a firm grip. My advice is don’t do what I tried to do and look to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Metzler, M. (2011). Instructional Models for Physical Education (3rd Edition). Scottsdale, Arizona: Holcomb Hathaway.
Rosenshine, B. (1983). Teaching Functions in Instructional Programs. Elementary School Journal, 83. 335-350.