We all first learned of idioms probably during the middle school years in English class. There are so many out there, such as “it’s raining cats and dogs,” “you hit the nail on the head,” and “there are bigger fish to fry.” These expressions represent a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words. They have a metaphorical purpose as opposed to literal. When it comes to practices in education, one of my favorite idioms is “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” It represents an expression of an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad. Direct instruction is one such practice.
I have and never will say that this strategy does not have value, but let’s be honest for a second. For the most part, instruction focuses on the teacher, consisting of what he or she does and the way in which content is conveyed. Learning, on the other hand, focuses on the student. It is a multi-faceted process consisting of what they do, how knowledge is acquired or constructed, and then applied in meaningful ways to demonstrate competency. While learning is the ultimate goal, direct instruction plays an integral part in setting the stage for it to occur. Thus, the move to a more desirable pedagogy such as differentiation, personalized, blended, inquiry-based, cooperative, or any other student-centered strategy might not succeed without a preceding direct instructional component.
The key is brevity. Whereas in the past, teachers could lecture on end with little or no pushback from compliant students, things have changed for a myriad of reasons. One of the most apparent challenges is how difficult it is to engage kids today. Many of us as adults experienced this firsthand during what seemed like daily and never-ending video calls. While breakout rooms might have been used to foster discourse, the length of the session almost always led to some sort of off-task behavior. Another stems from the fact that it is near impossible to meet the diverse needs using a one-size-fits-all format.
In Chapter 3 of Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, I lay out tried and true strategies to consider during any direct instruction component of a lesson while setting the stage for learning that empowers students to think disruptively by replacing conventional ideas with innovative solutions to authentic problems. Below is a summary of things to consider as you plan out your instructional design:
- Make it brief (10-15 minutes)
- Include a hook
- Review previous concepts
- Build in authentic contexts and connections
- Continuously check for understanding
- Spark higher order thinking with questions
- Provide a wrap-up at the end of the lesson
- Leverage technology for all of the above
Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater in a quest to improve learning for all kids. As a realist, there is still value in direct instruction. In his meta-analysis of over 300 research studies, John Hattie found that direct instruction has above-average gains when it comes to student results, specifically an effect size of 0.59. Another meta-analysis on over 400 studies indicated strong positive results (Stockard et al., 2018). The effectiveness of this pedagogical technique relies on it being only a small component of a lesson while using strategies that foster engagement and set the stage for empowered learning.
Stockard, Jean & W. Wood, Timothy & Coughlin, Cristy & Rasplica Khoury, Caitlin. (2018). The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula: A Meta-Analysis of a Half Century of Research. Review of Educational Research: 88(4).