It’s Time to End Direct Instruction

Direct instruction. I’ll tell you what you need to know. You record it, train yourself to know it, and then repeat it back, apply it to something else, or synthesize that knowledge plus some other knowledge in producing original work.

It’s taken a worldwide pandemic to demonstrate to us that direct instruction, except in limited circumstances with small groups of students, is just bad practice.

The thing about teaching remotely isn’t that it’s at its core a bad way to teach and learn (something that I believed before the pandemic hit and forced me to think differently). It’s bad for teaching and learning when it’s done badly. One of those bad practices is trying to teach with direct instruction in a traditional, lecture-style sense (or in a Socratic method, or anything approaching the lecture).

Here’s what I noticed, last year.

I did what a lot of teachers did at the start of the pandemic in the United States – I moved what I had been doing in class online, only it was a worse version of that in-class experience. Fortunately, a lot of my communication and submission of assignments already took place online, so what required action and change was the delivery of lesson material. I did what I had done in the classroom, only worse, and more heavily reliant on kids’ ability to pay attention. It didn’t take long to make me realize this was a catastrophic error. Students were variously engaged, disengaged, or somewhere in between in ways that I could not manage or judge effectively while merely delivering lessons through live, direct instruction.

Here’s what I noticed about what I was noticing.

Despite appearances to the contrary, not much was much different, actually, in my students’ engagement with class material. Those who found it easy to engage in class also found it easy to engage independently and in person on zoom. Those who found it difficult in person found it more difficult on zoom. The disparities in educational outcomes between different socio-economic strata in our society were also playing out between different types of learners. And those learner-types – that neurodiversity – was already a fact before we moved online. Online teaching just made it more obvious and incontrovertible. Online learning magnified the differences between learners and exacerbated any practice errors I made as a teacher.

A lot of teachers and administrators spent about half of 2020 involved in conversations like, “When we get back to normal, what should we bring with us?” indicating that there are some lessons to be learned from this experience that should inform our practice under non-COVID conditions. Here’s my takeaway: direct instruction should be abolished, except in highly specific circumstances where such instruction is the tailored and appropriate response to a learner’s needs.

When I teach to a full room of students, perhaps half of the students may be engaged as I’d hope. while a quarter isn’t capable of full engagement for as long as I might talk (even if I keep it short or am asking question after question, as I tend to do, and no matter how much I jump around with enthusiasm for my subject – whatever it is). Another quarter appears to be engaged but is mentally somewhere else. Middle School students have a lot going on! (I’d suggest the same about my undergraduate students, actually – MS students aren’t unique in distractibility.) Maybe even the half that appears to be engaged is only somewhat engaged, as I’m making all of the choices about content and direction, even if I’m nimble and responsive to perceived student needs. Perhaps I’m really only serving about 15% of the students in the room as well as I could and damned well should. The speedy students are slowed down by my hand-holding, and the students who need more direct support aren’t able to get it because I’m moving too quickly. Students who can’t write and think at the same time (almost all students at the age I teach) are going to be in trouble if I begin to write anything on the board. Others are going to be caught up in what’s happening outside my classroom door if they hear drums from the music room or footsteps just outside the door.

In short, what I’ve realized is that the pandemic has shown me the error of my ways, and now that I know about it, I’m committed to change whenever and wherever it’s possible. I vow not to do full-class direct instruction from this day forward, unless I have an excellent reason to do it (or somehow literally cannot prepare what seem to be better options – a real possibility now and again given healthy work-life boundaries).

What should replace it? Asynchronous video lessons (under 5 minutes), assignment and content options, menus, and small-group reteaching and review. One-on-one meetings on zoom or in person and small-group activities are the only times when I should be doing something that looks like direct instruction. Most of the time, I should be preparing my lesson videos in advance, making them available to students to be viewed at their own pace, setting the appropriate expectations so that my students know what their job really entails, and assessing each student individually to determine who needs what kind of support. This allows for differentiation (in point of fact, differentiation is built into this model), if I manage to succeed in these aims.

Every student should have an individualized learning plan. Every student deserves differentiated instruction and learning opportunities.

That’s not to say I’ll be able to do this all the time. Sometimes, I’ll have to revert to the mean. But I hope that when I do, I am more aware that I’m not reaching anything close to everyone, even when it appears that I’m doing a great job. This isn’t a knock against me or other teachers – we may well be doing a great job, but there’s no way to speed the class up and slow it down simultaneously while giving direct instruction. Teaching time is a zero-sum game, in this way, and students are bearing the cost of that fact.

I don’t claim knowledge of the answers – just these observations and my own personal commitments to do something different than what I’ve been doing for the last 13 years.

As members of a profession, though – at all levels of the education mosaic – it’s time for us to figure out how to end direct instruction and personalize learning for 100% of students.

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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2 Responses to It’s Time to End Direct Instruction

  1. James Kasenic says:

    Great story Steve….all teachers should be as caring and committed as you.

    • Steve Capone says:

      I approve this message!
      (Half-serious, half-kidding. I do care a lot, and I know that most teachers do! I just wish we all had the same time and resources to think through the challenges our students face.)

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