Direct Instruction: What is It? What are Its Key Principles?
Good preparation is half the work done. The Direct Instruction (DI) teaching technique is about approaching the students with thoroughly planned teaching material, carefully selected working methods, and explicit tasks. If all elements are sound and methodical, teaching a new skill is nothing less than a logical consequence of carefully planned guidance. DI is also called explicit instruction.
DI is not a new trend in education. Its roots go back to the 1960s and Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley Becker working at the University of Illinois on a preschool curriculum for children of socially disadvantaged backgrounds. The program under the term DISTAR (Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading) was advanced by Siegfried Engelmann and colleagues at the University of Oregon (1). DI included seminars, participative classes, small group discussions, study groups, and focus groups. The approach of these sessions is all about the I (teacher doing the explanation), We (teacher and student learning a new skill together), and You (student doing the homework). An approach like this is said to improve students’ performance and their affective behaviors. DI is about clear instructions and an active and reflective attitude that helps divide the process of teaching and learning into smaller units with scaffolding and helps achieve mastery (4).
Rationale Behind Direct Instruction
Rosenshine (11) describes DI as “a systematic method of teaching with emphasis on proceeding in small steps, checking for understanding, and achieving active and successful participation by all students”. Direct Instruction is about having a good education program implemented by educated teachers. Everyone can learn, and everyone can teach if equipped with methodologies and techniques. And everyone’s learning and teaching success can be measured and assessed (5). Baker et al. (2013) argue “compelling evidence indicat[ing] that explicit [direct] instruction has a positive impact on a range of student academic outcomes, particularly for students who are at risk for academic difficulties” (8).
Direct Instruction is more than just a frontal approach to lectures held in classrooms. There are so many teaching techniques that can support it, and one of them is presenting a movie/documentary/video clip/ppt presentation. Although the participants merely watch and absorb the content, it is carefully selected to introduce learning objectives and curriculum by their teacher.
This approach to education – teachers designing the program and selecting the methods and educational materials while students follow and learn – is part of the overall US education system, public schools in particular. Therefore, we may say that DI and scaffolding (for example) may exist one next to the other since DI is friendly to the other approaches when carefully planned and incorporated into the curriculum. For example, if students are supposed to work in pairs according to the specific instructions given by their teacher, working in pairs may not constitute a sort of direct instruction, but the preparation process does.
- Everyone can learn (5).
- Every student can advance in their education.
- Every educator can teach successfully when appropriate coaching and data are provided.
- Students who perform lower than the others need to learn at a higher speed if they want to keep up with their equals.
- Every learning sequence must be under supervision to reduce the possibilities of errors and misinterpretation and maximize the effects of curriculum implementation.
Direct Instructions Step-by-Step
Everything about using Direct Instruction starts with careful planning. The lessons need to be planned in detail, and the teachers should introduce every piece of information with clear instructions, giving the floor to students. And students should have all the time to practice new skills to perfection. Also valuable are the teachers’ feedback information (guided practice) and the students’ immediate reflections (independent practice), followed by postponed students’ feedback (after some time has passed).
When entering the classroom, it is important to do it in a way that captures the students’ attention. Call for their prior knowledge and skills, and have them share and listen. Introduce a piece of new information and link it to what they just said. Build upon their foundations and make them realize how vital prior and new information is to your future goals (9). Keep your learning objectives at a visible sport, on a module, or on the wall/board. Make your students check the objectives as you move along with new content. This way, they visualize where you want them to go and assess if they are moving forward or not (7). Keep your explanations simple and understandable to all.
2. Introduce new learning content
As said before, a good organization is half the work done. Keep your instructions simple and understandable. Introduce new learning content slowly, brick after brick. DI enables you to do it using either lecture or a demonstration.
The frontal way – standing before your students and introducing new content – may be the most common and successful way to do it. How? Using five small but important steps:
- Give the main facts.
- Present the idea or theme of the lecture.
- Have examples demonstrating every idea.
- Repeat learning points to empower learning.
- Provide the summary and check it with your ideas and goals.
The demonstration means that it is time for small steps. Skill is a big word and needs to break down into pieces. After every stage, you should learn if everyone shares the knowledge. Use various methods – lectures, audio-visuals, work in small groups/pairs – to increase engagement and receive feedback from the students.
3. Guided practice
It is the step where your students put their knowledge into practice and build skills. It is a joint effort of the teacher and students, although the teacher is the one to lead the way. Practice straightens the errors, makes perfect, and equips students with enough confidence to practice skills independently.
There is no good understanding without checking out your students’ knowledge and understanding of what you learned. Ask questions, and then ask more questions. Only when they speak – you can be sure that the transfer is solid and you managed to build new skills. And when they connect the dots between those goals and their skills and knowledge, you can be sure you did your work well. Also, use worksheets to get comments that students are not so eager to share verbally. Whatever you do, make sure that you provide enough explanations. And when you receive poor feedback, you need to go back and do more explaining and clarification.
And then there should be enough learning, trying, and repeating to make their memory permanent. Not doing this properly will only make your work more in the next phase.
4. Individual practice
In this phase, your students own the right thing: learning material and new skills are ready to put into individual practice. They finally broaden their knowledge and build upon their old skills.
With the repetition process in individual practice, your students will realize that they need to spend less and less time thinking about their skills. They will come to them naturally as riding the bicycle. Again, make sure to have enough feedback to address possible misunderstandings and errors.
While working individually, students are going through two steps: unitization and automaticity. The first one enables them to use what they learned in everyday situations, and the latter to do it automatically. The fastest they learn and adopt new skills, the fastest they will go from unitization to automaticity.
Always make sure that everyone understands all the steps of the way. Ask questions, and test their skills if necessary. Do not go further unless there is a shared understanding of all phases. Evaluate your teaching and their learning at all times (6).
There are so many ways to do a proper assessment. Pick the way that feels right for your class. Make one and receive the information you need. And you need to learn if the content and the method you are introducing make your students learn well (10).
Formative assessments, an ongoing process that evaluates both the teacher and the students, and the connection between goals and skills are the best choice for the DI.
Criticism: What the Others Have to Say
More than often, teachers cross paths with Direct Instructions and are prone to criticize the approach and its methods. They say the DI provides too little room for students to show their ideas, explore their creativity, and state their opinions. Everything is supposed to be tight on schedule, with no freedom for the students to express themselves (2).
They also claim it is a rather elite learning program since it takes serious funding to implement all phases of the DI. It remains a mystery how a high-cost program is one of the most represented ones in school districts of the US.
Not all students learn skills at the same pace, and it is up to teachers to invest additional efforts to make the curriculum fulfilled by all.
Last but not least, a concern comes from large and diverse communities with a mix of races and cultures. More and more teachers say that DI is uniform, with no concern for races or minorities, cultural, social, and economic background of students (3).
- Englemann, S.E.(1968). Relating operant techniques to programming and teaching. Journal of School Psychology, 6, 89-96.
- Hattie, J (2009). “Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement”. London and New York: Routledge.: 206–207.
- Ryder RJ, Burton JL, Silberg A. 2006. Longitudinal study of direct instruction effects from first through third grade. Journal of Educational Research, 99, 3, 179-191.
- Magliaro, S. G., Lockee, B. B., & Burton, J. K. (2005). Direct instruction revisited: A key model for instructional technology. Educational Technology Research and Development, 53, 41–56. doi: 10.1007/BF02504684.
- Adams, G. L., & Engelmann, S. (1996). Research on direct instruction: 25 years beyond DISTAR. Seattle, WA: Educational Achievement Systems.
- Engelmann, S. (2014). Successful and confident students with Direct Instruction. Eugene, OR: NIFDI Press.
- Rosenshine, B. (2008). Five meanings of direct instruction. Center on Innovation & Improvement.
- Baker, S., Santoro, L., Chard, D., Fien, H., Park, Y., & Otterstedt, J. (2013). An evaluation of an explicit read aloud intervention in whole-classroom formats in first grade. The Elementary School Journal, 113(3), 331-358.
- Gleason, M. M. & Hall, T. E. (1991). Focusing on instructional design to implement a performance-based teacher training program: The University of Oregon model. Education & Treatment of Children, 14, 316–333.
- Kozloff, M. A., LaNunziata, L., Cowardin, J., & Bessellieu, F. B. (2001). Direct Instruction: Its contributions to high school achievement. High School Journal, 84 (2), 54–72.
- Rosenshine, B. (1987). Explicit teaching and teacher training. Journal of Teacher Education, 38(3), 34-36