Traditional Teaching – It’s not Direct Instruction as we know it.

Over the past few weeks I have tried to get to understand what Direct Instruction (DI) is and what the knowledge based curriculum is all about. Is it a threat to “progressive” teachers? Are the knowledge based fanatics about to capture vulnerable children and make them join a cult? Do they hate children? Are they ignoring individual differences between children?

The answer, as far as I can tell, is no to all of the above. They don’t tend to talk about children in that starry eyed way that “student centred” teachers sometimes do. One reason for that is that they do feel they are under some sort of attack. They cite Ofsted and some SLTs (senior leadership teams) as negating their particular form of teaching. That is slightly odd as in my understanding of how DI can work there will be times when classroom activities will be taking place that will look like activities taking place in an “ordinary” classroom. More later.

Are the DI advocates right? Sort of. It is difficult to get the detail of what they actually do across a series of lessons but I am going to try to describe how DI might be a perfectly fine way of teaching children. And there is some decent research that identifies DI as being a very good way of teaching in terms of achievement. John Hattie looked at educational research and has produced a table of those teaching activities in order of effectiveness. He identifies feedback as the most effective. Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black explained this as far back as 1987, in their small publication, Inside the Black Box. Direct Instruction comes in Hattie’s top ten. We ought to take account of educational research and marry it with our professional judgement and use what works. I know this a very emotive issue and there are many strong views. I am one of the strong view holders but I have always been open to the evidence. Sometimes this leads us to the wrong place, often because we did not use the evidence but used what felt right, or what we “thought” Ofsted had said, or … a lot of other reasons.

One of the difficulties with humans is that, once we have a view, we then to both defend “our” view and also we selectively pick up and use as further justification for our current view. If you, erroneously, hold the view that teaching to learning styles is a good thing then you will pile up the evidence in favour of that, until something happens to shake you free from that idea, possibly to attach to another, similar idea. Open minds are rare in humans, and probably in dogs as well.

So what is the basic model that DI folk are using? Not easy to answer that as they seem, the ones I have met on Twitter that is, to have developed their own versions, plural included intentionally, of DI so what I will try to do is identify the key features of what the believe and use. I am sure they will correct me if I am misrepresenting them.

Following advice, via our lovely friend, Twitter it is best to describe the teaching model as Traditional Teaching, as opposed to Progressive, rather than pure Direct Instruction. Traditional Teaching is as poorly defined as Progressive Teaching so there is quite a lot of wriggle room!

The first thing, belief, whatever is that we must teach children knowledge. Whatever that knowledge is, it must be taught. When you read that sentence, emphasise the word taught and you will get the proper meaning. Taught is critical. Children gain knowledge, in the most efficient way, by being told it by someone who knows. By being told by a teacher. They do not accept that there is any better way for the initial transmission of that knowledge. The facts, the content, the stuff that kids get examined on that is factual.

If you have carried on reading I thank you and i am glad you did. It means I can stop you being quite so outraged as you might be at what I have just written. What DI folk do not accept is that it is desirable in any way for children to discover knowledge. They see it as inefficient, and pointless as knowledge is best delivered by the teacher. During the delivery phase of this knowledge the teacher will ask questions to check that students have received the knowledge. This is not a stage of full understanding for students. That will come later.

This delivery of knowledge, managed and monitored by the teacher does have a basis in cognitive science. The details of working memory are given in the link. Essentially our working memory which we use to temporarily store and begin to process the knowledge. Until the knowledge gets moved into long term memory our students have learned nothing. Interfering with working memory, distraction, more information than working memory can hold will mean the knowledge is lost from working memory. For the DI folk students cannot envisage how a student could learn new knowledge from a project or anything else that goes under, for them, the demon named progressive teaching. And in that respect, provided the cognitive science theories are right, they are correct. So knowledge is precious and must be delivered to students directly, in small chunks that do not overload their working memory.

The next stage is almost always showing the students worked examples, where each step is small enough for them to get and fully explained so that they begin to absorb the process used to move from one step to another in the examples. What is happening now is that students have the knowledge and having got that they are able to understand the processes, skills, involved in solving the problems. One criticism of other teaching methods is that they simply provide too much information, too early. The environment is too rich for working memory to properly assimilate. That sees a sensible idea.

After the worked examples then comes practice. But practice with close and, it seems to me, quite intense feedback, correcting students’ mistakes as soon as possible, so that the get the correct knowledge into working memory rather than learn the wrong things. The work of Prof John Hattie tells us that effective feedback to learners of this sort is number one for effectiveness. The same stuff Dylan Wiliam has been banging on about for 20 years or so!

Then my understanding gets a little less evidence based as my Twitter folk have not described the process past this stage. My guess would be that they would use some further, more challenging material for students to work on. Very importantly they would want to make sure that any learning material used focused on the knowledge and the skills with minimum additional working memory load. This was, although they did not put it in these terms, their objections to the Mr Men materials from @russeltar and his Active History website. The Mr Men were an additional, unneeded distraction. Something to be learned by the students which was too poorly connected to the learning that was taking place.

I can’t get clear how the DI folk see the thing which the progressives would call engagement. I say this because when I mention engagement I was told, by a particular Tweeter, that this was not a device for focusing attention but was discipline. I think, but I may be wrong, that the expectation is that students will attend to the learning and have an appropriate focus as part of their behaviour for learning. I do have a lot of time for something along these lines. I was a head teacher who did care about students so much that we trained ours in how to learn. What behaviours were best of them and the rest of the class. We achieved results that were consistently above FFT D.

I still have questions:

What does a lesson plan or what do the material used for a Traditional Teaching lesson look like?

Is this process universally applicable for all the content in all subjects?

If the progressive method is so flawed, why is the Traditional Teaching process, not dramatically better? (One would think that if we were overwhelming the working memory so much that little would be learned)

Does this process work for all students? Equally well?

I can see how the Traditional Teaching method described may look a little clinical. Does that matter?

I think that our drive to engage students distorts the challenge, the learning challenge, we need to set them and expect, not hope, but expect them to achieve. But I wonder what part their engagement plays. What motivates students to focus and to learn?


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