Direct Instruction – Errors?

Just read the blog of @headguruteacher, who write about his response to the Seven Myths of Education book by @daisychristo  ‘The Guru’ says what many folk probably think after reading the book. The description of the teaching process as it is currently in the UK is a bit too polarising. As ‘The Guru’ says most poor teaching is exemplified by those teachers who use a strongly didactic approach. They fail to capture the interest of students and poor behaviour results. Also, I would add, that some of the proponents of the knowledge based approach, which is not Direct Instruction as described by John Hattie – more later on this, are quite inexperienced teachers and they are less able, often, to manage the learning behaviour of a class than more experienced colleagues. They don’t yet have the wealth of knowledge; they have not yet practised the art of behaviour management enough to be fluent in it. That will also apply to some experienced teachers who have not practised well enough to develop the skills to manage behaviour for learning. There will also be some SLTs who have not recognised or are not able or not willing to manage behaviour in their school so that their teachers are able to teach. It is complex stuff, with many facets.

But back to Daisy and her book. For me the science that matters is that of working memory. It is the best theory we have about how we learn. It is also quite simple. There is a finite limit to how many new things we can think about at one time. We can increase the complexity of that which we are able to think about if some of those things are in long term memory. That’s a bit brief but it does define how we learn and whatever we think about Guy Claxton and building learning power or any other system they MUST comply with working memory theory (WMT).

The implications of WMT are that we must teach knowledge, and lots of it to our students so that they can learn more complex things and that must practise to an appropriate degree of mastery so that they are fluent in the process needed to ensure future learning is based on knowledge in long term memory. A critical book to read is by Daniel Willingham, ‘Why Students don’t Like School‘. This really explains the process of knowledge acquisition fully and well. It is an easy book to read and makes so much sense. If I were still a head teacher i would buy this book for all my staff!

But… This is the bit that annoys me. Just because the initial knowledge process is dependent on WMT and other learning is driven by WMT it does not mean that all future learning is didactic teaching. After the knowledge is inside a student’s head the process of practice and exploration can be by the activity based stuff we all know works. Once students know what they need to know we can secure and deepen their understanding by engaging them in challenging work. That includes group work and probably all other activities that teachers have used for a long time.

The caveat is don’t teach the initial knowledge part in any way other than by didactic means. Didactic could be by reading and learning, or it could be by the teacher telling. What matters is that however we do the initial knowledge acquisition phase it is as uncluttered as possible. We can’t allow students to be distracted by any frippery – that’s not a word I often use – as the frippery takes up some of the student’s working memory and may stop the knowledge from  being learned.

Please stop using the term Direct Instruction. It is not the same as traditional teaching, or didactic, or anything else. DI is a very specific teaching system that is allied to computer aided instruction. Look it up on Wikipedia before you use it as a term. Or read this article by Englemann.

As I read Hattie he does not claim that anything other than DI is high up on the list of good ways to teach. DI uses WMT but a lot more in addition. Willingham does not use DI but bases his work around WMT.

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