When direct instruction is less effective
How research can help
In the last ten years or so, I have become familiar with research on what makes explicit teaching effective. The main source for the explicit teaching model is the process-product research that took place from roughly the 1950s to 1970s. This involved observing teachers in classrooms and then correlating their behaviours with how much students improved on assessments (typically reading or maths).
This research, by its very nature, cannot tell us for sure that a particular teaching behaviour caused more learning in students, but it is highly suggestive. People often think of explicit teaching as a single episode in a lesson when a teacher explains a concept, but the process-product findings were about much more than this. Yes, the defining element is that all relevant concepts are fully explained to students, but there are other considerations. Effective teachers in the process-product studies asked students lots of questions and took charge when guiding student practice and when monitoring independent work. Many of these findings were later verified by smaller-scale studies that tested one component or another.
Brophy and Good called this model ‘active teaching’. Barak Rosenshine has called it ‘direct instruction’ although in his most famous article, he doesn’t name it. Instead, he just refers to it as a set of research-based strategies.
This is perhaps wise because, as Rosenshine notes, ‘direct instruction’ can mean many things and can be an emotive term. Capitalised as a proper noun in the form of ‘Direct Instruction’, it also refers to a distinct set of programmes developed by Siegfried Engelmann and his collaborators that are related to the process-product findings but have their own unique features.
This is why I use the term ‘explicit teaching’ to refer to a teaching method informed by the process-product studies. Nevertheless, I cannot avoid some of the definition problems.
Although I frequently warn that inquiry learning and its variants lack evidence, I don’t think they form the bulk of the teaching that takes place, at least in secondary schools. In fact, depending on how malleable you are prepared to make the term, forms of direct instruction tend to dominate.
However, when uninformed by research, these forms of direct instruction are not as likely to be as effective as the forms of teaching uncovered by the process-product research. So, where do these other forms of direct instruction come from and how can you spot them?
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