Direct instruction (an approach) and constructivism (a theory of learning)

In the past, I’ve encountered arguments that the only pedagogical approach that is effective for student learning is direct instruction, and that all other pedagogies are worthless. To me, such a position is an extreme one, and requires serious qualification. I believe, on the basis of all that I have read and discussed with others throughout my study and work as a primary teacher, and more recently my research as a PhD candidate (and still as a passionate teacher, albeit in higher education) that direct instruction is not the simple answer it is asserted it to be.

If we define direct instruction as explicit instruction with deliberate and distributed practice to meet an intended outcome or objective, we pretty much describe a significant part of “good teaching”, regardless of whether it’s teacher- or learner-centered (in other words, driven by the teacher’s interpretation of the curriculum, or influenced by the background, interests, inquiries, and prior conceptions of the learner). However, the definition of direct instruction proposed to me precludes child-centered pedagogies. Direct instruction is hence premised on belief in a transmissive theory of education: the teacher makes a statement, and the learner memorises it.

Explicit instruction includes effective strategies for teaching important knowledge and developing proficiency in skills, including simple problem- solving, but these are not the only desirable outcomes of education, and it does not preclude other approaches, including inquiry, and problem-based learning (both of which, when done well, include explicit instruction and scaffolds). These approaches can be applied in a way that is consistent with constructivist theories of learning, just as they can be applied in a way that is consistent with cognitivist theories of learning (such as information processing theory).

As Allan Luke has said,

explicit instruction in its various forms is one necessary part of an effective teaching repertoire – direct instruction is not and by definition cannot be seen as a universal or total curriculum solution.

A narrow view of outcomes

Teaching and learning are both complex acts that have outcomes beyond what can be measured by standardised, multiple-choice tests or compared with perfect clarity. This is often how “knowledge” is measured in formal high-stakes tests such as NAPLAN and the PISA and TIMMS tests, and other tests that are used in research to judge student learning, because they are easy to mark and the results are quantitative. But such responses do not reflect the students’ real understanding or conception of an idea. Knowledge is not understanding; it is easy for a student to learn and parrot a statement or idea back to a teacher, or to indicate which answer most represents the position of their teacher. As these studies look at outcomes on standardised tests and similar assessments, they are necessarily limited to only commenting on the effect of various strategies on these outcomes.

Many purposes, many tools

To restrict teachers to using only one tool then restricts teaching and learning to only one set of outcomes: basic declarative and procedural knowledge. Additional outcomes such as conceptual understanding can be developed by both explicit instruction and constructivist approaches to learning, and the two approaches often overlap in the primary classroom. A constructivist position is particularly important in the development of literacy, numeracy, science and the social sciences, because it considers the prior understandings of the student and is thus useful for countering misconceptions and developing appreciation for the epistemologies of knowledge (Taber, 2011). It promotes situations in which students take on the role as knowledge-builder, rather than teacher-pleasers. In the context of science learning, Jimenez-Aleixandre calls this “doing science” rather than “doing the lesson” (2000). In contrast, direct instruction often relies heavily on the authority of the teacher, which is not always (and arguably should not be) automatically afforded by students.

There are issues with the evidence

The bulk of the evidence for direct instruction was collected during Project Follow Through, and a paper by Kirschner et al (2006) presents supporting arguments. They are the kind of positivist research projects and arguments that I would have been attracted to just four or five years ago, presenting an apparent silver bullet to solve all problems in teaching and learning. However, a thorough reading of these papers does not convince me to shift my position. Criticisms of both projects have been raised throughout the years by others, and include (but are not limited to):

  • Definitions of direct and explicit instruction, and flawed characterisations of all other pedagogical stances, which call into question the validity of the interpretations; inquiry done well includes explicit instruction, and requires students to apply their knowledge to the inquiry

  • Methodological issues including population variance (or a lack of it), and dilution of approaches, which call into question the reliability and generalisability of the results from Project Follow Through; replication is required (and ethical considerations necessary)

  • Issues of what was valued and what was not valued by the researchers, with an emphasis on declarative and procedural knowledge and skills (specifically skills in reading and writing and associated skills such as comprehension and spelling)

Such issues and criticisms are referenced below (see particularly House et al, 1978, and Kuhn, 2007). Evidence and reasoning are both important in forwarding an argument, and the reasoning of the critics has not been adequately addressed. Replication is important, and in educational research is extremely difficult to accomplish. Just as in all other fields of active research, not all problems, issues, hypotheses and phenomena have been investigated yet, nor is it likely we will ever complete the search for ways to optimise and maximise the achievements and accomplishments of students. To argue that only pure, ‘falsifiable’ research results can inform teachers on how to practice is severely limiting and ignores the experiences of individuals and populations of teachers who have spent many years in the classroom.

The debate over direct instruction thus remains semi-unresolved, with my current position that it is useful and effective for developing quantitatively measurable outcomes of learning, including basic declarative and procedural knowledge including some basic problem-solving skills. But I maintain that there are other ways to teach that may someday be found to be just as effective, if not more so, in developing different outcomes, including appropriately scaffolded inquiry incorporating explicit instruction.

It is important to concede differences in the definitions of these pedagogies and in the premises on which we as teachers base our judgments of the purpose, contexts, specifications and constraints of various pedagogies. It is difficult to ignore the prior ideas, background, and interests of students and still engage them in learning meaningfully. Further, there is value in motivating and scaffolding students through opportunities for them to undertake inquiries of their own interest and determination under the guidance of a skilful teacher; inquiries that build upon knowledge and skills in a purposeful way.

A limited bibliography

For those wishing to learn more and make up their own mind.

Biesta, G. (2015). What is education for? On good education, teacher judgement, and educational professionalism. European Journal of Education50(1), 75-87.

Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Duncan, R. G., & Chinn, C. A. (2007). Scaffolding and achievement in problem-based and inquiry learning: A response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 99- 107.

House, E. R., Glass, G. V., McLean, L. D., & Walker, D. F. (1978). No simple answer: Critique of the Follow Through evaluation. Harvard Educational Review, 48(2), 128-160.

Jimenez-Aleixandre, M. P., Rodriguez, A. B., & Duschl, R. A. (2000). “Doing the lesson” or” doing science”: Argument in high school genetics. Science Education, 84(6), 757-792.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

Kuhn, D. (2007). Is direct instruction an answer to the right question? Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 109-113.

Schmidt, H. G., Loyens, S. M., Van Gog, T., & Paas, F. (2007). Problem- based learning is compatible with human cognitive architecture: Commentary on Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 91-97.

Taber, K. S. (2011). Constructivism as educational theory: Contingency in learning, and optimally guided instruction.

Any other references you recommend? Please share them in the comments.