Reclaiming “Direct Instruction”

After I posted two blogs on authentic literacy instruction (see here and here), several readers tripped over my use of the term “direct instruction.”

Before examining the value in that term (and what it means), let me offer a couple of anecdotes.

While I was teaching high school English, a colleague teaching math had a classroom directly across from my room, separated by a court yard. With, I think, equal parts joking and judgment, that teacher used to say often, “I wish I could teach while sitting at my desk.”

Not unimportant here is the distinct pedagogical differences among math and English teachers—one that I believe we can fairly say is a tension between math teachers being teacher-centered and sequential while English teachers can lean more often toward student-centered and workshop approaches (although my caveat here is that English teachers can be some of the most traditional teachers I have ever met).

In my story above, the math teacher’s comment is an excellent example of the confusion over “direct instruction.” Yes, many people see direct instruction as lecture—thus, mostly if not exclusively teacher-centered with students relatively passive.

For this colleague, my students working in a writing workshop with me responding to drafts, conferencing, and the other purposeful elements of workshopping did not meet her definition of “teaching.”

Another illustrative story involves my daughter.

Her second grade teacher was a colleague of my wife, who teaches PE at the primary school. One day in passing my daughter’s second grade teacher told my wife that my daughter had been doing extremely well on her spelling tests until she began intensive and direct phonics instruction. Since then, she noted, my daughter’s spelling grades had suffered significantly.

This second example represents the ultimate failure of a narrow view of teaching having to be a certain limited type of direct instruction.

Now, when I use the term “direct instruction,” as one person perfectly commented about my blog post, I am addressing purposeful and structured or organized instruction, but I am not using the term as only teacher-centered practices.

To be direct, or purposeful, then, I see teaching as an act with several goals: curricular (including standards and high-stakes tests addressing those standards), disciplinary, and student-centered.

In any given class, teachers must address all three, but pedagogically, teachers often have some degree of autonomy over how to address these goals.

As I champion “direct instruction,” I am cautioning against placing curriculum and discipline above student, but I am also calling for building all instruction on some evidence of need.

Curriculum guides and standards justify a need; the discipline (ELA as literacy, literature, and composition) justifies a need; and students come to all courses with needs.

“Direct instruction,” then, is purposeful and organized teaching targeting one or all of these needs.

As a critical constructivist, I maintain that we must start with allowing students to produce artifacts demonstrating what they know, what they don’t know, and what they are confused about in the context of our curricular and disciplinary obligations.

Direct instruction is simply teaching with purpose to address those needs.

A failed view of direct instruction is grounded in covering the curriculum or the obligations of the discipline regardless of the students in the course.

Teaching algebra sequentially, likely with the textbook determining the structure, in order to document that you taught algebra; teaching a phonics program, again, in order to document that you taught reading—this is the failure of a narrow view of “direct instruction” that supplants the needs of the students with the needs of curriculum and the discipline.

If and when a child is spelling and decoding well, to go over phonics is a waste of time, but also very likely harmful—just as many studies of isolated grammar instruction show students becoming more apt to make “errors” after the instruction.

So here we can begin to unpack that the problem is not with “direct,” but with “isolated.”

The problem is with teaching the discipline, teaching a program, teaching to the standards and/or high-stakes tests instead of teaching students.

I am advocating for direct instruction built primarily on student needs—purposeful and structured lessons designed after gathering evidence of student strengths, weaknesses, and confusions.

And I must stress that my argument here is wonderfully confronted and unpacked by Lisa Delpit, who came to this debate because she recognized the other side of the coin I haven’t addressed yet: so-called student-centered practices that cheat students (mostly our vulnerable populations of students) by misunderstanding the role of direct instruction, by misreading progressive and critical practices as “naturalistic” or unstructured.

Writing and reading workshop are not about giving students free time to read and write; workshops are about time, ownership, and response that is purposeful and structured.

Student-centered practices are not about letting children do whatever the hell they want.

As Delpit has addressed, that isn’t teaching, and it certainly cheats students in similar ways that bullheaded and narrow uses of teacher-centered practices harm students.

If a teacher isn’t guided by needs and grounding class time in purpose, that teacher isn’t teaching.

But until you have a real breathing student in front of you, you cannot predict what that direct (purposeful) instruction will (should) look like.

Ultimately, I believe narrow uses of the term “direct instruction” are designed to shame student-centered and critical educators.

I refuse to play that game because I am directly (purposefully) teaching when I place the needs of my students before but not exclusive of the needs of the curriculum and the discipline.

And, yes, while I also hope someday more teachers can teach while sitting at their desks, I am more concerned about how we can come to embrace teaching as purposeful and structured without reducing it to a technocratic nightmare for both teachers and students.

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