On doubt and Direct Instruction

23 Jun 2017


“I don’t believe anyone ever suspects how completely unsure I am of my work and myself and what tortures of self-doubting the doubt of others has always given me.”
Tennessee Williams

Reaching the end of my first academic year of blogging and engaging with online dialogue about teaching, there is one frequent aspect that keeps resurfacing. It is an element that appears to be the driving force behind the best of what I have read this year: doubt. Doubt that has driven individuals to carefully reflect on a particular area of their practice; doubt that has resulted in them engaging in dialogue to deepen understanding; doubt that has resulted in embracing the notion of continually improving their craft in the classroom and in schools. For most, the process of writing and reading is not about narcissism, instead it requires humility as they seek to grapple with this doubt and make steps in moving forward. It has been yet another reminder that the best and most authentic teachers I have come across don’t radiate confidence and self-assurance; they radiate instead a quiet doubt that drives them to provide the best for young people.

In some very Zen reading this week I was dipping into ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ by Sogyal Rinpoche. It draws a distinction between the “nihilistic” form of doubt – that will hold us back, freeze us and stop us from any development and progress,  and “noble doubt”: a doubt that “spurs us onward, inspires us, tests us, makes us more and more authentic and empowers us.” It advocates an approach whereby rather than being held back and constrained by our doubts instead:

“What we need to learn is how slowly to change our culturally conditioned and passionate involvement with doubt into a free, humorous and compassionate one. This means giving doubts time, and giving ourselves time to find answers to our questions that are not merely intellectual or philosophical, but living and real and genuine and workable”

It is a philosophy like this that challenges the article that appeared in this week’s TES online entitled: ‘‘Let’s celebrate teachers who quietly get on with the job, rather than the perceived wisdom of education gurus’ There was some points in the article that I agreed with, particularly in seeking to validate the efforts of all and in recognising the quiet wisdom of experience. Yet I believe the notion that we should become a “doer” rather than a “guru” that appears in the article, is hugely limiting. It seems to be yet another call to accept the teacher treadmill of repetition that forgets the time needed for growth and improvement. To energise ourselves and our teaching we need to step outside of our own walls and make time for doubting, for thinking and in turn, for growing.

So, in the spirit of “compassionate” investment in doubt and making time, to this week’s teacher doubt: Direct Instruction. For some time in education there would be audible gasps of shock if “teacher talk” dared to appear in a conversation about how best young people learn. There would be a scoffed response about the danger of becoming a “sage on the stage”: a didactic lecturer to a room full of “vaults” as splendidly parodied by the scathing Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’

“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”

Myths about young people’s capacity to listen and retain information were everywhere: they could not possibly listen to more than three minutes of teacher talk at a time. Instead “engaging” learning methods dominated: collaborative classroom strategies; inquiry based learning; accelerated learning etc. The teacher facilitated such work, but to lead and direct was foolish. Ofsted and political agendas perpetrated the madness, promoting the “guide on the side” approach to teaching and endlessly depicting real learning as “fun” and “engaging”.

I very much rode this wave of non-teacher talk, I seem to recall one mentor with a stopwatch and interesting chopping hand gestures every time I started to “over speak” in my training year.  While I now appreciate the need for balance and for variety, I still feel that my ability to give instructions, to give clear and helpful explanations, to lead and to direct could be improved. I also feel this is still a pervasive general teaching doubt: how long should we speak in lessons for and how do we make that time effective? Thankfully recent research and the voices of dissenting teachers has started to see a seismic shift, moving away from muting teachers in the classroom, to a much more meaningful dialogue: what exactly is efficient and effective teacher talk?

What is Direct Instruction?

Joe Kirby’s post  What can we learn from Direct Instruction and Siegfield Engleman? is an excellent read in validating the Direct Instruction method of teaching.  He cites research such as that conducted in 1968 by the US government where it began the biggest educational experiment ever conducted, charging Siegfried Englemann with determining the best way of teaching at-risk children from kindergarten through to grade 3. In ‘Project Follow Through’ they used over 200,000 children in 178 communities, comparing 22 different models of instruction. Kirkby highlights the result in this post:

‘Eighteen school districts, some rural, some urban, applied Direct Instruction (DI). When the testing was over, students in DI classrooms had placed first in reading, first in maths, first in spelling, and first in language. No other model came close. Many of the others underperformed the control groups. DI even defeated the developmental and affective models on their own turf: DI students also placed first in self-esteem. Apparently children who mastered reading, writing, and maths felt better about themselves than those who did not.’

The National Institute for Direct Instruction website expands on this and provides practical examples of how to embed strategies in lessons. Kirby goes on to highlight  more recent research in 2009 in John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’ , in which Hattie explored over 800 statistical analyses on the effects of teaching techniques on student achievement:

“By exploring direct instruction across 304 studies and looking at over 42,000 children he found that the effect size was 0.82, greater than any other curriculum that Hattie studied, and greater than any other technique apart from feedback.”

Kirby then goes on to highlight the key lessons to be learned from Englemann’s pioneering research. A perusal of Richard E. Clark,Paul A. Kirschner, and John Sweller’s  ‘Putting Students on the path to learning, the case for fully guided instruction’, finds further clarification of the importance of direct instruction:

“Decades of research clearly demonstrate that for novices (comprising virtually all students), direct, explicit instruction is more effective and more efficient than partial guidance.”

Having read the excellent ‘Memorable Teaching’ by Peps Mccrea this year and reflected in this post on his ideas on memory, I now feel I have more of a grasp of how to teach effectively for both short term and long term memory. As he notes: “Our job as teachers is to help our students build deep and durable Long Term memory, to build enduring understanding.” To strengthen both for students, however, requires the ability to instruct and provide knowledge. Expecting young people to discover learning for themselves without necessary input from us as teachers leads to misconceptions. It also breeds frustration in the classroom, as students develop their understanding of a concept at different rates. This leads delightfully on to:

How to give great explanations:

Alex Quigley’s blog ‘Infectious Explanations’ has an array of nuggets for how to make the transition from: “the curdled notion of ‘talk less teaching‘ and herald the power of ‘talk better teaching‘.” His explanations cycle is particularly interesting to explore, with “the artful repetition” an area to examine in ensuring young people have clarity about explanations.

His post on explanations: top ten teaching tips, also provides excellent strategies for seeking to develop clear strategies to improve explanations:

“These are my top tips try to address different aspects of effective explanations – the what and the how of explanations – the content and the delivery. What is reassuring is that really effective explanations can be deconstructed and be based upon evidence of how memory works, rather than being simply attributed to the power of personality. Great explanations, like all aspects of great teaching, can be repeatedly honed and improved.”

He evaluates a number of these areas to practise, including understanding prior knowledge, embracing a core message, using analogies, metaphors and images among others. Importantly he highlights the importance of not deviating into a stream of consciousness and regularly checking for understanding through questioning. Clearly there needs to be a workable balance, a fine line between direct instruction, dialogue and allowing sufficient time for deliberate practice.

“One way to secure attention and to make any crucial modifications to our explanations is to ask targeted questions. By having a ‘no hands up’ approach on selected occasions can secure a higher degree of attention… Questions can close in on the core message, but also open up to interesting analogies and ideas that deepen understanding. When considering an effective explanation a teacher should automatically have questions embedded in that explanation and be ready to flexibly respond to the answers, recasting and redirecting, even repeating the explanation if required”

The process of embracing Direct Instruction

The Summer term is an excellent one for our own deliberate practice: picking an element of teaching to seek to invest real reflection on improving.  Last week I wrote on the non-verbal strategies that can make an impact in the classroom and I will be continuing to experiment on these as we move towards some much deserved sunshine. This will be coupled until the end of term (or a collapse) with trying to give better explanations and trying to hone Direct Instruction methods. Time is now on our side to plan out how to approach an explanation or questioning in more detail. This transition is certainly inspired by Ben Newmark sharing his own thoughtful journey to improved instruction in his three posts on Direct Instruction:

“Outlining the lessons I’ve learned isn’t meant to, in any way, give the impression I’ve cracked it when of course I haven’t.  I am eager to hear from others about what they do so I can further improve.  I’m impatient to do so because what little I’ve learned so far took me too long.  It is the accumulation of a frustratingly inefficient decade of trial and error, chance conversations in staffrooms, snatched observations of a few teachers who did directly instruct and influences outside education altogether.  All of this was done stumblingly and secretly because I didn’t believe teaching this way was really allowed so it never occurred to me to ask for help.”

In these fascinating posts, Newmark unpicks the importance of strong behaviour management, body language, cadence and inflection, storytelling amongst others, in a wide spreading analysis of how to improve this aspect of teaching. Lots to think about, lots to enjoy experimenting with.

Of course there is a place for ‘quietly getting on with the job’, it is what a huge amount of our weeks are consumed by. Yet alongside this, embracing the world of reflection is hugely important in widening our perspective. To close with the ‘Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ (pretentious, me?) “Don’t be in too much of a hurry to solve all your doubts and problems; as the masters say “Make haste slowly.”  The rush to become an expert teacher can be all encompassing: yet like any profession it requires time. Time to learn from those more experienced, time to watch, to read, to reflect, practise and move forward. My ventures into expanding an understanding of Direct Instruction this week further reinforce Rinpoche’s words: “the journey is one of continuous learning and purification”

I am quietly confident that Paul Weller and the ‘Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ have never been combined (unless I am directly instructed otherwise). In times of doubt there is as a refreshing clarity to Mr Weller’s capacity for change: “I’m the changing man, built on shifting sands”. Thanks for reading: we are teachers, built on shifting sands.



Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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