Direct Instruction works. And I’d never send my own child to a school that uses it.
That may seem like a paradox. But the picture becomes much clearer once you have a sense of what Direct Instruction looks like. Half a century old, the program groups children by ability, breaks learning objectives down into their component parts, utilizes frequent assessment and immediate correction, and even scripts teacher instruction. According to the model’s designer, Direct Instruction is “a set of procedures for producing a change in behavior toward a pre-stated objective.”
Not surprisingly, students in Direct Instruction classrooms tend to score well on tests. Even in less-formal applications of the model — in which “direct instruction” is not capitalized, teachers work without scripts and the school does not purchase materials from a DI provider — the approach is teacher-centered, simplifies classroom aims to the basics, maximizes instructional efficiency and emphasizes repetition and drill. Want to raise reading comprehension scores? Direct Instruction (or direct instruction) is a surefire way to do it.
But the strengths of the program are also its weaknesses. The program dramatically narrows the aims of education and leaves little room for creativity, spontaneity and joy in the classroom. Although test scores may go up, the improvement is not without a cost.
Where do we see Direct Instruction? Not in affluent neighborhoods or in prestigious college-preparatory schools. Instead, the program is almost exclusively the preserve of schools serving our most vulnerable students.
To be clear: many under-served students are in desperate need of basic skills. And there is a simple justice in the promotion of literacy and numeracy. Our most vulnerable students need to be able to read, write and compute, and no program that helps them do these things should be viewed as a detriment.
But I want as much for those children as I want for my own daughter.
So, yes, I do want low-income and minority students to possess basic skills. But I also want them to see school as a place of exploration and wonder, to develop their passions, to cultivate their interests, and to delight in their own discoveries. I want those students to compute, but I also want them to create. I want them to write in paragraphs, but I also want them to write poetry.
When we say that Direct Instruction works, the first question we should ask is “works at what?” Because there are very real limits to what the model can do.
And the next question we should ask is “who do we envision receiving this kind of instruction?” Because in all likelihood, the answer is not “everyone.”
Creating truly great schools for all children is not easy work. In fact, there is almost nothing so complex as a school environment, and schools with high-needs populations face far greater challenges than their more privileged counterparts.
But we need not accept a narrower vision of what it means to educate. We should want everything. And we should want it for every child.
Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and the author of two books, including “From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education.” On Twitter: @Edu_Historian.
Related: Direct instruction offers clearest path for student success (guest opinion, May 13)