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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

May 13, 2014 at 12:42 PM

Guest: Direct instruction offers clearest path for student success

marcy stein

Marcy Stein

How best should we educate our children? With direct instruction.

For more than 50 years, the best way to educate children has been heatedly debated by those who favor teacher-directed instruction (also known as explicit instruction) and their opponents who favor student-centered instruction — to the point where the debates have become “wars,” e.g., the reading wars, the math wars.

Those who promote student-centered approaches falsely assume that children learn better when direct instruction is minimal, when the teacher is not a teacher at all but a coach who facilitates each child’s individual rate of learning and personal creation of knowledge.

As a matter of fact, schools where teachers use direct instruction almost always measurably outperform similar schools where teachers do not. The superiority of direct instruction for students at risk for academic failure was recently recognized in a Seattle Times editorial about Auburn’s Gildo Rey Elementary, a highly successful school in an impoverished community.

Despite all odds, this school has “become one of the top-scoring public elementary schools in Washington state.” Focusing on the students’ excellent results there, the Times’ editorial board rightly recognized that the success is due largely to this school’s use of direct instruction. The students in this school performed remarkably well on state tests that measure both basic skills and higher-order thinking.

If direct instruction has been so successful, why hasn’t it been more widely adopted? One crucial reason, I believe, is because influential critics confuse direct instruction with rote instruction and associate rote instruction with the derogatory phrase “drill and kill.”

Students are eager to answer a question posed at them by fifth-grade teacher Michael Fitzgerald at Gildo Rey Elementary in Auburn. Fitzgerald takes part in a style of teaching called direct instruction that involves constant engagement and vocal repetition between teacher and student. Photo by Genevieve Alvarez / The Seattle Times.

Students are eager to answer a question posed at them by fifth-grade teacher Michael Fitzgerald at Gildo Rey Elementary in Auburn. Fitzgerald takes part in a style of teaching called direct instruction that involves constant engagement and vocal repetition. Photo by Genevieve Alvarez / The Seattle Times.

But carefully designed direct instruction is not rote. Done right, it leads to genuine achievement that in turn leads to increased self-esteem and to joy in learning.

In the best examples of direct instruction, the teacher does not stand to the side but rather models for students how to move from one level of understanding to the next. In addition, the teacher strategically designs frequent opportunities for meaningful practice that logically lead students to independence and self-sufficiency.

It is tragic that a misunderstanding about the true nature of direct instruction has prevented its wider adoption by underperforming schools. Underperformance, though, is not only a problem in economically challenged schools but also in affluent ones. On international assessments, the achievement of even the highest performing U.S. students, most of whom come from affluent communities, compares poorly with that of their international counterparts.

Meanwhile, desperate affluent parents dismayed by their children’s lack of achievement flock to private tutoring centers that offer direct instruction. That these tutoring centers have become extremely profitable is not surprising — but is disturbing. All students can benefit from direct instruction no matter what their backgrounds.

A truly student-centered approach to education is one in which demonstrable student learning takes priority over everything else. To date, the best route to success for all of our children is through direct instruction.

Marcy Stein, Ph.D., is a professor of education at the University of Washington Tacoma, where she won the Distinguished Scholarship Award in 2006. She has served as a consultant on instructional practice to numerous school districts around the country and abroad.

Related: The drawbacks of direct instruction (guest opinion, April 30)

Comments | More in Guest opinion, Opinion | Topics: direct instruction, Marcy Stein

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The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only, and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.


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