Oct 162016

This post is born out of a PhD class I am taking called “Models of Teaching.” It is a great class, but one of the requirements early in the semester was to write how I would use direct instruction in my classroom. I refused. I wrote a lengthy screed against DI. I attacked it, aggressively. What you have here is an edited, cleaned up, and less aggressive post born out of that assignment.


As a first year teacher, I was explicitly told by a principal to use direct instruction. He very carefully outlined what he expected any class to look like, and what the learners should be doing at every stage, every minute.

When that year was over, I left that school without a second thought. To deprofessionalize teaching to such a degree that someone could outline any class, any day, any lesson to the minute is reprehensible and borders on educational malpractice.

If you get the sense from this that I do not value direct instruction very highly; good.

I mean, really. Look at the way people think about education and specifically math ed. I think using comics as indicators is a great idea, because comics take a shared experience and pokes fun at it. Comics make us laugh through the pain, and there is a lot of pain in education.

Baldo, I cant believe school starts tomorrow

At the younger grades, we definitely see excitement for learning, but at some point, we beat that excitement out of kids. Why? This is a question I have asked repeatedly here, but I think DI has a lot to do with it. I mean, DI is a common way to teach math, as well as other subjects. Can we blame learners if they are bored, frustrated, and unexcited about classrooms that are taught through DI? And they are all 3.

math class is like a 40 foot long colon

Really? The punch line in this Baby Blues makes me cry. Literally. This is what the general public finds funny about math class?! But it isn’t just these comics. It goes on. And on.


The common theme of memorizing is so frustrating.


I am not advocating for “learn what you want” or unschooling, but certainly we can figure out ways to build in learner interests, right?


And DI just take us to the point repeatedly. “Oh, you weren’t paying attention while I was sharing what you were supposed to be learning? That is your problem, not mine.”

dennis-the-menace-back-to-the-salt-mines  dennis-the-menace-principal-not-warden

Yea, nothing more needs to be said here. Sigh. These were published in October. Of 2016. These are current. It makes it just that much more sad.


This Zits comic pretty much sums up the idea of Direct Instruction for me. It is clear that Jeremy (the teenager) has teachers who use DI pretty much the entire day. He is just consuming the knowledge of the teacher, puking it back for the test, and starting over each day.


And this focus on memorizing, and storing the teacher’s knowledge leaves learners doing what Paige Fox is doing here. Focus on the test, not learning. As long as the test comes out okay at the end, then all is good. Same issue Calvin had above.

But my objection to DI goes beyond the fact that it creates a horrible perception of classrooms. The philosophical underpinnings of direct instruction follow from Behaviorism and the work of B.F. Skinner.  Skinner, in his book “The Technology of Teaching” introduced wonderful machines that replaced teachers. In the behaviorist world, teaching is only necessary to introduce proper conditioning, and you do not need professionals to create those behaviors. Machines, called appropriately enough, “Teaching Machines” can replace teachers wholesale.

teaching machines by skinnerJust read the question, mark the response, check the response to the key, move a lever left if correct and right if wrong. Finish the lesson and repeat until they are all correct. This is the legitimate end result of behaviorism and the deprofessionalization of teaching. We see it in such sites as Con, er, Khan Academy, where the boring and mistake prone  lectures are used to give a false impression of learning. This kind of approach to teaching and learning is why at least one US Senator has suggested doing away with college professors and just have students watch Ken Burns videos to learn about the Civil War. Not joking. This is real. This is the direct benefactor of behaviorism.

In short, there is not enough alcohol to burn this chapter from my memory. [I leave this sentence in here from the assignment for a reason. Yes, I really did turn this sentence in, but also because it shows just how strongly I feel about this issue.]

These are harsh words. I freely admit that. I have very few, if any, kind things to say about direct instruction. I stopped teaching this way after my second year in the mathematics classroom. I would never go back, nor would I ever try to teach this way again.

It is painfully boring for the learners, and it is equally painful for the teacher. The fact it is completely ineffective to teach or learn higher order processes and skills makes it doubly not worth using.

Direct Instruction is the worst of all teaching methods, and continuing to use it just reinforces the boring nature of what learning can be. It doesn’t have to be that way! It really doesn’t.

When I write lessons, whether it was for high school or for the college classes I am teaching now, I start each lesson with these questions (replacing math with teaching now):

Am I:

–Assisting learners in creating THEIR own math understanding?


Forcing learners to curate and consume MY math understanding?

My goal is clear. I want every learner to move beyond my understanding quickly and efficiently. That can’t happen with DI. DI is a way to force learners to store my knowledge and understanding.

And, we need to figure out ways to stop asking learners to store our knowledge and instead celebrate their own. There are many constructivist teaching models. We need to use them. Find two or three that resonate with you and practice them. And then, celebrate the accomplishments of learning for more than 2 seconds.

Calvin is sad for a reason.


  3 Responses to “Why I wont use direct instruction”

  1. Wow, what an informational post, I think you really dig deep here at some of the major problems with DI, I hadn’t really thought about it as a result of behaviorist thinking before. It makes sense though, most of Skinner’s work really is about learning, not in a way that works towards a good and in depth understanding and knowledge, but rather in a way that is a very simplistic look at how learning is accomplished, and even a simplistic look at what knowledge is.

    I really think the comics you bring up really do help to capture how people feel about school, it is astonishing how many strips in a newspaper are about schooling, and they do reflect how people feel, sadly it isn’t positive.

    I definitely want to consider more constructivist models for teaching as I enter the field, especially since Math is something that is constructed so naturally from, often, simple thoughts and ideas. I am glad that I am not in a program that really focuses on making my DI better, but that focuses on letting the students work things out on their own, with class discussions rather than lecture.

  2. I teach without DI as well, but here’s what I worry about. In a typical math class, we hope to have students learn hundreds of years of human work by unparalleled geniuses. They can’t reinvent it all and if they could we don’t have time for it.

    Algorithms are out, for me. When students need support for technique, I try to give authentic demonstrations. Really open up my brain. Then there’s something for every learner to attend to. This is like a memoir to me. I know I have learned from other’s memoirs.

    Also, there are sights and wonders in math that are mostly hidden from the student’s perspective. Sometimes, I might need to be a tour guide, pointing out large features and amazing scenery from a bus covering a route that would take them years by foot. Those are the lectures I loved best. (Like Thurston here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jdmkUQDWtQ) This to me is travelogue, sharing my wonder. Students have not been given the perspective that this stuff in wonderful.

    Maybe those aren’t direct instruction by this standard, but I think my teaching has improved by my adding back some time when I am talking.

  3. […] November 18, 2016 EPSmith From Glenn Waddell’s blog […]

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