Let’s look at the model of instruction that I learned in pre-service and that my school district really really loved.
Direct Instruction, like all models, is very useful in some situations and not useful in others. It excels at teaching students to perform a specific skill. I’d use it when my class needed to learn the steps to:
- multiply fractions
- write a compound sentence
- put words in alphabetical order
These are specific, discrete skills. Something we can check and say, “Yep, you got it.”
Direct Instruction is not helpful for understanding why we multiply fractions in this way. It won’t help kids to become more beautiful writers. It won’t help them plan an amazing project. It just equips them with specific skills.
I’d say that Direct Instruction is best for low-level, procedural tasks. Necessary lessons, but not really our main goal as educators.
Direct Instruction’s main feature is movement from the teacher-control to student-control. We start by demonstrating and end with students working independently. Now, this jump is too large on its own. We can’t just model and then say, “Ok, your turn”, I’m going to sit down and read my newspaper.
Direct Instruction guides us through intermediary stages to gently transition from teacher to student.
- Modeling – The teacher does it all.
- Structured Practice – The teacher does it, but with input from students.
- Guided Practice – Students do it, with input from the teacher.
- Independent Practice – Students do it.
And I’d say that you could even break those stages down further. Independent practice done at school is more scaffolded than independent practice done at home. Practice done in a small group is more scaffolded than work done by oneself. Independent practice done sitting with the teacher is highly scaffolded.
And, yes, you should open with an “anticipatory set” and close with, well, “closure.” But the core of direct instruction is this scaffolded movement from teacher modeling to student independence.
The Modeling stage is straightforward. I show my students the steps to perform the skill. Of course, I’m still engaging. I’m talking to individual students, being weird, speaking softly and then loudly; all of the things we do to stay interesting.
But then, as quickly as I can, I’m onto the next stage. We don’t want to hang out in Modeling very long. It’s the one stage where kids are passively watching.
Now, for Structured Practice, I start another example, but uh oh I forgot the next step, class! I will say:
Think for a moment. Now, tell the person next to you what I should do next. Use a British accent.
I purposefully don’t call on a random individual here because they’re not ready for it yet. We’re barely out of Modeling, so I scaffold with some partner sharing. Now I could ask for three volunteers to tell me what to do. Asking for volunteers is less intimidating than randomly picking kids. Later in the lesson, I’ll move to random “volunteers”.
Then, I work through some more of the example, but then say, Oh no! Did I do that last step correctly? Check with your partner.
So, I’m still modeling, but gently moving responsibility to students. They are active during this time, even though I’m “doing the work.” They know I’m expecting them to follow along enough to help me or correct me.
And, as soon as kids are getting it, move on!
Now I’m going to plop more responsibility onto my students’ plates. During Guided Practice, I make great use of our individual whiteboards. I’ll put an example up. My class works through the example. Then they show me on their whiteboard. I can very quickly get a sense of my students’ understanding.
If most of the class is getting it, I move on. If a handful of kids are struggling, I note that so that I can work with them during the next stage. If most kids are struggling, I step back into Structured Practice.
Yes. This is an overlooked aspect of Direct Instruction. If I moved forward too quickly, I can always go backward. I can take back some control and correct the problems.
When I think my class is ready, it’s time for Independent Practice.
For Independent Practice, I’d have my students do a small number of exercises with a partner or in a small group. This is another scaffold towards independence. During this time, I’d also pull kids over who struggled and give them some extra help. But I don’t keep them longer than is necessary.
Once their group work checks out, each student can go on to practice individually. Perhaps there will be homework, too. Which is even more independent.
Keep It Moving
My main tip with Direct Instruction is to keep it moving! If I planned three Structured Practice examples, but my kids are clearly getting it right away, I’m going to skip that third example! Move as fast as your kids can handle.
Folks tend to get stuck doing too many examples or waiting until every kid can do every step perfectly. It’s ok if two kids are confused. You can help them out during independent practice. It’s not ok if 20 kids are confused.
Direct Instruction has lots of “check for understanding” moments built-in, so it should be easy to monitor kids’ understanding as you’re teaching.
Opening and Closing
I kinda skipped the first and last steps of Direct Instruction. You do need an opening. Something that connects this lesson to a previous lesson or otherwise sets the context of what kids are learning. “Yesterday we learned this, now we’re adding a bit so we can do this.”
As a new teacher, my mentor always pointed out that the closing of my lessons was always the weakest part. I’d just sorta… be done. That’s awkward. It leaves a bad final impression.
So, to wrap up a lesson, I learned to revisit the bigger picture. Something as simple as:
Could we have three people share their favorite/weirdest/hardest part of this lesson?
I’d plan five minutes at the end to allow kids to go from the highly structured details to the larger context of this skill they’ve learned.
Ok, so that’s Direct Instruction. A great model for teaching individual, practice-able skills. My top tip is to move as quickly as your kids can handle, but be willing to move backward when necessary.
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