I have spent the last year trying to figure out why direct instruction would not be the best way to teach. Thought-provoking TED Talks and play-based learning advocates warn me that showing or telling my children exactly how to do things could negatively impact on their creativity or even kill the joy of their learning altogether. For those not familiar with the term, direct instruction is the use of straightforward, explicit teaching techniques, usually to teach a specific skill. It is a teacher-directed method, meaning that the teacher usually will stand in front of a classroom and presents the information. This by no means suggests that the teacher spends the entire lesson time talking and the students listening.
As a student who learnt at the end of the 20th-century, this was the method that was used while I was at school and even at the Montessori high school I attended – where students chose in what order and at what pace to finish schoolwork – we still followed subject-specific lessons in Dutch, Mathematics, Geography etc as a whole class. The teacher would ask questions and check if we understood the material and students would ask questions which we could all learn from as well. When the teacher was confident we understood a concept well we could work more independently. Most adults will be familiar with this teaching style which is also referred to as traditional teaching.
In recent times, student-centred learning has been favoured in New Zealand primary schools. Student-centred learning is described as a teaching method that focuses on students engaging in hard work, reflecting on their learning process, and learning independently or collaboratively. Inquiry or ‘discovery’ is often used to engage students to learn independently. Children are encouraged to investigate a topic, idea, problem, or issue with a focus on constructing their own learning and meanings. Proponents believe inquiry enables students to learn through curiosity, discovery, and collaboration rather than being presented with facts through direct instruction.
As a parent that currently homeschools, it is tempting to believe that my children can learn all the basics and possibly more by simply being curious enough to find out the answers and without the hard work that went into my own education. No boring repetition, endless handwriting or homework. Could old sayings like ‘no pain, no gain’ and ‘practise makes perfect’ be outdated? Sir Ken Robinson (a creative, witty, quick thinker educated in the factory model) told us in his renowned 2006 TED Talk that ‘nobody knows what the world will look like in five years time, yet we are meant to be educating them for it’. He tells us that creativity in school is as important now as literacy and we should treat it with the same status. While I can’t possibly disagree with many of his arguments, what we have learnt in the last 13 years since his TED Talk is that literacy and numeracy are still essential to a great education and that the style of teaching that is adopted in many schools today is not allowing for outstanding creativity OR literacy. If we can’t send children to amazing dance schools or nurture their talents with the resources available in public schools, can we at least commit to teaching them outstanding literacy and numeracy?
If it is true that a child learns best when investigating a topic, idea, problem, or issue with a focus on constructing their own learning and meanings, then why should I spend good money on drama classes taught by an experienced director? Why encourage my son to follow the homework that his guitar teacher has set him? Why pay for swimming lessons where a teacher demonstrates the correct techniques? We choose to pay experienced professionals in order to progress. We pay for their guidance with often an end goal in mind. Direct instruction appears to be an effective and accepted method of teaching at costly after-school activities for most families, so why is explicit instruction practically taboo in some NZ schools?
A school model that allows children to choose if they want to work independently or collaboratively should have, in theory, worked for our extroverted oldest child (9), but in practice, most of his classmates worked on different topics at different times and doing group work resulted in off-task interruptions which left him stressed about impending deadlines. What he was supposedly gaining was the independence of choosing what task to do and in what order, but the pay-off was missing out on plenty of interaction with his teacher and the ‘luxury’ of having questions answered when they came up.
When we completed our comprehensive First Aid course together a few weeks ago it became apparent again that direct instruction suits our son best. The course took place in a plain room at the Red Cross with 18 adults and two children (my son and his 11-year-old homeschooling friend) and we spent at least eight out of the 12 contact hours listening to and taking part in discussions that were directed by our instructor. She kept us engaged with gory first aid stories, giving us mind tricks to remember important sequences (DRSABCD and 30 and 2 no matter who!) and quizzed us on other material we were meant to be remembering. The other hours were spent on more hands-on activities such as performing CPR on dummies while assessing each other.
Despite this course being aimed at 15+, my son and his friend had no problem following the material and actively taking part in the discussions, games and practical skills. The night after completing the course, my son voluntarily read through the First Aid manual showing pride in understanding most of the content. To me, this experience reinforced how essential a skilled teacher is to all children and how the other bells and whistles in education are unnecessary. Our instructor was given a manageable amount of students which enabled her to cater to participants ranging in age from 9 to 79-year-olds, some with and some without prior First Aid knowledge, some that had English as their second language etc. She talked us through every step and was ready to answer any question at any time. This method resulted in us learning how to perform First Aid in many different scenario’s and that was what we had come for. It really can be that simple.
If it is essential that children learn in Innovative Learning Environments in order to to be self-managing, creative and collaborative future-ready individuals, why are adults (I am only 36 after all) not being taught in this modern style? The simple answer is because it would be silly to expect adults to learn in the way that we are teaching some children at present. It would be absurd to go to a First Aid course and be expected to learn everything you need with the help of a few online programs and the other attendants while the instructor wandered around answering the same question over and over again. It would take the instructor twice as long to get us up to scratch! Yet this is the far from logical method some are favouring when trying to teach children in school.
To use another analogy: If you gave a group of people the ingredients to make macarons, would the results be better if they had to make them with just a recipe and each other or with the guidance of an experienced pastry chef? And would the experience be more pleasant discovering how to make them yourself or with the chef? What would be a faster way to learn how to make them? Once you know how to make them, you can become creative with colours and flavourings and attempt to invent your own pastry by drawing from your newly acquired baking knowledge. The same goes for sewing. Would your child prefer to read the manual on how to use a sewing machine or have someone show him? What way would be faster? More enjoyable?
I’m not sure why or how exactly some educators have gone off direct instruction. Maybe too many TED Talks? Research supports direct instruction and my experience observing my own children’s learning does too.