Students Need More Lectures: Direct instruction is good teaching

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra


If there’s one thing teachers regularly hear at their professional development sessions, it’s that they must provide engaging instruction to their students. Presenters at these sessions routinely encourage teachers to replace traditional instruction methods such as lecturing with more “authentic” techniques such as hands-on problem solving.
Progressive educators claim that lectures turn students into passive learners who simply regurgitate what they are told. In contrast, teachers who use problem solving techniques are praised for their ability to engage students in meaningful learning.
For example, math and science teachers are pressured to reduce the amount of time they spend lecturing and increase the amount of time spent on experiments and problem solving. Progressive educators claim that students learn more math and science when they explore fewer topics at a deeper level. In other words, less content equals more learning.
This “less is more” philosophy dominates provincial education departments across Canada and explains why textbooks are becoming shorter and less informative. New math textbooks contain lots of pictures and problem solving suggestions but little in the way of concrete practice questions while many science textbooks are nothing more than do-it-yourself experiment guides.
The wholesale shift away from direct instruction methods and substantive content in the curriculum is defended as consistent with the research evidence. However, properly conducted research studies actually show the exact opposite.
In a rigorous study released last month by the Program on Education Policy and Governance of the Harvard Kennedy School, Drs. Guido Schwerdt and Amelie Wuppermann found that grade eight math and science students performed best in classrooms where lecturing was the primary mode of instruction.
Using data from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Schwerdt and Wuppermann compared the academic achievement of grade eight students in classrooms where teachers used lecturing with students in classrooms focused on problem solving. Researchers were careful to isolate variables such as teaching experience and training in order to ensure accuracy of their results.
Schwerdt and Wuppermann concluded that their results “imply a negative correlation between more in-class problem solving and student achievement.” This runs counter to the mantra that teachers should replace lecturing with “problem solving.”
While these results may surprise supporters of the “less is more” philosophy, a little common sense makes them easy to understand.
Consider the example of a grade five teacher who has to teach students how to multiply two-digit numbers.
If the teacher uses problem solving strategies, it often takes many days of trial-and-error for students to learn multiplication. Students are encouraged to find their own ways to multiply and work on several open-ended word problems with a variety of possible answers. Unfortunately, many students will use extremely inefficient methods that need to be corrected by the teacher while others may simply give up in frustration.
In contrast, a teacher using direct instruction can give a simple 30-minute presentation showing students the best way to multiply two-digit numbers. The presentation begins with step-by-step examples on the chalkboard and is followed by a series of practice questions that gradually increase in difficulty. Within a single math period, students have mastered an important math skill and are ready to move on to the next topic.
As students move into the higher grades, problem solving methods of teaching become even more inefficient. Most students will never independently rediscover the principles of calculus that took Leibniz and Newton years to develop no matter how much problem solving they do. Common sense tells us that students should instead study and apply the fundamental principles that have already been identified and refined by experts. This necessitates a significant amount of direct instruction (i.e. lecturing) from teachers.
Even those who advocate other strategies regularly use lecturing themselves when trying to persuade teachers to adopt their approach. At most in-services, teachers dutifully sit in rows facing a speaker who spends all day lecturing them about the need to replace lecturing with more engaging instruction.
Getting teachers to form problem solving groups and devise their own strategies may be consistent with the approach recommended by the gurus, but it wouldn’t be an effective way to get their ideas across and in-service presenters know it.
Direct instruction is good teaching and plays an important role in our school system. It’s time to stop discouraging teachers from using this effective technique.