Direct Instruction Is Good Teaching: Part 6 in an ongoing excerpt series on education from the Frontier Centre

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra


There are very good reasons for using some traditional teaching methods when we examine the basic ideas that underpin them. We begin with the practice of direct instruction. Direct instruction or didactics (from the Greek word didasko, to teach) is a simple concept. Since the teacher has sophisticated knowledge about a subject that the students generally do not understand, the teacher provides a verbal description or exposition and analysis of the subject in a way that elaborates on the subject matter and supplements the information in textbooks written by experts.
Essentially, teachers who use direct instruction assume that students are not experts in understanding and interpreting the course material, and if their misinterpretations are not corrected, then the students will have an inadequate understanding of the subject matter. To become educated, students must sort out the relevant data from the mass of information that is available; obviously, effective teachers can help students sort through the information and interpretations without necessarily imposing on them a singular way of thinking.
Romantic progressive educators, on the other hand, are quite disdainful of formal lectures and they typically characterize didactic or expositional teaching as mere “telling”, which they believe turns students into passive learners who simply parrot the teacher’s ideas and interpretations. Of course, we are not in favor of passive students who simply listen to their teachers’ talk, repeat what they say, or answer simple-minded questions. In our minds, teachers must rely on students thinking seriously about the subject matter so that they can respond to the incisive and penetrating questions asked by their teachers. Moreover, teachers must be able to respond to questions that the students ask.
There is nothing in traditional teaching methods that precludes good questioning and answering, or robust debates. The criticisms that some romantic progressive educators have of traditional teaching methods are obviously exaggerated, often stereotyping traditional methods that have some redeeming strengths.
It is revealing that virtually all romantic progressive educators use direct instruction methods when they are trying to convince teachers to adopt their child-centered methodologies. For example, Alfie Kohn, one of the strongest critics of direct instruction, gives dozens of lectures every year trying to persuade teachers not to lecture. Why does he not abandon the lecture format when it is apparently so ineffective? The reason is obvious. Kohn only has a short time to convey his ideas and he realizes that the most effective way of doing it is in a formal presentation that he has composed and organized. Is it not somewhat ironic that Kohn condemns lecturing as an outdated teaching method while lecturing to his audiences?
What about the old-fashioned practice of lining desks up in rows so that the students are facing the teacher who is at the front of the classroom? Kohn also dislikes this practice. In fact, he claims that any classroom with desks in rows should make parents worry about the quality of the education their children are receiving. Moreover, he says that the classroom where rows of desks face the teacher encourages students to think that teachers are the only source of information and the only reliable interpreters of the subject matter. In his mind, students in these classrooms become passive rather than active learners.
But, when Kohn talks to groups of teachers, how are they seated? You’ve probably guessed correctly; the audience is facing him and hardly anyone is sitting in groups talking to each other. The same thing is true at most teachers’ in-service sessions where teachers hear the new ideas about modern methods of guiding students’ learning. Even when speakers are arguing against the old-fashioned methods, like direct instruction, the audience is almost always sitting in rows facing the speakers who are almost always standing on a stage. Obviously, everyone seems to accept that the speakers have something useful to say and the audience is expected to be quiet and pay attention to them.
We think it is entirely justified that all teachers are entitled to expect the same attentiveness from their students. While it is obvious that the teacher is not the sole source of information, normally the teacher should be the most knowledgeable person about the subject being studied. For this reason, the teacher’s explanations and expectations should receive considerably more attention from the students than the explanations and interpretations from other students.


Excerpted from What’s Wrong with Our Schools: and How We Can Fix Them by Michael Zwaagstra, Rodney Clifton, and John Long.  Zwaagstra and Clifton are research fellows with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and are, respectively, a high school social studies teacher and a University of Manitoba education professor.