Direct Instruction vs Student Driven Learning

If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ll know that I love to incorporate opportunities for student driven learning in my classroom and across my school. I promote and use strategies like Project Based Learning, SOLE and Genius Hour, and have led school change projects to introduce these strategies into classrooms across my school.

So it may come as a surprise that I also use Direct Instruction with my students. For many commentators, the two approaches are incompatible – apparently you can’t support constructivist approaches while also supporting DI.

But while the debate around these approaches becomes increasingly polarised, I have a school full of students with a range of needs for whom I’m responsible. I make my decisions based on what I believe will work for the students I have in my school right now.

As Dylan Wiliams said at ResearchEd in 2014 , ‘… in education, “What works?” is rarely the right question, because everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere, which is why in education, the right question is, “Under what conditions does this work?” ‘


4 thoughts on “Direct Instruction vs Student Driven Learning

  1. Lynne Edwards says:

    Certainly agree, Corinne, it’s pragmatic and effective to go with what works in your context with the students you have right now.
    I’ve already recommended once today as well worth a look @virtuallykaren #brykseminar twitter thread from the NZ Ministry (of Ed?) Knowledge Seminar with Anthony S. Bryk. Found discussion around evidence-based practice and practice-based evidence really interesting.

  2. Thank you for you contribution to this discussion. I have blogged about this myself and I pretty much agree with you. I personally use a range of instructional strategies and I believe that teachers have to make a decision based upon their professional judgement. This decision should be in the presence of the best information available.

    However, I worry that we might end up framing this discussion as those in favour of ‘balance’ versus direct instruction fundamentalism. I think that this would be an error that missed essential nuance. For my part, I just wish to increase awareness of the evidence that is out there. For instance, there is no evidence to support the idea that direct instruction is only any good for learning facts or procedures by rote and that inquiry learning is better for developing ‘higher order’ skills. Yet this is a commonly held view. If we turn to the research, anything that can be defined as an instructional objective, no matter how high level, seems to be most effectively taught via explicit instruction.

    There is plenty of research evidence on this. To take just the most recent example, a paper was published showing the effectiveness of explicit instruction for developing metacognitive strategies which are not low level at all:

    This does not mean that you might not choose other approaches for other reasons; perhaps for motivation or for providing an experience on which to ‘hook’ further learning or just for a bit of variety. As Wiliam says, it all works.

    Personally, I believe that the evidence in favour of explicit instruction has been significantly downplayed and I am trying to play my part to mitigate that. However, as I said, I have no problems with teachers, once provided with the full evidence available, making professional instructional decisions.

    • Hi Greg, thanks for your comment. I really appreciate your words of caution around framing. While I think there is a degree of ‘fundamentalism’ for some people around both DI and constructivist approaches, I’d hate to create a third camp for ‘balance’, because it shouldn’t be about aligning ourselves. As you point out, it’s about making our own professional instructional decisions, and they should be based on need and evidence, rather than ideology.

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