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Direct Instruction? Sure, If You Don’t Want Einsteins!

We can't just box students in with direct instruction, yet some need to be taught how to explore!!
We can’t just box students in with direct instruction, yet some need to be taught how to explore!!

I get a bit hot under the collar–okay, a lot hot under the collar, when I read posts like this:

What Can We Learn from Direct Instruction and Siegfried Engelmann?

Don’t get me wrong. The blogger has definitely pulled together some key data on the benefits of direct instruction, where teachers demonstrate “how” and students then practice for mastery, for children in poverty. There are key reasons to use direct instruction.

But…not all students from poverty have the same learning needs. And this kind of instruction is what made Einstein and Edison drop out of school. And here’s my big point:

It isn’t EITHER Direct Instruction OR  Student-Centered Instruction. It’s both. 

Sorry to shout. But either/or thinking won’t work on this issue. Here’s three big reasons why.

Students Really Do Have Different Learning Needs

If you’ve concluded that learning styles don’t matter, here’s the deal…in many situations, CONTENT drives how students need to learn, so matching styles and instructional methods won’t work.  However, being taught in someone else’s style all day long, year after year, is like never getting to throw a baseball, or shoot a basket, or write a note with your preferred hand. It’s frustrating, exhausting, and a sure bet that you’ll start assuming you aren’t “good at it.”

And  styles exist. I’ve found personality type to be the best identifier of those styles.

Check my TEDx talk for information on neuroscience, Jung and how students approach math. Note that some Jungian types show more brain activity when looking out the window than when doing the kinds of repetitive tasks that make up the bulk of direct instruction.

Read my Educational Leadership article “Let Me Learn My Own Way” Pay particular attention to what it says about differences in student needs for practice. Practice DOES NOT make perfect for all of us, nor do we need the same amount.

Check out how making courses more extraverted, collaborative and hands-on–the opposite of direct instruction–helped the “lower” students in North Carolina State’s engineering program. I think an increase in graduation rates is probably more important than mere increases in standardized test scores, don’t you?

Check my Research Summary: How Type Preferences Influence Student Approaches to Mathematical Tasks. Hmmm so the differences are statistically significant…

If you look at ANY of these, you’ll see a place for direct instruction. Again, I’m not saying get rid of it. I’m saying educators, beware. Let’s see why.

Direct Instruction May Be a Bridge, Not a Solution

I don’t know about you, but I’m really not looking for test-taking masters. I understand that short-term results can be a predictor of long-term results, at least on more tests. But what I want to know is, do instructional practices lead to lifelong learners? To innovators? To informed citizens I want voting in the next elections and sitting on juries? We need a Short-Term AND Long-Term view of whether instructional practices are best for students.

Two great, great books provide wonderful insights about the probable reasons that direct instruction shows improved test scores with high-poverty students.

Check out Literacy with an Attitude by Patrick Finn. He saw first-hand this need in his working-class students to be told what to do, and the problems that “liberal” teachers had when they tried to instruct through inquiry or open discussions. Yet he also contrasts that with upper-class students who are taught to question and think for themselves. What are we reinforcing if we only teach working-class students to follow orders???

Lisa Delpitt’s Other People’s Children  looks at some of the same issues through the lens of race and the culture of power.

These authors echo to an extent the findings of the author whose blog link begins this post. Yet they go beyond. Direct instruction isn’t enough. In reading, especially, it often results in students not having time to do the one activity with the highest correlation to improved reading skills–actually reading!! Class time gets bogged down in fluency drills, decoding worksheets, and so on. Read The Book Whisperer to find out how reading instruction based on student choice and free reading time equals or outperforms every other form of reading instruction!! Direct instruction, yes, around genre characteristics and other key concepts, but with free reading, not instead of!!!

So…we may need direct instruction to help these students gain academic confidence, but we need to carefully help them learn to learn for themselves if they are to bridge to the long-term, self-directed learning required in college and the workplace. In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough documents how the Kipp Schools, which provide support for their students even during college, still haven’t found how to help them navigate higher learning. They haven’t managed to bridge over…

We’ll Lose the Out-Of-The-Box Thinkers

If you read all this and still think direct instruction is warranted in high-poverty schools, consider that you’re also probably sacrificing any future Einsteins, Gates’s, Jobs’s, Edisons, etc., who might be in those schools. Read John Dewey’s writings. Drill and kill turned his school days into torture. In Jungian terms, you lose the 25 percent or so of the population that prefers the Intuitive style–processing information through hunches, connections and analogies. They need scores of chances to put their own mark on things. Yes, some of these students are pleasers and will comply, but they can’t develop their full potential if they aren’t taught to trust their own style!!

A good portion of the other 75 percent of the population who prefer Sensing seem to benefit far more from far more direct instruction and practice. They often tell me, “Why would I start if there’s a chance I might not be doing it the most efficient way or the way you want me to do it?” And guess what? Teachers who prefer Sensing prefer to use direct instruction methods. Who You Are is How You Teach…that’s the opening chapter in my book on differentiated instruction.

Besides the Einsteins, you’ll most likely also lose the 30 percent of students who are our hands-on, improvisational learners–the studies we have show that these students make up about 90 percent of the kids who fill our alternative high schools. They don’t learn by sit n’ git. Not year in and year out.

My current book project (Corwin, late 2013) is on how we turn these either/or destructive practices in education into conversations where we recognize the positive contributions of both “sides” and how to get the upsides working for our particular organization. We have to. Or we end up with partial solutions that don’t work for the long haul.

What do you think? Can we do both?

Related Posts

 Are the Either/Ors Slowing You Down?

Are You Scaffolding Instruction? Or Proceduralizing It?

Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Jane – As you know, the “Jungian Type” will take teachers far, but not so much so they can observe students based on types, but more in order to observe themselves as teachers with a “type.” Communication is the name of the game.

    As you’ve found, many teachers are not able to either deliver or receive effective direct instruction. It’s a shame because, as you recognize, there are many times when direct instruction (sic) pays off big, like during TEDx Talks for instance. It’s great to note that these talks are limited to 18 minutes. How many 18-minute trainings or classes have you been in recently?

    Thanks for all you do to help kids read and succeed. Rory

    1. Thanks for your comments, Rory. I encourage teachers to remember that they most likely have students of every style in their classrooms. Rather than worry about each student’s type, they can focus on whether they’re rotating amongst meeting the needs of every style over time. This comes as a big relief when they realize that students are not helped by instruction that matches their style every moment. In fact, students need to “stretch.” But no one style should be ignored all the time, and as you so rightly point out, Jungian type helps teachers see what they might naturally ignore and why some students learn that way.

      If a student is really struggling, it then might help to identify his or her Jungian learning style. Sometimes they need an intervention technique that gives a nod to their own style before they can shift to a new learning, or scaffolding that incorporates their own style. Other times they simply need the boost of realizing, “It’s not that i’m dumb. This task doesn’t match my style, so I need to work harder and maybe add a new learning strategy to my tool kit. Teachers can help me add a tool I can use over and over.”

      It’s fun seeing how type knowledge and neuroscience combined help nuance the kinds of instruction that will really benefit our struggling students, isn’t it!

  2. I have no doubt that learning styles exist according to the manner that the learning is defined in the research. The Murphy Meisgeier Temperament Indicator – MMTIC was based on the same idea of orientations and functions as C.G. Jung and Isabel Briggs Myers. Elizabeth Murphy has demonstrated the use even with two and three year olds. The work of Dario Nardi with 59 students at U.C.L.A. showed the neocortex using different patterns of brain usage that correlated with a statistically signicant value for learning according to Jungian and MBTI defintions of psychological type. By using the EEG records during three hour sessions with the same activities for 59 people the idea of learning styles is confirmed as of the published research from U.C.L.A.. The only discrepcancy that can be found now is if the definition of the type of learning does not follow. The work of Howard Gardner also showed that by using the nine types of intelligences to direct different approaches to learning that it has an effect on the depth of learning through experiece and not by rote or pencil and paper. Thus, if we go back to the work of Maria Montessori with learning materials and the individual differences in using the materiasl then we are able to observe in real time HOW the style of learning corresponds to that child by watching their breathing, straigthened posture, brightness of their eyes when the child has absorbed the learning from the experience. Glenn Doman’s work with brain injured child as was Maria Montessori’s work and Lev Vygotsky’s work all point to the same points about the patterns of brain usage in the neurological development of the child, adolescent and adult. Thus, I strongly suggest that we not try to impose the findings of any one idea but use the “harvest of the quiet eye” which is observation to bring the best environments for learning to all children, adolescents and adults. This will be greatly advanced by a deep understanding of the different innate patterns of humans including the learning styles of the brain research of Jungian types and Dr. Dario Nardi’s brain patterns as applied by Jane Kise and shown in her TEDxEnola video.

  3. What about all the decades of scientific research that show that learning styles do not exist?

    The empirical evidence from cognitive science has shown that different learning styles do not exist, and that children are more alike than they are different in terms of learning, and that there are not categorically different types of learner.

    1. Hi Joe, I’m glad you mentioned the Willingham article. He specifically addresses the visual, kinesthetic and auditory styles. And it’s an excellent article on why teaching to those styles will not improve student achievement. But I’m talking about cognitive processes that go far deeper.

      I’d love it if you checked out the link to my article for Educational Leadership on the Jungian learning styles. Think of the effect on motivation–a key component to creating top students, if not to increasing test scores–of the different needs for practice alone. My colleague, Dr. Dario Nardi, UCLA, found significant differences in how people with different cognitive processes use their brains, which capture the same sorts of factors I saw in my math research. A link to his presentation at Google was also given. One of the hugest differences is our affinity for taking risks–and honoring those differences is part of the reason that direct instruction can’t be the only solution…

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