In general usage, the term direct instruction refers to (1) instructional approaches that are structured, sequenced, and led by teachers, and/or (2) the presentation of academic content to students by teachers, such as in a lecture or demonstration. In other words, teachers are “directing” the instructional process or instruction is being “directed” at students.
While a classroom lecture is perhaps the image most commonly associated with direct instruction, the term encompasses a wide variety of fundamental teaching techniques and potential instructional scenarios. For example, presenting a video or film to students could be considered a form of direct instruction (even though the teacher is not actively instructing students, the content and presentation of material was determined by the teacher). Generally speaking, direct instruction may be the most common teaching approach in the United States, since teacher-designed and teacher-led instructional methods are widely used in American public schools. That said, it’s important to note that teaching techniques such as direct instruction, differentiation, or scaffolding, to name just a few, are rarely mutually exclusive—direct instruction may be integrated with any number of other instructional approaches in a given course or lesson. For example, teachers may use direct instruction to prepare students for an activity in which the students work collaboratively on a group project with guidance and coaching from the teacher as needed (the group activity would not be considered a form of direct instruction).
In addition, the basic techniques of direct instruction not only extend beyond lecturing, presenting, or demonstrating, but many are considered to be foundational to effective teaching. For example:
- Establishing learning objectives for lessons, activities, and projects, and then making sure that students have understood the goals.
- Purposefully organizing and sequencing a series of lessons, projects, and assignments that move students toward stronger understanding and the achievement of specific academic goals.
- Reviewing instructions for an activity or modeling a process—such as a scientific experiment—so that students know what they are expected to do.
- Providing students with clear explanations, descriptions, and illustrations of the knowledge and skills being taught.
- Asking questions to make sure that students have understood what has been taught.
It should be noted that the term direct instruction is used in various proprietary or trademarked instructional models that have been developed and promoted by educators, including—most prominently—Direct Instruction, created by Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley Becker, which is a “explicit, carefully sequenced and scripted model of instruction,” according to the National Institute for Direct Instruction.
In recent decades, the concept of direct instruction has taken on negative associations among some educators. Because direct instruction is often associated with traditional lecture-style teaching to classrooms full of passive students obediently sitting in desks and taking notes, it may be considered outdated, pedantic, or insufficiently considerate of student learning needs by some educators and reformers.
That said, many of direct instruction’s negative connotations likely result from either a limited definition of the concept or a misunderstanding of its techniques. For example, all teachers, by necessity, use some form of direct instruction in their teaching—i.e., preparing courses and lessons, presenting and demonstrating information, and providing clear explanations and illustrations of concepts are all essential, and to some degree unavoidable, teaching activities. Negative perceptions of the practice tend to arise when teachers rely too heavily upon direct instruction, or when they fail to use alternative techniques that may be better suited to the lesson at hand or that may improve student interest, engagement, and comprehension.
While a sustained forty-five-minute lecture may not be considered an effective teaching strategy by many educators, the alternative strategies they may advocate—such as personalized learning or project-based learning, to name just two options—will almost certainly require some level of direct instruction by teachers. In other words, teachers rarely use either direct instruction or some other teaching approach—in actual practice, diverse strategies are frequently blended together. For these reasons, negative perceptions of direct instruction likely result more from a widespread overreliance on the approach, and from the tendency to view it as an either/or option, rather than from its inherent value to the instructional process.