Direct Instruction Gets No Respect (But It Works)

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Robert Pondiscio, Senior Fellow and Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in the US, recently published a blog (overall worth a visit!) in which he called direct instruction the Rodney Dangerfield of curricula. Rodney Dangerfield was an American comedian who constantly complained that he didn’t get any respect, no matter what he did. Poor Rodney.

The same seems to be true for direct instruction, which is sad.

First, let’s explore what direct instruction is. To begin, there is not one, but rather two types! The first is Direct Instruction (with capital DI). This is a model for instruction that emphasises well-developed, carefully planned lessons, focussing on small learning steps with clearly defined and prescribed learning tasks. This model was founded by the American Siegfried Engelmann (Oregon University).

DI 2

His theory is that clear instruction should eliminate misconceptions and will/could lead to more effective and efficient learning. Educational / Instructional techniques that are used with DI are, for example, working groups, participation labs, discussions, lectures, seminars, workshops, observation, active learning, practical assignments, and internships.

The second type of direct instruction (with lowercase di) was introduced by Barak Rosenshine in 1976/1979. He used the term direct instruction for a collection of variables that are significantly related to optimal learning. Brophy (1979) summarised Rosenshine’s ‘small di’ as follows: Instructors 1) emphasise academic goals, 2) ensure that learners are involved in learning, 3) select the learning objectives and monitor learner progress 4) structure the learning activities and give immediate academically focused feedback, 5) create a task-oriented yet ‘relaxed’ learning environment.

What does this show us? Clearly direct instruction does NOT equal lecturing!

DI 6We repeat: It’s NOT about lecturing!

Now the question is, does direct instruction (both the uppercase and lowercase version) work?  Stockard and colleagues (2018) conducted a meta-analysis of studies on direct instruction. They included more than 400 studies that were carried out between 1966 and 2016. The research papers included subjects such as language, reading, maths, and spelling, as well as subjects that also focused on learning outcomes, affective outcomes (e.g., learner attitudes, confidence, self-esteem, and behaviour), perceptions from the instructor about the effectiveness of the process, and parent opinions. All effects of direct instruction were positive and significant, except for the affective outcomes, which were positive but not significant. In other words, direct instruction (1) has a positive effect on learning, (2) instructors and parents are positive about it, and (3) it doesn’t hurt learner attitudes, confidence, self-esteem, and behaviour. That sounds hopeful to say the least, we’d say.

Furtak and colleagues (2012) also carried out a meta-analysis, including experimental and quasi-experimental studies on discovery learning. They investigated 37 studies, completed between 1996 and 2006. The authors characterise this period as the decade in which curriculum innovation (especially in physics) clearly focused on discovery learning. They found an overall positive effect, however… the effect of the instructor-driven activities were much larger (effect size 0.40) than learner-driven activities. This might very well be the case, because discovery learning over time has started to show many similarities to high quality direct instruction (also see our blog on The Cold Left-Overs of Inquiry-Based Learning). In other words, discovery learning works IF (and only IF) the instructor provides clear guidance during the discovery process!

Last but not least, Andersen and Andersen (2017) investigated the possible (side-)effects of learner-centred education on inequality. In this case, learner-centred education means an educational approach in which 1) learners set their own goals, 2) activities are tailored to the individual learner, 3) learners are responsible for (self-)directing their learning and seek for help from the instructor at their own initiative, 4) learners are actively seeking knowledge, 5) educational methods are focused on individual learning and collaboration (often with ICT support), and 6) the instructors’ role is to coach and facilitate.

In a study with over 56,000 learners in 825 Danish schools, the effects of learner-centred education on academic achievement from learners with various socio-economic backgrounds were analysed (its measurement was based on the highest educational degree from the parents, which is an often used measure of socio-economic status). The researchers found that overall learner-centred education had a negative impact on academic achievement of the learners, however (and this is worrisome), that effect was larger for learners whose parents had a lower socio-economic status. Therefore, the unfortunate conclusion is that learner-centred education appears to increase inequality in education.

The evidence that explicit direct instruction (EDI) is effective, keeps coming. However, this type of instruction is still painted into a corner by many policymakers and so-called educational innovators. Does direct instruction not get any respect because the only thing to like about it, is that it works?

DI 7

For books on direct instruction, click here!

For an awesome UNESCO booklet on direct instruction, click here!

For a super-duper article on instructional principles from Barak Rosenshine, click here!

For our blog on how to apply these instructional principles to workplace learning, click here!


Andersen, I. G., & Andersen, S. C. (2017). Student-centered instruction and academic achievement: linking mechanisms of educational inequality to schools’ instructional strategy. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38, 533-550.

Brophy, J. (1979). Advances in teacher research. Journal of Classroom Instruction, 15, 1–7.

Furtak, E. M., Seidel, T., Iverson, H., & Briggs, D. C. (2012). Experimental and quasi-experimental studies of inquiry-based science teaching: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 82, 300-329.

Rosenshine, B. V. (1976) Classroom instruction. In N. Gage (Ed.), The Psychology of Teaching Methods, 75th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Rosenshine, B. V. (1979). Content, time, and direct instruction. In P. L. Peterson & H. J. Walberg (Eds.), Research on teaching: Concepts. findings and implications (pp. 28-56). Berkley, CA: Mccutchan Publishing.

Stockard, J., Wood, T. W., Coughlin, C., & Khoury, C. R. (2018, online first). The effectiveness of direct instruction curricula: A meta-analysis of a half century of research. Review of Educational Research.