What is Direct Instruction?
Direct instruction is a theory of education which posits that the most effective way to teach is by explicit, guided instructions. This method of teaching directly contrasts other styles of teaching, which might be more passive or encourage exploration. It is a very common teaching strategy, relying on strict lesson plans and lectures with little or no room for variation. Direct instruction does not include activities like discussion, recitation, seminars, workshops, case studies, or internships.
Though direct instruction is probably the oldest form of teaching, it came into a more modern light when a program was created by a professor at Johns Hopkins University in the mid-1980s as a way to address the problems of inner-city Baltimore schools. In this program, which focused on reading instruction, ninety minutes each day were dedicated to pre-ordained lesson plans and worksheets. The plan primarily featured scripted instruction and specific activities in which children engaged for defined periods of time. The program's goal was to teach every child in the class to read at the same level.
Today, most K-12 education uses a modernized version of the original program. Previously known as DISTAR, an acronym for "Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading," and created by SRA/McGraw-Hill, modern programs offer standard lesson plans for Reading and Arithmetic based on grade level. Teacher resources like DISTAR materials can be found under the republished names "Reading Mastery," "Language for Learning," and "Arithmetic I/II." Parents looking for direct instruction materials and programs should look into the Hooked on Phonics series and other related products.
Critics argue that direct instruction is nothing but canned teaching with little room for the personalization of lesson plans. To these critics, schools that require direct instruction are handcuffing their best teachers and providing a crutch to their worst ones. This argument fails to address the fact that good teachers will be successful with any lesson plans, including direct instruction.
The effectiveness of direct instruction is supported by substantial research, but there are some recent longitudinal studies which raise doubts about its effectiveness. In 2006, a three-year study of teaching and learning showed that flexible methods of instruction like Montessori and Waldorf were more effective than direct instruction. Still, it is one of the few scientifically verifiable ways to improve a school's educational curriculum. This has resulted in widespread support of the system and its worldwide adoption in public schools.
The most salient example of this widespread support is Project Follow Through, the most expensive federally-funded educational program ever. It was intended to continue the education of preschoolers exiting Head Start programs. The program was funded from 1968 until 1995, when funding was stopped due to data revealing that there was little or no benefit from the program. However, Project Follow Through did offer the first ever clearly documented empirical proof that the Direct Instruction model was the most effective method of teaching reading, arithmetic, language, spelling, and positive self-image. Direct instruction was the only method out of twenty-two forms of instruction that consistently produced positive results.
Direction instruction is, by far, the most widely used method of teaching. Recent studies cast doubts about whether it is the best way to teach, but it is empirically proven to be able to consistently raise the average test scores of a school. This has resulted in the success of the teaching method and its widespread use in the classroom.