Direct instruction in science lessons

Direct instructionDirect instruction involves the teacher passing knowledge directly to the students. When I first became a science teacher direct instruction was a ‘dirty word’, considered to be a bad thing that lead to passive learning, whatever that is!

I have learnt enormous amounts of science from direct instruction and this was not a passive process – I had to think hard. Cognitive activity does not need to be associated with behavioural activity. So why is direct instruction sometimes criticised in our science classrooms despite much support for its effectiveness (Hattie, J. 2009; Kirschner, P.A. et al., 2006)?

Well, direct instruction is hard to do well and when it fails we get bored students, involved in low level thinking. However, this does not mean we should abandon direct instruction, we just need to get better at delivering it (Clark et al., 2012).

What makes great direct instruction?

Great direct instruction relies on teachers having strong subject knowledge and good pedagogy. These teachers need to deploy this knowledge using appropriate clarity, pace and pitch. They need good behaviour management and mustn’t get lost in superfluous detail during explanations.

When done well direct instruction provides students with bespoke explanations that allow knowledge and understanding to be acquired quickly, without over burdening working memory; it is a pedagogy well worth mastering and is ideal for revision lessons and introducing complex ideas.

My tips for effective direct instruction

  1. Know your subject well and teach the key concepts, focusing on the big ideas
  2. Practice your explanations before the lesson
  3. Make explanations pacey (not rushed) – students should need to concentrate to keep up
  4. Explanations should be challenging – students need a sense of accomplishment when they understand the explanation. Students remember what they think about. Direct instruction does not mean low level.
  5. Don’t pepper your explanations with too many questions. It disrupts the flow.
  6. Use some no hands up questioning to determine if students are following. It’s the dipstick test so chose indicator students e.g. those performing at the top, middle and bottom
  7. Use the white board to model your thinking – always start with a clean white board, fresh board pens and write clearly
  8. Be clear on what you want students to do during the explanation – they could annotate a diagram, make notes or just listen
  9. Provide a follow up activity after the explanation so students can consolidate their learning
  10. Don’t over use direct instruction and use alternative techniques to sustain motivation
  11. Never assume I taught it so they learnt it!

Board work is not boring

Click on this link to read about why board work helps students learn in science.

A word of caution

Direct instruction requires all students to move at the same rate, and therefore limits effective differentiation. You can reduce this problem by ramping the pitch of the explanation as you go but this is not ideal for prolonged periods of time.

Further reading
  • Clark, Richard, Paul A. Kirschner, and John Sweller. “Putting students on the path to learning: The case for fully guided instruction.” (2012).
  • Hattie J (2009) Visible Learning; a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement London; Routledge.
  • Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., and Clark, R. E. (2006) Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist 41 (2) 75-86.
  1. Planning lessons: the EPIBA approach
  2. Clearly defined lesson objectives
  3. The Do Now
  4. Activate prior knowledge
  5. Challenge your students
  6. Use a context
  7. Challenge all students appropriately 
  8. Use direct instruction to provide clear explanations
  9. Model abstract ideas in concrete ways
  10. Use questioning to probe understanding
  11. Check for understanding – give and get feedback
  12. Troubleshooting – why did it go wrong?