Exploring Direct Instruction

One of the deepest tensions in modern education is between “student centered learning” and “teacher centered learning”. I’m interested in exploring more about this topic, and today I will set the framework for my exploration.

The student centered or “minimally guided” approach is characterized as self-paced and interactive, and aims to replace “lectures with active learning” (Nanney 1). It enables individual students “to address their own learning interests and needs” (ibid) rather than memorize government-mandated “pre-determined content” (PTC 2). Government curricula is always in danger of obsolescence; indeed, the “content relevant to a student’s interests is constantly changing and growing so students will have to continue learning new things throughout their life” (ibid). In such a fluid environment, students will need to seek “solutions to problems without complete dependency upon an instructor” and learn “to reason on [their] own” (Nanney 1). From the student centered point of view, direct instruction by a teacher is – by definition – tedious, subordinating and moribund.

The teacher centered approach has fewer champions these days. In the world of think tanks, government ministries, teacher colleges and education consultants, the days of the “sage from the stage” are apparently over. However, I believe it’s an approach that we ignore at our peril. For one thing, teacher-centered learning (what I prefer to call “direct instruction”) has become, unfairly, the whipping-boy for all things wrong in education. Given the complexity of the learning process and of society in general, as well as the extraordinary persistence of the approach, it’s hard to believe that direct instruction is now the central problem of the education system. It’s also become so mis-characterized that it’s difficult to defend the concept. We seem to have forgotten that its roots are in a liberal arts education: from antiquity forward, the liberal arts ideal has been to train young people in a broad range of arts and science disciplines, emphasizing both a relatively stable body of knowledge and intellectual skills. The pedagogical basis for instruction was and is Socratic: a process of discussion, dialogue and contemplation between a knowledgeable person and his or her students. This sounds much more engaging than a lecturer who merely “transmits” information!

Of course, it remains important that we are guided by evidence rather than our prejudices and preferences. Unfortunately, even here, a conflict is obvious. While the popularity and growing dominance of the student centered approach is without question (see here and here, for example), there remains a great deal of modern scholarship that is critical of the emerging paradigm.

For example, there is a fear that student centered learning, while “reflective of today’s society where choice and democracy are important concepts” (O’Neill and McMahon 33), is actually at the forefront of neo-liberal globalization. According to C.A. Bowers, iconic figures of the student centered movement like John Dewey and Paulo Friere are used to unwittingly reinforce and extend the sway of capitalism around the globe. By assuming that Western knowledge (including “Dewey’s method of experimental inquiry”) is superior to traditional forms of knowledge, Dewey and Friere “undermine other forms of knowledge and intergenerational renewal that are essential to the resisting the spread of the anomic form of individualism that is dependent upon consumerism” (Bowers 4). The emphasis on employable, portable skills rather than collective knowledge is also seen in the Premier’s Technology Council, a British Columbian group dominated by business leaders rather than educators. As such, many local commentators are suspicious that “21st century learning” is simply code for attacking labour contracts and disempowering teachers.

At a more strictly pedagogical level, there are also serious concerns about “minimally guided instruction”. According to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark, all forms of this approach – which includes constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching – are much less effective than direct instruction. They argue the following:

The past half-century of empirical research on this issue has provided overwhelming and unambiguous evidence that minimal guidance during instruction is significantly less effective and efficient than guidance specifically designed to support the cognitive processing necessary for learning (Kirschner et al 76).

This is a significant claim! In my next entry, I’ll have to explore the Kirschner article in more detail.


Here are some of my other education posts that you might find interesting:

Same Coin, Two Sides: Resurrecting the Liberal Arts Ideal

Individualized Learning = Pre-Packaged Learning

“Trades vs. Academics” is Obsolete

A Lament for the Provincial Exams

Questioning Progressive Education’s Sacred Cows


Bowers, C.A. (2005) “Is Transformative Learning the Trojan Horse of Western Globalization?Journal of Transformative Education 3 (2) 116-125. Online. Accessed July 25, 2011: (http://cabowers.net/pdf/Transformative%20theorist-Commons.pdf)

Kirschner, P. A., J. Sweller, and R.E. Clark (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. Online. Accessed July 3, 2011: (http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf)

Nanney, B. (2004) “Student-Centered Learning“. Online. Accessed July 25, 2011: (http://jtp.ipgkti.edu.my/ppy/resosbestari/PENDEKATAN/scl/7%20SCL-Nanney.pdf)

O’Neill, G. and T. McMahon (2005) “Student–centred learning: what does it mean for students and lecturers? Online. Accessed July 25, 2011: (http://www.aishe.org/readings/2005-1/oneill-mcmahon-Tues_19th_Oct_SCL.pdf)

Premier’s Technology Council (PTC). A Vision for 21st Century Education. (http://www.gov.bc.ca/premier/attachments/PTC_vision%20for_education.pdf) Dec. 2010. Accessed June 25, 2011.

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  1. on October 5, 2013 at 8:04 pm