Thales Academy - 5 Keys of Direct Instruction

5 Keys of Direct Instruction

What is Direct Instruction?

Siegfried Engelmann designed the teaching method called Direct Instruction (DI) based upon his premise that “what humans learn is perfectly consistent with the input they receive.” He believed that all children, not just certain children, were capable of learning both fast and well if they had the appropriate teaching input, and he built his DI model accordingly based on five rules:

1. Be Clear. Humans make sense out of things by learning rules that bridge understanding between concepts. Poor understanding leads to incorrect assumptions and mistakes, therefore precise and unambiguous rules lead to the best learning.

Furthermore, preventing the learning of incorrect rules, or “misrules,” is an important aspect of effective instruction that keeps learning efficient and accurate. It is much more difficult to correct a misrule later than it is to teach the correct rule first. The goal is to teach rules that will not be contradicted later in learning and giving opposing examples during instruction, will ensure clear understanding of concepts. For example, in teaching about quadrilaterals, if a teacher just showed the picture of a square, students might make the incorrect assumption or “misrule” that squares are the only type of quadrilateral. Learning would be improved by showing pictures of various types of quadrilaterals, such as a trapezoid, a rectangle, and a rhombus, as well as pictures of non-quadrilaterals, such as a triangle, an octagon, and a pentagon, to clearly cement the concept beyond the formal definition based both on what is and what is not a quadrilateral. Engelmann explained, “You have to order your presentation of examples so that you rule out all the other possibilities. That can be hard to do. But if there is more than one possible interpretation of what you’ve presented, some of your kids are going to pick up on the wrong one.”

2. Be Efficient. Direct Instruction is designed to maintain high time on task, which increases student learning throughout the school day. Engelmann’s design is intended to teach students more effectively in less time. By harnessing the mind’s inclination toward mastering concepts through a series of steps (algorithms) and familiar frameworks, it uses a progressive format that teaches foundational concepts first, then builds upon them in a way that can eventually create natural bridges between new ideas and earlier concepts efficiently.

Direct Instruction also increases efficiency by utilizing carefully crafted teacher scripts and choral student response. The teacher script maximizes time spent learning by focusing intentionally on the concepts being taught, eliminating “Teacher talk”, or deviations from the objective. The choral response maximizes the number of students directly engaging with the content, providing ample opportunities for teacher observation and feedback of student understanding. Finally, DI is most efficient when students can be grouped based on similar ability in a subject, which allows the group to be most confident in the material being presented and master the concepts effectively at the same pace.

3. Teach to Mastery. Direct Instruction’s emphasis on efficiency must not sacrifice the mastery of a concept. DI carefully introduces new concepts at a pace that is meant to allow absorption of new material and reinforcement of old material by designing each lesson to include at most 15% new material and 85% reviewed material. DI starts students where they are in what they already know, builds upon that with logical sequences based on that starting point, and repeats concepts until they are cemented. Engelmann noted: “You can’t achieve mastery if you introduce tasks that are far beyond the learner’s ability, and if you don’t give kids enough practice.”

Achieving mastery requires thoughtful methods in repetition and correction so that learning is sequential and concepts are reviewed until factual, familiar, and internalized, which maximizes retention and gives students a rock-solid foundation of knowledge as they progress in their studies. Direct Instruction focuses on quality versus quantity, with mastery of all concepts as the primary goal. Teaching to mastery in this way is built into the DI model, and students become confident in their knowledge as they progress.

4. Celebrate Success. To encourage both good behavior and the desired learning results, praise the positive, and praise it precisely. Direct Instruction offers many opportunities for praise with its naturally built-in rapid pacing and repetition that allow for many correct answers. Additionally, teachers must project sincere motivation and encouragement to communicate the importance of learning as well as confidence in their students’ ability to master the material. This not only creates an internal thirst for learning in students but also breeds stronger self-esteem, both of which benefit students in the long term. These positive impacts on students are wonderful rewards for them individually as well as for their teachers who get to experience real-time results and visible student growth in their classrooms from their lessons.

5. Beware Intuition. Engelmann said: “You cannot fall in love with your own judgment.” The DI methods rely on evidence of results and are guided by demonstrated student benchmarks, so student progress is measured by real data, not subjectivity. DI supports the notion that all students can learn effectively using its evidence-based methods; they may learn at a different pace, but the best methods of learning are universal.

Engelmann discovered that many of the most effective methods may feel counterintuitive, so teachers must trust the well-studied DI methods over their intuition in delivering the lessons. This reduces errors in assumptions about what students already know, what they are understanding, and what might be the most effective way to teach a concept.

Direct Instruction has been proven by many extensive scientific studies to be a highly effective program of instruction that works for students of various backgrounds, abilities, and ages. When done well, its results are nothing beyond astounding to those witnessing its effectiveness for the first time. DI helps good teachers be great due to its thoughtful, well-researched design. Engelmann explained: “[T]here’s a great difference between teaching and designing effective instruction. Most learning failures are caused by bad programs, not bad teachers. No amount of good teaching behavior can bail a teacher out of a bad program.” Teachers and students alike benefit from Direct Instruction with its well-proven recipe for learning success.

Your entire program of individualized education and the logical steps you use to approach that goal at each different developmental stage is so effective...I am delighted to see the constant challenges you offer the students and your encouragement for them to gain tenacity and a desire to keep learning more and more.
- Thales Parent