Direct Instruction is not a solution for Australian schools

By Allan Luke

Christopher Pyne is embarking on his own education revolution. He wants our nation’s teachers to use a teaching method called Direct Instruction.  For forty years, the specific US-developed approach has been the object of education debates, controversies and substantial research. It has not been adopted for system-wide implementation in any US state or Canadian province.

The method has been used to date in selected Cape York schools in Australia and Pyne sees this as a good reason for all teachers to use it. But the research findings on the approach are mixed and there remains heated debate over how and whether this approach will work and how and whether it can be implemented on a large scale.

First I need to point out there is a difference between Direct Instruction and Explicit Instruction. Minister Pyne has mentioned both.

What is Direct Instruction?

The term direct instruction (DI) is affiliated with an instructional approach and curriculum materials developed in the late 1960s by American and Canadian behavioural psychologists.  Programs provided teachers and schools with packaged, programmed instructional models initially in reading and numeracy, later expanding to other curriculum areas. McGraw-Hill now markets these as Reading Mastery, part of the SRA family of materials.

Teachers follow a step-by-step, lesson- by-lesson approach to teaching that has already been written for them. What the teachers say and do is prescribed and scripted, and accompanied by a pre-specified system of rewards. Following strict program of teaching as operant conditioning – teachers teach uniform content in scripted and monitored patterns.

Teachers receive rigorous training and a directive teachers’ guidebook. The strict scripting of teacher behaviour is an attempt to place quality controls on the delivery of the curriculum. The aim of these programs is to take local variation and teacher/student idiosyncrasy out of the instructional mix. The instruction is followed by assessment tasks and tests aligned with the behavioural goals, the results of which feed back to modify pace, grouping and skill emphases.

What is Explicit Instruction?

This refers to teacher-centred instruction that is focused on clear behavioural and goals and outcomes. Students are told what they will be learning and how, and what they have to do to show that they have succeeded in learning whatever it is. The aim of explicit instruction is a strong focus on curriculum content and clarity for all about the criteria for performance expected.

Explicit instruction is affiliated with but not limited to highly structured, instruction in basic skills in early literacy and numeracy education. It is also used in Australian genre-based approaches to writing that stress the value of “explicit” knowledge of grammar and all textual codes. It is a key teaching method used commonly in schools today that has demonstrated efficacy in the teaching and learning of specific bodies of skills and knowledges. Explicit instruction is, therefore, one key element of effective teachers’ repertoire of skills and approaches.

It is worth noting that this is one truth of everyday school teaching that seems to elude politicians, journalists and educational commentators: Effective teaching requires that teachers possess and deploy a repertoire of strategies, approaches and methods. The belief that there is a single effective strategy, approach and method ignores the variability of kids, cultures, communities, ages and developmental levels, subjects, skills and knowledges that teachers face everyday.

There are many criticisms of the DI approach.

  • DI focuses on teacher control of lesson pacing and content and does not encourage the engagement with student cultural resources, background knowledge and community context.
  • It deskills teachers by routinizing their work and downplaying their professional capacity to vary instructional pace and curriculum content depending on the student cohort and context.
  • It works through strict tracking of student progress and ability grouping, which research shows can severely disadvantage some students.
  • Finally, it places the teacher and child in a rigid relationship where the teacher is always the one with the power and knowledge with limited allowance or recognition of individual and cultural difference.  This relationship is not conducive to local adaptation of lessons or content to accommodate community, cultural or individual differences, creativity and innovation in teaching and learning.

Does DI improve students’ achievement and participation levels?

Reading the research, I have little doubt that DI – and other approaches based on explicit instruction – can generate some performance gains in conventionally-measured basic skills of early literacy and numeracy. This would also be the case with a number of other popular Australian-based and developed approaches to literacy and numeracy. However, a key question is whether these basic skills are sufficient for sustained gains in achievement or whether they potentially ‘wash out’ in the transition to the upper primary years.  This is the ‘holy grail’ of longitudinal (or developmental) effects of these programs that emphasise strong emphases on initial ‘basic skills’ in the early years of schooling.

Many in the field argue that basic skills acquisition is “necessary but not sufficient” for sustained achievement gains. The educational challenge isn’t just about early intervention and better Year 3 scores. The longstanding problem facing schools is when students who have achieved basic literacy, through DI or other approaches, suffer marked problems engaging with reading and writing down the track. This requires a much broader conception and development of the scope and sequence of the literacy curriculum, and an understanding of where, how, all of the ‘language arts’ of oral comprehension, spoken language proficiency, spelling and orthography, writing and genre, and new multiliteracies fit together.

Should DI be used for the whole school curriculum?

Can a steady diet of pre-packaged materials, SRA reading lab materials, and other ‘generic’ reading materials generated by US-based curriculum developers in itself suffice for a curriculum, any curriculum, much less the Australian primary school curriculum?

When we used these materials in Canada in the 1970s, they represented ‘generic’ ideas about childhood, about cultures, about histories – rather than those that represented or portrayed the values, ideas, contents, and ideologies of Canada. Particularly in the case of Indigenous education, we know through many lenses that culture, place, context and history count – not just for kids, but for cultures, Elders and communities, for institutions and for the health of society at large. Looking at Navaho schools that had adopted scripted, packaged models, US researchers found that curriculum foci on Indigenous culture, issues and languages declined as part of a more general narrowing of the curriculum.

Wherever we stand on the political spectrum debating the National Curriculum, Australians would agree that the ideas, values, beliefs, histories and cultures that are taught matter.

Is DI a cost-effective policy investment for medium to large-scale intervention?

DI is one of many educational programs with an emphasis on explicit instruction on basic and advanced skills. At present, the curriculum materials, teachers’ guidebooks and training, proprietary assessment instruments – which come from copyrighted proprietary sources in Oregon – cost considerably more than locally developed materials, including several explicit instruction models developed in Australia. But then, governments do have a tendency to jump on board the bandwagon of a particular instructional approach – often in spite of mixed research evidence.

In a recent major evaluation report on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school reform prepared for the Federal Government, we found that those schools that were making marked progress on “closing the gap” on conventional measures, were using programs that had been selected and developed at the school-level in relation to local analyses of community and student cultural and linguistic capacities and imperatives. These included: a successful outback school with Aboriginal leadership that had implemented co-teaching, co-mentoring using longstanding transitional bi-dialectal curriculum materials and approaches; a low SES suburban school that melded local Aboriginal cultural studies and community engagement, a strong professional development focus on intellectual demand and quality pedagogy, and innovative after-school program of digital arts in music and video.

In each case, these schools prioritized quality classroom instruction and student/teacher cultural relations, teacher capacity and professionalism, and a strong engagement with and knowledge of local communities, cultures and languages. Our study showed that simply giving principals local autonomy does not generate better results. Indeed, all the literature tells us that principals must function as instructional leaders with a focus on quality teaching. To reiterate a point that is consistent in large and small-scale studies of school reform, the professional conditions need to be set for teachers to work together to plan the curriculum, analyse and track student performance.

I am not ruling out ‘explicit instruction’ or ‘direct instruction’ or an emphasis on basic skills – but these have a much better prospect of making a developmental difference for students’ medium and long-term achievement and success where they are part of a larger school-level approach and broader expansion of teacher repertoire.

Turning the education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students will require school-level curriculum planning, ongoing analyses of student progress, a focus on quality teaching and intercultural relationships between students and teachers, and a substantive engagement with Elders, parents and communities.

In Australia, the recent ACER report on the Cape York implementation of DI does not provide any clear scientific evidence that DI delivers generalisable cohort achievement gains that yield more sustainable patterns of success as students work their way through elementary and secondary school. It does, however, show that DI can provide one beneficial framework for overall school improvement: through improved staff continuity, planning, developmental diagnostics and professional development in schools where these apparently had been lacking.

In my opinion, explicit instruction in its various forms is one necessary part of an effective teaching repertoire– direct instruction is not and by definition cannot be seen as a universal or total curriculum solution.


(This blog is based on Allan Luke’s paper  ON EXPLICIT AND DIRECT INSTRUCTION )

Allan Luke Allan Luke

Allan Luke is Emeritus Professor in the ‎Faculty of Education at the Queensland University of Technology and Adjunct Professor in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada, where he works mentoring first nations academics.

He is an educator, researcher, and theorist studying multiliteracies, linguistics, family literacy, and educational policy. Dr. Luke has written or edited over 14 books and more than 140 articles and book chapters.

Read more about Allan Luke HERE and HERE

41 thoughts on “Direct Instruction is not a solution for Australian schools

  1. Cameron says:

    Given that DI involves a copyrighted, commercial product, I think an exploration of the links between Pyne and the companies set to profit would be the next focus of investigation.

  2. Megan says:

    And that company is Pearson Education, owned by Rupert Murdoch. Pearson already prepare and administer NAPLAN tests. This will move online from 2015, cutting costs for Pearson making them even more $$$. Gates has done this in the US.

  3. Chipperfield says:

    That is complete news to me – thought it was ACER that had the job! Are you sure?

  4. Jess Dilkera says:

    Rupert Murdoch does not own Pearson Education. Pearson Education is an arm of Pearson, a publicly listed company that owns Penguin publishing and the Financial Times, among other titles. It does not operate DI, which is run by Engelmann the man who developed it, nor does it run NAPLAN, which is constructed by ACER for ACARA and implemented by the states and territories. You should check your facts before making conspiracy theories.

  5. Allan Luke says:

    Hi Megan – Suggest you read Joel Spring’s latest book: ‘Education Networks’ (Routledge, 2014). He simply follows the money/corporate trail. Part of the problem here is that curriculum, evaluation and instruction are a multi-billion dollar corporate enterprise. Hence, the tendency to take good educational ideas and turn them into proprietary, copyrighted commodities has driven the publication of textbooks, programs, materials and packages for at least the last 100 years since the invention of Dick and Jane, Sally and Spot. There were huge corporate profits from the 2000 No Child Left Behind mandate that all US state systems only fund ‘scientifically proven’ approaches to reading – which, it should be noted, coincided with policy mandates for increased private, ‘charter’ and ‘for profit’ schooling sectors and did not lead to systematic improvements in test scores amongst the most economically and culturally marginalized communities. See also critical commentary by Professor Diane Ravitch – one of George Bush’s original advisors – in the New York Review of Books.

  6. Chipperfield says:

    The Engelmann DI programs have been some of the gems found during a40 year teaching career. Having had my mind poisoned against DI during my ITT in 1971, i never considered them at all, until of course I started the search for evidence, for what worked with children for whom nothing seemed to work!
    Please do not

  7. Chipperfield says:

    Sorry did not finish! These are incredibly valuable instructional programs. It takes skill and dedication to use them well. When i think of the children and families who would not have landed in reading hell had I had a more positive approach to not only DI, but direct instruction, in my training. Be careful what you dismiss so readily.

  8. Allan Luke says:

    Dear Chipperfield – Thanks for the response. My comments aren’t ‘armchair academic’ responses (there’s a longer, more detailed version of the blog on the QUT sprints site) and were not an attempt to paint a ‘poisoned’ picture of DI. I taught DISTAR in the 1970s to year 2/3 mixed classes, and CRP (Corrective Reading Program) to year 7 ESL, migrant and low-socioeconomic classes – and I’ve had children and family friends go through the program. I’ve also read through the extensive published work, both by Englemann and colleagues at Oregon, and independent work published by others; and I’ve discussed the program and its interesting history with Carl Bereiter, its other originator at UToronto. As the original blog comments suggest, there’s no doubt DI can work for many kids. But the question with the large scale implementation programs is that which kids, where, in which schools, community and curriculum contexts. Also, and Bereiter’s shift after his early behaviorist work in DISTAR to constructivist work on classroom dialogue underlines this: there is the major curriculum question about how you articulate basic skills learned with ‘automaticity’ through DI into meaningful conceptual, higher order, critical and substantive content learning. Having worked as a senior state bureaucrat in curriculum reform – any government or jurisdiction proceeding down a medium to larger-scale implementation had better carefully consider the ‘which kids’, ‘which communities’, ‘which cultures’, ‘which languages’ questions and also the ‘which curriculum pathway’ questions.

  9. I find it fascinating that Pyne is proscribing a lock-step approach to teaching and learning in public schools when the type of school that he attended (elite Independents) wouldn’t be caught dead doing it. I also find the rhetoric around school autonomy interesting because it sits awkwardly alongside Canberra’s attempts to control all other processes. Why is innovation (one-to-one iPads, group and inquiry-based learning, transdisciplinary approaches to curriculum, etc) acceptable in affluent schools but decried as sub-standard in others? The International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program (offered at St Paul’s Grammar School and Newington College in Sydney) is about as far from DI as you can get but you don’t see Pyne thundering about that…

  10. Chipperfield says:

    Do not think that independent schools eschew direct instruction, or indeed DI. I have known of one expensive girls’ school using Reading Mastery. Finding skilled staff is going to be the main problem.

  11. edumeep says:

    I think part of the problem is that DI (either proprietary DI programs or generic DI pedagogy) is so howled down by the constructivist mob these days because it’s not “engaging” and “authentic” that it’s rarely used at all. And I’ll be honest – as someone who’s special ed trained, I’ve found that some kids DO need this approach (both kids in special ed AND mainstream).

    I agree with the notion that it can’t be a stand alone measure. But once upon a time teachers felt worried if someone walked past their room and there was lots of noise. Now you feel worried if someone walks past your room and you have a teacher-centred lesson happening.

    I actually think a lot of early to mid career teachers probably don’t even know what DI is. I know I never touched upon it in my degree 12 years ago. I only learnt about it in during my Masters.

    I jumped wholeheartedly on the 21st century learning bandwagon but to be honest, I feel like I’ve done my kids with learning difficulties a complete disservice. DI has its place, and I think we’d have fewer kids falling through the cracks if we didn’t thumb our collective noses at it.

  12. TMac says:

    I second your comment coming from a Special Ed perspective where DI has its merits. Whilst I working as a Learning & Support Teacher at a mainstream comprehensive girls HS, one of the challenges presented was the shift towards a whole-heartedly constructivist ‘project based learning’ approach. Students with special needs or learning difficulties struggled with the open-ended nature of the project tasks set and did not necessarily gain a deeper understanding of the required content – if anything often missed the key information. Even with the supports and task break down I would put in place for these students (and advising the class teachers on how to more effectively modify the work/PBL activities), I think explicit instruction (and targeted DI interventions) should be embedded into the teaching process alongside the uptake of newer constructivist methodologies. Any thoughts?

  13. Ian says:

    Agree completely.

    Why is it that I had to teach my kids their times tables late on in Yr 5 and Yr6. It took me about 4 days during a school holiday break to get it done. How is it that school reports would come home prior to them properly learning their tables and confirm that in numeracy each of my kids were in the “sound” category of development. My kids went to public and private schools during their primary school years. Same result for all. All were in danger of falling through the cracks. I lost faith in the wishy washy methods being used to teach my kids.

    My advice to parents who are considering private schooling and who’s kids are not naturally academic or self starters would be to instead save the dollars and invest in one on one private tutors. It produced the best results for us, far far better than what the private and public education teachers were achieving.

  14. andypandy says:

    Thumbs up.

  15. Bluedoginoz says:

    It’s interesting that Pyne has jumped on the fad of the moment – Direct Instruction. It’s certainly not surprising we are seeing an extremely narrow and simple version being promoted that removes any intellect from the task at hand. Remove anything like science or professional judgement and promote a single, economically rationale solution… Sound like anything else this government is promoting?

  16. holdwise says:

    Direct Instruction does not necessarily involve a predesigned, commercial product as suggested here. Broadly speaking, it means that the teacher decides what is going to be learned and is deliberate about making sure it happens. This is often in contrast to minimal guidance learning, where it is up to the students to discover the desired learning. The latter has been shown to be ineffective.

    Hattie’s Visible Learning goes into more detail on what DI actually is. He also shows a strong effect size for direct instruction; the evidence is not mixed, as is claimed here.

    Direct Instruction does not deskill teachers. It requires the teacher to be the expert, both of their subject knowledge and how to get children to learn it.

    The tracking of student progress and ability grouping mentioned is also not a necessary part of DI. Still, I’m interested in your evidence that these things harm students.

    So what alternative to DI is being proposed here? What completes the “larger school-level approach”?

  17. Allan Luke says:

    Thanks for this. School reform is tough work – and the appeal of a single curriculum commodity, approach, method is understandable.

    The ‘whole school’ proposal comes from volumes of case studies of successful school reform and analyses of systems-level reform (principally in Canada, but with some exemplars in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, see especially the work of Stuart MacNaughton in South Auckland schools; visit the Ontario Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat Website). The aim is: A coherent whole school curriculum plan with strong developmental understandings of how literacy, numeracy and content knowledge are taught and learned with different strategies at different age/grade/developmental levels. Many Canadian schools use the ‘four resources’ model, but there are other viable scaffolds for building P-6 curricula. These programs are developed by teachers with instructional leadership at the school-level and most allocate explicit instruction (perhaps including DI copyrighted materials) a specific developmental role in the teaching of literacy and numeracy. The extensive expertise in schools of many of the teachers like those who have responded here- via Reading Recovery training, special education expertise, prior inservice with programs like DI, Multilit etc. – is invaluable in putting these programs together. My point again: there’s nothing wrong with explicit instruction, with behaviorist teaching principles operationalized, with scripted pedagogy – but they’re part of a broader school curriculum and instructional plan.

    Two jurisdictions that I’m currently working with – Ontario and Alberta – have succeeded and continue to work strongly with an emphasis on school-level curriculum planning, scaffolded under a mandated provincial curriculum, with well resourced school-level planning, use of testing for developmental diagnostic models, and a strong emphasis on equity in funding and teacher quality. Ontario schools actually have a Provincial school-level curriculum planning template that takes schools through a planning process beginning with an analysis of their demographic, cultural/linguistic and test score data. Schools there can and do use explicit instruction models, and some use variations of DI-type materials. But they do so in blended approaches with provincial, board and cluster level professional development, support and advice.

    But of course – this requires a strong government policy commitment to well-resourced teacher professional development, strong system curriculum advisory infrastructure (at Ministry and district level), and – get this – an unquestioned commitment to public education. For some governments – slogans around back to the basics and search for the single method solution are much easier, though they’ve got very dubious track records. Gonski was never going to solve these problems, but it had the potential to set the infrastructure and professional grounds for this level of ‘hard’ school-level implementation and reform work to be done.

    Other systems have tried medium and larger-scale mandates of phonics-based, basic-skills explicit instructional models across the board in the past and have abandoned them: specifically, Tasmania pushed ‘Spaulding’ very strongly across the 1990s with no sustained improvements in results; check out how many American states are attempting to quietly move away from mandated, scripted basic skills and testing as the answers. School change is complex and tough – hence the appeal of magic bullets.

  18. andypandy says:

    Completely agree. The professor seems to have gone silent in relation to addressing any criticisms.

  19. This stuff has been around for over 40 years. If it were the magic bullet for enabling students to develop their literacy and numeracy skills, why has it not been in use universally since then with everyone under the age of 45 totally proficient? Why has the US introduced their rigid Common Core Standards to try to address their perceived falling literacy and numeracy rates? Why not just mandate this sort of one-size-fits-all approach?

    Personally, I believe Christopher Pyne and his advisers to be so dangerous to our children’s futures , he should come with a warning label.

  20. andypandy says:

    It hasn’t been extensively used Barbara. The main pedagogical approach that is pushed by Universities is based around constructionist principles not DI. Essentially it has been ignored because it doesn’t fit with the dominant constructionist approach peddled by the universities who teach our teachers. If you glance through the Uni. texts books of “Best Pedagogical Approaches” you will find little mention of DI while the majority of the book is filled with constructionist theory and ideology. This outright bias is despite the fact that DI has very sound evidence to back it up as one of the most successful ways to teach.

  21. Could someone please tell Pyne to read the following book by R.S.Peters entitled “Ethics and Education ” Allan and Unwin. 1966 , on the difference between education and instruction.

  22. Jim Cowardin, PhD says:

    There have been wide scale implementations of DI that have been very successful, such as in San Diego  and Chicago. However when the leadership changed, they ignored the success of the program and removed it from use. In every case the best interest of the students was of,little concern. 
    In cmparison studies, DI has always been shown to be more effective than the program with which it was compared. 
    Teachers do not control Di lessons, students do.  Teachers assess student performance constantly and make numerous fine adjustments on the go and in response to frequent periodic tests of a more formal nature. Saying that teachers control the program is an egregious misstatement. It shows a lack of understanding of DI. 
    In no way does DI “deskill” teachers. Another absurd comment. DI teachers must learn different skills, yes. They do vary their presentation as explained above within the protocol. It is much the same as a skilled heart surgeon who deviates from her protocol, as taught, under certain conditions, but who follows a detailed set of directions. We would not think to say that a script “deskills” a surgeon. 
    Grouping students by demonstrated level of skill helps all students. Homogenous groups,can move faster, whether low or high. It is unfair to put less gifted students with high performers. DI teaches all students to the same high level of mastery. It just may take some students longer to arrive at a certain place. 
    “Rigid relationship” is an undefined term, therefore meaningless, that must be simply a scare tactic. It has no place in a learned discussion of an educational technique.  “Local adaptation” is another meaningless term. What are you going to adapt? When do you start and stop adapting? The term may give readers a warm feeling, but it has no rigor when applied to basic reading instruction.  Students who sense their progress in DI programs show their grateful ness to their teacher in many warm loving ways. 
    The notion that somehow teaching some basic skills well prevents the blossoming of those skills. Where is there any logic in such a notion?  Years ago a limited study came to a faulty conclusion and this comment descends from that. Surely, as in the faulty study, if basic instruction is not followed by good instruction skills will erode. But if basic skills have not been formed, there is nothing to erode. On the contrary basic skills developed by DI make it much easier to develop more advanced concepts. As stated, it is necessary, and, yes, it is not sufficient.  No program could be.

    If anyone is saying that DI is the end-all and be-all of a school program, they are mistaken. Many other activities should be part of a school day.  As well, no one should be making the claim that DI is the ONLY way to teach kids. But mountains of research show DI to be effective when implemented well. Other methods that show results should be codified and researched to shoes that they are not idiosyncratic nor too expensive or have some other flaw. In the mean time go with what works.  Put the interest of the kids first for once. 

    One more thing, it is an additional injustice to pidgeon hole Di as a remedial-only program. It lights up high-functioning students. DI is simply sound instruction. It works for kids. Australian students are fortunate to be receiving a large implementation. Such huge projects always have their challenges, may they be few and tractable and lead to great benefit for Australian students. 

  23. Curt Dudley-Marling says:

    Reading educators in the US have been strongly influenced by the long history of progressive reading practices in Australian schools. So I was deeply disappointed to read about the Australian government’s intention to abandon this progressive tradition in favor of Direct Instruction reading programs, especially in remote K-6 schools. It is claimed that Direct Instruction reading is “research-based” yet the US government sponsored What Works Clearinghouse, created to identify instructional methods that “work,” concluded that none of the studies on Direct Instruction reading met its minimal criteria for research methods. To the degree that Direct Instruction does work, students get better at low-level reading skills like phonics but show little improvement in higher-level reading skills like comprehension. This is a sad moment in the proud history of Australian education.

  24. Allan Luke says:

    Thanks so much for these comments. They demonstrate the scientific and technical complexity of the issues and claims at work here. Here’s a quick GPS to the landscape.

    As readers will see from these last two comments, there are strongly contending views put about the ‘efficacy’ of DI in generating improved standardized achievement test scores on quasi-experimental designs and longitudinal tracking studies (the ‘gold standard’ used by ‘What Works’ and required by the NCLB legislation). Last year I discussed the questions about these studies with senior NCLB administrators, who confirmed that their reviews and analyses in the early and mid-2000s did not support the legislative endorsement, state-level adoption and implementation of DI. I suggest that readers delve into this literature themselves. Take care in whose accounts you read. I was on the board of Reading Research Quarterly in the early 2000s, and we had a long debate over the ethics of publishing pieces that claimed to demonstrate the efficacy of a specific program by authors/researchers who had a proprietary copyright and financial interest in the said programs. So I take these questions about authorship and research funding support as a rule of thumb about reading the studies.

    To reiterate, there are many phonics-based and coding programs that use explicit instruction, as Curt Dudley-Marling’s comments suggest, that yield improved performance on early measures. The key is explaining why/how these ‘wash out’ as students move through decoding into comprehension demands of the later primary years. Scott Paris, current research director of the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, NJ, begins to explain this phenomenon in an important 2005 Reading Research Quarterly article on the developmental and pedagogical challenges faced by teachers and students in the early years transitions from basic decoding to comprehension – see:


    Here is to a more informed public and professional debate on the matter. This said, I agree with the urgent imperative for action in Indigenous education that has driven the efforts of the Cape York curriculum and school reforms, and it is important to acknowledge the important place of explicit instruction in basic skills for the many students who need immediate and unfettered access to the ‘codes’ of print literacy. Have a read about the empirically-documented challenges and possibilities facing Indigenous education across Australia:


    As I said in an earlier post, while we need to be cautious about magic bullet solutions that ‘overpromise’ – this is no time for ‘arm-chair’ critique that assume the status quo is acceptable or that anything less than concerted reform and innovation in Indigenous education is needed.

  25. andypandy says:

    The wash out that you speak of can be explained once reading becomes about reading to learn rather than reading to read. I concur with Hirch that unless students have background knowledge they have difficulty with comprehension questions – that is they need knowledge/facts as cultural currency. If you want students to improve perhaps start with given them a sound knowledge base with which they can proceed rather than merely skilling them for the 21st C stuff…I recommend you read Hirsch and the “experiments” he did in relation to reading and comprehension being based on core knowledge. More knowledge equals better readers s does phonetics and DI as the best pedagogical approach.

  26. Jeff not my real name says:

    I worked as a high and primary school teacher in one of the Cape York schools that implemented DI. It worked well up to grade 3, but bored the students after grade 3. NAPLAN results from those schools support this observation. After grade 3 classrooms with behavioural problems were not served well by DI, in fact, Elementary Maths Mastery proved to totally ineffective for most students.

    The same consultant who sold the DI approach to the Cape York principles then began to sell explicit instruction to the next Queensland school I taught at. It was a disaster with our instruction approached mandated and no flexibility to develop student-engaging activities. The justification for the school’s mandated approach came out of the work of Hattie who came up with a statistical meta-analysis of the most effective approaches to teaching. The only problem is, Hattie himself admits that just one disruptive student will destroy the effectiveness of any educational approach. Around 20% of my grade 8s were disengaged by the explicit approach and as a result were highly disruptive in the classroom.
    Luke is correct when he suggests that teachers need a comprehensive “tool box” of pedagogical approaches that can be used to engage your students and adapt to the specific needs of the students. For my grade 11 maths A students, explicit instruction was very effective, with my class having the best pass rates in the school.

    My observations and experience suggest that the problem lies with head-office/school management. They are often seduced by these “snake-oil” salesmen who offer a “silver bullet” system-wide solution that dis-empowers teachers and leads to poor education outcomes for students who are unlucky enough to be trapped in disruptive classrooms.

  27. edumeep says:

    I agree that this approach is unlikely to be engaging for some older students or students who struggle with behavioural expectations required for DI. But this is where some differentiation should occur – get those kids out of the classroom and provide them with learning experiences that will meet their needs more effectively, whether that be hands on work, or DI presented 1:1 without an audience to bounce off.

    Or perhaps they just need to understand WHY they are doing it – balancing a DI approach with constructivist learning helps them make sense of their new knowledge and find where it fits in the real world. Perhaps if it was delivered as “we need to learn x so we can do y” where y is something really fun and exciting, there’d be greater buy-in?

  28. Chipperfield says:

    Is the Elementary Math Mastery the Rhonda Farkota one? Just curious why you found it ineffective?

  29. Andrew Calvert says:

    Some great points from both sides here. It’s already a long thread so I’ll shut my trap except to say that anything that doesn’t require teacher prep allows for teacher prep in other areas…

    I find it hard to balance planning activities that engage almost all students (though I’m getting a lot better at it) with having the time to heavily scaffold and provide feedback on writing quality. Anything that gives us time to do the latter is actually advancing the cause of engaging, “progressive” teaching far more than most of the directives from the academy currently in vogue.

  30. Caleb says:

    In my opinion, direct instruction presents limitations on what the student is able to do and how they are able to learn. It can be mind-numbing and difficult to be engaged in the lesson and be able to apply what has been taught. It is so important that instruction is diverse and effective teaching methods are explored daily, even student driven lessons can be effective.

  31. andypandy says:

    I am on the left and agree with the comment above. Hattie found: ‘Too often direct teaching is portrayed as bad, while constructivist teaching is considered to be good… This is almost directly opposite to the successful recipe for teaching and learning.’ … ‘Every year I present lectures to teacher education students and find that they are already indoctrinated with the mantra “constructivism good, direct instruction bad”. When I show them the results of these meta-analyses, they are stunned, and they often become angry at having been given an agreed set of truths and commandments against direct instruction.’

  32. andypandy says:

    Sorry, I mean I agree with magic bullet better than none.

  33. I am a teacher living in remote Arnhem region NT. It dismays me that we are putting millions of dollars into an overseas product, when we have an excellent program already which was developed in NT for indigenous students. It was the WALKING TALKING TEXT (WTT) program.
    Why has this program NOT been working?

    Because investment was only put into training teachers for a minimal amount of time. With the high turnover of teachers it only took 2 years for the schools to be saturated with teaches not trained to teach WTT. It became an adhoc process that was not implemented correctly.

    It is THE best program I have used for indigenous and refugee students in developing English oracy. When it is supplemented with the PM Reading program, which many schools use, and a solid spelling program based on the core 200 frequent used words, you have the ingredients for solid progress in reading, writing and speaking of English.

    It was hastily replaced with Accelerated Literacy, which was not adequate at supporting emerging English speakers. AL is now not in favour with nothing replacing it for the past year.

    How long will DI be in favour, and how long will new teachers be supported with training in using it? Hopefully more than the three years WTT was given!!!

  34. Brad says:

    All this support for DI is making me teary-eyed. Oh Lord Engelmann, deliver us from the evils of unsupported conjecture.

  35. I love teaching creativity and thinking while helping kids develop deep understandings. I help students use meta-cognitions and I promote the arts.

    This doesn’t mean I must anti teaching fundamental literacy and numeracy.

    A big problem in education is the notion that you must hold ‘this view’ OR ‘that’. You must use ‘this approach’ or ‘that’. Sometimes we need to explore the option of AND over OR.

    Two relevant resources:

  36. It's all in the delivery says:

    People who believe that DI programs are boring and disengaging need to consider how they are delivering it. Unfortunately, teachers are too quick to blame the program instead of reflecting on their own performance. The body of research shows that this stuff works so maybe it is you that is the problem.

    In response to disruptive students making DI ineffective; In my experience a disruptive student doing DI is a disruptive student no matter the pedagogy. In fact, I find that ‘disruptive students’ are at their least disruptive when they are involved in a DI program because these programs allow students to have success, the work is at their level and there are clear expectations as to what they need to do.

    Maureen Curran’s comment above is contradictory. Surely DI would be an excellent solution in the NT given the ‘high turn-over of staff’. The scripted nature of the programs mean that delivery, terminology and expectations are somewhat consistent no matter how long the staff member has been at a school. I’m not saying that WTT isn’t as amazing as you make it out to be but surely if the program requires significant PL to implement effectively and if you have an issue with staff turn-over then you would think DI would address the issues you have. Sure, more investment could be put into training teachers but you will NEVER solve the issue of staff turn-over in that part of the country. Investing in staff who are just going to leave in 1-3 years is a waste.

  37. Helenb says:

    Hi just a quick question as a first student teacher we are being taught that explicit and direct instruction are the same thing. Yet coming here it appears there is a whole lot of people who are making definite distinctions to the two. Im getting a little confused in the process and was wondering if you were aware that there was a group of professionals saying that they are one and the same thing.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Helen 🙂

  38. Helenb says:

    sorry for the errors in grammar but I have developed a nervous reaction to being surrounded by experts that I make more mistakes than I normally would have.

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