Saturday / March 2

The Missing Ingredient in PBL: Direct Instruction

Schmoker (2007) shares a quote related to PBL that is typically held up as an example of the model teacher making the changes necessary for students to be competitive in the Unites States:

He [a teacher] is always innovating.  He has initiated interdisciplinary teaching, heavy use of technology, hands-on activities, and lots of “project based learning”.  His students do very little reading and even less writing.  But they spend lots of time going to and from the library, often preparing, making, and then listening (listlessly) to each other’s flashy but unfocused PowerPoint presentations.  And like the majority of the teachers at his school, he doesn’t even realize that his lessons and projects are devoid of modeling, guided practice, or checks for understanding.  Nonetheless, the teacher is highly regarded for his emphasis on “active” learning, on “integrating technology” into his “project based” assignments.

I don’t know about you but I have seen many PBL classrooms devoid of direct instruction to enhance student learning.  I find this scary.   Students need direct guidance through instruction, especially when they are struggling with core content knowledge and skill at the initial levels of learning.  We have expert teachers in the classroom and their expertise must be utilized.  The problem is direct instruction is a four letter word in the PBL world:

“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. Too often, what the critics mean by direct instruction is didactic teacherled talking from the front; this should not be confused with the very successful “Direct Instruction” method as first outlined by Adams and Engelmann (1996). Direct Instruction has a bad name for the wrong reasons, especially when it is confused with didactic teaching, as the underlying principles of Direct Instruction place it among the most successful outcomes….[in a nutshell] The teacher decides the learning intentions and success criteria, makes them transparent to the students, demonstrates them by modeling, evaluates if they understand what they have been told by checking for understanding, and re-telling them what they have told by tying it all together with closure (see Cooper, 2006).”

Excerpt From: John A. C. Hattie. “Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement.”

Direct Instruction is a missing approach in many problem and project based learning environments and as a result a significant number of students are not realizing the learning gains we [should] expect.  Willingham (2014) wrote a fantastic blog entitled children must be taught which highlighted the critical importance of specifically teaching students information.  He argued against the sponge hypothesis:  the idea that students will absorb the important information if they are provided the right environment.  He argued for teaching, by teachers, directly to students.

This is so important for PBL/PrBLers as the research on problem and project based learning shows that inquiry based methods are limiting for students who require support in acquiring basic knowledge and skills in certain domain areas.  And, here is the thing; we all need that support at times.

My argument here is that if we utilize effective direct instruction in the PBL/PrBL classroom specifically in situations where students are building knowledge and skill then we may substantially mitigate the limiting effect of the method as it relates to learning.  I will share a few possible reasons for our lack of direct instruction in the PBL environment and provide a few ideas for adding the ingredient we need most.  Please note that this is a hypothesis, or theory of action.  Though the literature advocates for what I’m writing, it is paramount that the teacher is making decisions in light of student learning (progress and proficiency).  Learning drives our instruction.

Potential Reasons for minimal use of Direct Instruction in the PBL environment:

  1.  Direct Instruction is often thought of as frontal instruction (FI).  

Ben-Ari and Eliassy (2003), defined frontal instruction as  “primarily teacher-directed and [the teacher] presents to all class members uniform academic tasks and uniform ways of performing them, fails to cope with achievement differences among pupils (Ben-Ari & Shafir, 1998; Karweit, 1987; Klein & Eshel, 1980). Typically, the level of instruction is adjusted to meet the needs of high- or average-ability students (Oakes, 1985), while the pacing of instruction is based on feedback from low-achievement pupils (Dahloff, 1971). As a result, the entire student body suffers, so that fast-paced achievers are not sufficiently stimulated, whereas low achievers may feel frustrated; decreased motivation and off-task behaviors are likely to follow. In addition, FIS is less effective in promoting social skills that are highly important for students’ conduct in the classroom. Students taught by a teacher-directed method develop causal perceptions that focus on the teacher rather than on themselves and view the teacher as the primary agent responsible for what happens in the classroom. Consequently, the children are less likely to develop a sense of personal and social responsibility or of self-efficacy regarding the events transpiring in the class. 

PBL/PBLers fear the homogenous nature of direct instruction and the inferred values and assumptions of the method.  Typically, we think of classrooms that engage in direct instruction as those that are focused on coverage, competition, control, and compliance.   I used to equate the method to one that disrespects children.  Rather, this is typical of FI, which does not have a substantial impact on learning.  FI does not include formative assessments processes, is not adaptive, and is a teacher centric process [e.g. student prior knowledge or interest is not usually taken into account].  On the other hand, direct instruction is a learning centered strategy that utilizes formative assessment processes while providing a direct approach to supporting student learning.     Direct instruction values the student and the teacher (see quote above, Cooper 2006 and steps I provide below to support my argument).  This is a mutual learning process rather than a “control” process (see Schwarz for more on this typology of power).

  1.  Messaging often contrasts problem and project based learning from direct instruction.

We are not, as PBLers “guides on the side” or “sages on the stage”.  We provide our expertise of content and skill  in the classroom  directly when our students are struggling with surface level knowledge and adapt our level of instruction as they progress to deeper levels of understanding.

I think we have done a disservice by shying away from a direct instruction approach when it is needed.  I have many times in the past shown Seamus‘ teaching from Shirley Clarke’s film Outstanding Formative Assessment  to PBLers when I’m discussing the importance of direction in instruction and assessment.  Almost without exception, PBLers have a visceral and very uncomfortable reaction to his instructional approach; I often here- “He’s too direct, too involved.”  Yet, his [Seamus] effect on student learning is beyond impressive.  This tells me something.  We may not be, universally, doing a lot of “minute to minute” inspections of student learning and making adjustments.  These micro approaches or ‘pivots’ in the PBL environment are critical because they promote transparency of student knowledge related to know where they are going  (outcomes) and where they are (current performance). Moreover , with that data (and if we, as teachers have that data) we can collectively identify appropriate next steps in the learning.   We should never be in the dark with where students are in their thinking (nor should they).  As Willingham states, “Memory is the residue of thought” and as such, we should know what kids are thinking.  And, then, in light of that understanding, address student needs effectively and efficiently.  This may require direct interventions.

  1.  We have a difficult time seeing the limitations of our model.

George Box once said, “All models are wrong, some are useful”.  There isn’t a model out there that I’ve seen that promotes student respect and authentic ownership of learning  more than PBL/PrBL.  The challenge we have is that we have been drawn to a sort of zeal for fidelity to a model while forgetting to exercise our reflective powers to challenge such a model; we need to “kick the tires” every once and awhile.  I think fidelity to a certain practice and belief system promotes a dogma that inhibits our ability to reinvent and/or move forward at some clip.  We need a tension to be creative.  Dogma relieves tension, creates group think, and creates 140 character adages that carry a currency that scares me when it limits our thinking, reinforces practices that may need to change, and may not yield the greatest impact in all contexts.

PBL requires integrity to principles not fidelity to practices.  One thing PBLers usually agree on is that the approach requires inquiry.   As such, when students say they have a “need to know” that can most efficiently and possibly, most effectively be addressed through a direct approach, let’s give them that opportunity.  Students need shallow knowledge to support deeper understanding.  More specifically, they need a healthy proportion of both surface and deep knowledge.   They can’t think critically about something if they don’t have any baseline knowledge.  This is called impoverished deep learning and from what I’ve seen from news agencies, public meetings, and from many politicians, this is certainly a reality from my perspective.  The power of our teachers content knowledge and the  broad range of delivery methods they possess must be realized and honored; at least for the sake of student learning.

  1. We focus on process.  

As Dylan William says, “Content, then process”.  I couldn’t agree more, lets have our expert teachers design curriculum and deliver instruction that effectively enhances students content knowledge.  As PBLers, we are great at the process piece.  We may need to focus more on the content element.


A few next steps to consider

  1.  Develop quality workshops that are aligned to learning progressions and along a problem or project continuum 

One offering is that PBLers identify instructional strategies that have a predictive yield for enhancing student learning at each progression level of learning outcomes (i.e. the levels on a rubric). As described earlier, more directive approaches appear to have a higher impact on student learning when students are developing and forming initial relationships of core content and skills. As students develop a stronger level of competency, more facilitative approaches appear to yield better results. In sum, teachers may want to identify and utilize a broad base of Instructional strategies (The following hyperlink shows a table that provides a suite of instructional strategies that align with the suggested progression levels established when building rubrics for each outcome. These instructional strategies are based on years of research from The Art and Science of Teaching Framework and model (Marzano, 2007, Marzano et al., 2011, Marzano et al, 2012)).  that are both facilitative and directive in nature to support students in their learning.  Its important to note (again) that these strategies are not defined as “high yield” rather “high probability” of yielding an impact–instructional strategy efficacy are predicated impact within context.

To align instructional strategies to student learning needs, the following questions may be helpful:

Single/Multiple Ideas (basic level understanding)– What instructional approaches will support students in understanding foundational knowledge (e.g. facts, vocabulary terms) related to learning outcomes?

Relating ideas (proficiency)– What instructional approaches support students in connecting and contrasting ideas? What are generalizations and principles that can be made about these ideas?

Extending ideas (application)– What instructional approaches support students in applying the learning outcomes to project expectations?

Teachers may want to categorize or tag workshops with likely questions that will emerge for students at each progression level throughout the project. These questions typically emerge from the review of rubrics, the use of an entry event (breadcrumbs), and from the natural cognitive discrepancies that emerge through assessment activities (e.g. pre-assessment- know/need to know, a general obtrusive assessment) .  As you plan for your project, you normally have a good idea of the need to knows you want kids to ask and you embed them in the entry document and direct kids to the rubric.  The following table provides an example of how a teacher may plan a content-based workshop.

Learning Outcome:The Industrialized nations’ desire for abundant resources and new markets for their goods coupled with feelings of cultural superiority (such as Social Darwinism), and increased military power allowed for and encouraged Imperial expansion. Imperialism had lasting positive and negative effects.


Once workshops have been crafted along the progression levels of learning outcomes, teachers may want to craft a scope and sequence of the workshops from surface level understanding to deep level understanding.  Two great leverage points in PBL/PrBL emerge here:

  1. PrBLs and Projects begin with the deeper level understanding requirements ( e.g. launch of the entry document).  This allows teachers to generate a need to know list.  If the entry event or as Dan Meyer would argue, if Act I is presented correctly, many questions will emerge across the progression levels.
  2. The project phase lends itself nicely to tackling surface level to deep level knowledge.  Students will be eager to understand specific facts and skills in order to tackle the other aspects (if they aren’t then they may have “jumped to solutions” and moved to creating the product early- be ready for that posting soon).  Using Meyer’s language, Act II is filled with workshops that move from surface to deep level knowledge.  I have provided another way of approaching the phases.  You can see that in phase II, building knowledge workshops would likely emerge early on.


  1.  Creating a DI Workshop for Surface Level Knowledge

To create direct instruction workshops to level student learning at the initial levels of learning consider the following steps:

  1. Share the learning intentions (driving question and outcomes) and success criteria (rubric)
  2. Discuss the importance of such learning intentions and success criteria to the student’s current level of knowledge and skill.  Involve students in this discussion so that they see a discrepancy between what they know and what you expect.  (see the following video for more detailed rationale on why this is critical).
  3. Provide a hook by revising the driving question.  Many times the hook is the “gap analysis” you created in the previous step.
  4. Provide inputs through lecture, video, etc., model expected outcomes, and utilize formative assessment practices.  This is a critical time for making sure students are practicing the work the ‘right way’.  Practice does not make perfect.  perfect practices makes perfect.  We don’t want a student to do 10,000 hrs. of something wrong.  Don’t have them go practice until they understand.  Re-teach.
  5. Guided Practice- Once an initial understanding has been established, provide guided practice under your supervision.
  6. Review, Clarify, and Connect to the problem or project.
  7. Independent practice is critical for retention.

A more general PBL workshop heuristic to consider:

  • Pre-Assessment- Students are invited or required to attend a workshop based on pre-assessment data (i.e. test, student request). Teachers work with students to recognize their current knowledge on the topic or application of a skill and then discuss discrepancies between their current understanding and expectations.
  • Connection– Students reflect on the overall purpose of their current work to the larger outcomes and project questions that they are working towards.
  • Provide instructional strategy– Teachers or students implement an instructional activity based on the progression level of the activity.
  • Provide guided and/or independent practice – Opportunities for practice are provided and peers act as critical friends and resources to support the learning of all students.
  • Expect deliverable (expected proof of growth and/or competency) – Students demonstrate understanding through the accomplishment of various tasks or activities.
  • AfL– Ongoing review of current progress, revisions and clarifications occur, and next steps are constructed.
  • Inspect student outcomes/Reinforce practice– opportunities are provided for implementation and reflection. Teachers and students check back with individuals and teams to make sure growth and proficiency is occurring.

I hope this is helpful.

In conclusion, implementation of a PrBL/PBL approach is complex due to the range of instructional strategies and resources that are utilized to substantially impact student learning across a learning progression. Direct instruction is part of your arsenal; utilize the approach, check the impact, and rest assured its ok.



Written by

Michael McDowell, Ed.D. is the Superintendent of the Ross School District. Most recently, he served as the Associate Superintendent of Instructional and Personnel Services at the Tamalpais Union High School District. During his tenure, the Tamalpais Union High School District was recognized by the Marzano Research Laboratories as one of the top highly reliable organizations in the United States, and schools within the district received recognitions by the US News and World Report, and honored with California Distinguished Schools accolades.

Prior to his role as a central office administrator, Dr. McDowell served as the Principal of North Tahoe High School, a California Distinguished School. Prior to administration, Dr. McDowell was a leadership and instructional coach for the New Tech Network supporting educators in designing, implementing, and enhancing innovative schools across the country. Before engaging in the nonprofit sector, Dr. McDowell created and implemented an environmental science and biology program at Napa New Technology High School, infusing 1:1 technology, innovative teaching and assessment, and leveraging student voice in the classroom. Additionally, Dr. McDowell, taught middle school math and science in Pacifica, CA.

Dr. McDowell is a national presenter, speaking on instruction, learning, leadership and innovation. He has provided professional development services to large school districts, State Departments of Education, and higher education. In addition, he was a former National Faculty member for the Buck Institute of Education and a key thought leader in the inception of their leadership work in scaling innovation in instructional methodologies. His expertise in design and implementation is complimented by his scholarly approach to leadership, learning, and instruction.

He holds a B.S. in Environmental Science and a M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Redlands and an Ed.D. from the University of La Verne. He received departmental honors for his work in Environmental Science and was awarded the Tom Fine Creative Leadership Award for his doctoral work at the University of La Verne. He has also completed certification programs through Harvard University, the California Association of School Business Officials, the American Association of School Personnel Administrators, and Cognition Education. He holds both a California single subject teaching credential and an administrative credential.

Latest comments

  • Thank you for the question/comments PHL!

    I argue that we need to take a Kenny Rodgers approach, “Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.” Meaning–when students are at the surface level of understanding (basic level knowledge and skill) direct instruction is very helpful (or looks to be). As they move towards deeper and transfer level, direct instruction seems to fade in efficacy and other approaches that resonate with traditional PBL seem to be more helpful for student learning. This requires teachers in PBL environments to constantly assess student learning and identify strategies that appear to yield the greatest effect on students learning at particular phases of the learning process (surface, deep, and transfer).

    My offering would be to consider direct instruction in the earlier stages of projects/problems when students are often in need of understanding basic level knowledge and skills. In addition, the method may be helpful when students need reinforcement of ideas/skills. As such the % of direct instruction varies depending on student prior knowledge and progress.

  • As a new teacher in the early ’90s, I was indoctrinated by the Whole Language approach to teaching. I remember thinking at the time that learning by osmosis seemed highly dubious, but who was I to question what my credentialing and content experts were touting?

    Twenty-four years later, I constantly question and am not afraid to think critically about the latest trends in education. PBL and constant cooperative learning (which is rarely truly collaborative) are two trends that I question most. I often find this type of “teaching” sloppy, lazy, and lackluster, while most of my colleagues somehow view it as innovative, interactive, and empowering.

    What is actually empowering about allowing students to remain fixated on their narrow interests while chronically socializing, instead of acting like the scholars we say we expect them to be? I expect much more from my students, and they in turn have learned to expect more of me as their teacher-leader, advocate, and inspirer.

    There is plenty of room for student agency AND teacher direction, feedback, and expertise. Thank you for an excellent, timely, and brave article!

  • And furthermore let’s hope my spelling improves!

  • I am a huge, huge fan and advocate of PBL. So much so that I believe only one questions remains: “What’s the balance and relationship between direct instruction and the project?”

    50:50? 60:40? 75:25?

    0:100? – yeah, like in the history of teaching THAT has ever worked.

    Let’s hope the pendulem doesn’t swing back too fast and as is the way so often, ‘oops, there goes the baby with the bathwater’

    • The assertion that problem-based learning is an unguided and unstructured approach that is not supported by a variety of scaffolding, as illustrated by citing examples of poor teaching using PBL, is a straw man argument (poorly taught PBL is poor teaching just like poor direct instruction is poor teaching). I would direct those who want to see this “sloppy” thinking counter-acted should read the debate that was sparked by the Kirschner and co (2006) when they published their critique of constructivist pedagogies and argument for direct instruction.
      The point is not whether direct instruction could or should be used, but as PH implies in the question “What’s the balance and relationship between direct instruction and the project?” it is the HOW to use direct instruction that needs to be addressed. Knowing the inherent complexities between telling and understanding (we do simply absorb information in an unfiltered manner) the role of direct instruction must be always considered in light of this. So when I read the following quote I wince.
      This is a critical time for making sure students are practicing the work the ‘right way’. Practice does not make perfect. perfect practices makes perfect. We don’t want a student to do 10,000 hrs. of something wrong. Don’t have them go practice until they understand. Re-teach” .
      Practicing the work the ‘right way’ -Re-teach I assume are codes for “direct -instruction”. And while agree this should form part of the scaffolds it also requires an accompanying verbalisation and negotiation between learners and the teacher. The meaning making that is focussed on deep rather than surface understanding requires an examination via dialogue between accepted wisdom and individual understanding. Direct instruction one could argue is a redundant term in as much ALL teaching or facilitation requires a conversation that vacillate between learners and others (teachers, experts, other novices).
      Accomplishment is as much about students sensing they have “got it” by virtue of a symbiotic relationship between confidence in their own reasoning and external validation.
      And if anyone does not think we can’t teach this way especially in the hard sciences then I would recommend looking at the work of Richard Feynman.

      Kirschner, P., Sweller, J. and Clark, R. 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: 75–86.
      Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Duncan, R. G., & Chinn, C. A. (2007). Scaffolding and achievement in problem-based and inquiry learning: A response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational psychologist, 42(2), 99-107.
      Schmidt, H. G., Loyens, S. M. M., van Gog, T. and Paas, F. 2007. Problem-based learning is compatible with human cognitive architecture: Commentary on Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42: 91–97.

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