Saturday / April 13

Direct Instruction is Not the Enemy 

What we believe matters.

Whether we are talking about our choice of restaurants, the cars we drive, the shoes we wear, or the sports team we cheer for on game day, our beliefs drive our actions. Many of these beliefs, our favorite sports teams for example, can drive our actions to an extreme degree. Schools and classrooms are no exception to this phenomenon where our beliefs about teaching and learning drive our actions as teachers, administrators, and for one of us, how we prepare future teachers at the university level. John Hattie and Klaus Zierer (2018) unpacked ten mindframes or beliefs about teaching and learning pointing out that these belief are strongly related to student learning outcomes. But just as our favorite sports teams can drive our actions to an extreme degree, so can our beliefs about teaching and learning.   

During this year’s Annual Visible Learning in Las Vegas, Nevada, we had the opportunity to talk during one of the coffee and tea breaks about a particular belief about teaching and learning that strongly influenced Steve’s actions as a building-level administrator and John’s action as a teacher-educator at a major university: direct instruction is the enemy of student learning. We recognized and now acknowledge that our beliefs about the who, what, when, where, and why of direct instruction nudged us towards certain behaviors that likely further influenced the teaching and learning in our schools and classrooms; some of which were extreme. For example, relaying to teachers or future teachers that they should never use direct instruction or using teacher evaluations to extinguish direct instruction in classrooms, to name just two examples. The way John structures and operates his classroom at the university and the way Steve leads his building was strongly influenced by the beliefs we had about direct instruction. Furthermore, we do not believe we are alone in this situation and want to unpack a few ideas in this blog so that we can all speak about this belief in past tense.  

Misconceptions About Direct Instruction 

First, let’s look at some of the misconceptions, or wrong beliefs, about direct instruction.  

  • Direct instruction is “sage on the stage” teaching that is scripted and stifles creativity. 
  • Direct instruction implies that the teacher is the one in sole possession of the knowledge and inhibits students from developing into independent learners. 
  • During direct instruction, students sit passively at their desks and engage in rote or drill-n-kill learning. 
  • Direct instruction is only effective at teaching basic academic skills and not problem-solving, higher-order thinking, or reading comprehension. 
  • Direct instruction has a negative influence on students’ attitudes toward learning. 
  • Direct instruction is best for low performers, “those” students, or students in early grades.   
  • Direct instruction is lecture (see Tarver, 1998). 

You may recognize your own beliefs in this list of misconceptions, myths, or false beliefs about direct instruction. Where did these beliefs come from? While reflecting on the term direct instruction at this year’s Annual Visible Learning Conferencewe think the misconception/misunderstanding may be in the term only and to which lens one is looking through when they look at direct instruction. When John Hattie released Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analysis Relating to Achievement (2009) both of us were surprised to see that direct instruction had a high effect size and appeared to be the most effective approach to teaching and learning.   

What Really is Direct Instruction? 

Today, the effect size is 0.59 ( This is greater than the rate of learning associated with one year of schooling, 0.40. We both thought, “How could the sageonthestage, or teacher front-andcenter with students sitting passively at their desks be an effective teaching practice?” As it turns out, we were both unclear about what direct instruction is and what this approach involves to maximize the impact and increase the possibility of promoting learning above and beyond an effect size of 0.40. When John Hattie refers to direct instruction, the approach that research has linked to an effect size of 0.59 has the following characteristics:   

  1. The teacher develops learning intentions and success criteria for the learning experience. 
  2. These learning intentions and success criteria are made accessible to learners so that they know what they are learning, why they are learning it, and what success looks like. 
  3. The teacher provides exemplars, worked examples, and/or models. 
  4. Learners engage in deliberate and guided practice that is supported by effective feedback. 
  5. The teacher implements formative assessments or checks for understanding so that both the teacher and the learners can visibly see their learning progress.  
  6. The teacher provides closure to the day’s lesson.   

By simply reflecting on the above characteristics of direct instruction, cooperative learning, classroom dialogue, debates, questioning, writing tasks, the use of simulations, concept maps, laboratory investigations, and problem-solving tasks, to name a few, are not only possible with direct instruction, but are necessary in successfully implementing direct instruction.   

There are times as educators when we may get stuck or “frozen in our ways, maybe because we just don’t know or recognize how we perceive things to be in teaching and learning. Think about this in terms of the childhood game of freeze tag. Young Children are tagged and must remain frozen until an unfrozen child to touches and unfreezes them. As educators we need to do the same thing when we get frozen in our ways or one way of teaching and supporting learning in our own classrooms. One of the reasons we are “frozen” is our beliefs about teaching and learning. As administrators and teachers, we should strive to think about our thinking and strive to engage in continuous improvement by questioning those beliefs to ensure they are in line with evidence around the teaching and learning in our own classrooms. Am I having an impact on my students’ learning? How do I continue to move learning forward? What do I do if learners are not benefiting from my teaching? This meta-cognitive approach to our work will prompt us to learn about more effective strategies and share these with other educators. We feel this is especially true as a building-level administrator and teacher-educator. When we now look at Direct Instruction through the lens of Visible Learning, we need to share this effective strategy with other educators. 

Addressing each of these myths and changing your beliefs about direct instruction is above and beyond a single blog postOur goal in this limited space is to bring these misconceptions, myths, and false beliefs to the forefront, promoting and encouraging dialogue about how something as simple as believing that direct instruction is lecture can drive actions in our schools and classrooms in a way that limits our impact. Yes, limits our impact. Total avoidance of direct instruction may be limiting our impact on student learning. Instead, direct instruction should be viewed as an effective, evidence-based approach for teaching and learning that, when used at the right time, with the right content accelerates learning.   

Explore more Visible Learning resources


Hattie, J. A. C. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge. 

Hattie, J., & Zierer, K. (2018). 10 mindframes for visible learning. Teaching for success. New York, NY: Routledge. 

Tarver, S. G. (1998). Myths and truths about direct instruction. Effective School Practices, 17(1), 18-22. 

Written by

John Almarode conducts staff development workshops, keynote addresses, and conference presentations on a variety of topics including student engagement, evidence-based practices, creating enriched environments that promote learning, and designing classrooms with the brain in mind. John’s action-packed workshops offer participants ready-to-use strategies and the brain rules that make them work. John is the author of Captivate, Activate, and Invigorate the Student Brain in Science and Math, Grades 6-12.

Latest comments

  • Sorry, but what you describe as the alternative definition of “direct instruction” still sounds like the sage-on-the-stage that is characteristic of the transmission model of teaching and learning. The teacher owns the success criteria and shares that with students, for example. The students receive them and then do as the teacher says. I was hoping for a richer discussion here.

  • Great job bringing to light the traditional stigma associated with direct instruction then concisely contrasting that view with what Hattie means by the term. Thank you!

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