Student Engagement

Tools for Teaching: How to Transform Direct Instruction

July 23, 2013
Photo credit: iStockPhoto

Summer is the time to look over those unit plans. As you reflect and rethink lessons, here's something to consider: How can you turn direct instruction into experiences where students instead discover?

We all know that designing learning activities takes time and brainpower -- both often limited during the mad rush of the school year. (And when we are short on time, we teachers too often turn to direct instruction.) So for those of us who philosophically see ourselves more as "a guide on the side," rather than "a sage on the stage," it's in our pedagogical DNA to sacrifice some of summer and continue to develop such constructivist, student-centered lessons.

For new teachers, I'd like to help you get started:

Let's first take this direct instruction on the topic of imagery: The teacher begins by presenting students with a definition for imagery and gives an example of it. Then the teacher instructs students to read a short story and underline sentences and passages where the author used imagery.

Now, let's transform that scenario into a lesson of student-centered discovery:

First step: The teacher dramatically reads aloud a short story, asking students that whenever they can picture something -- see an image in their minds -- put a star by those words.

Second step: Then, students partner up and draw a picture to go with each star they have in common. After this, pairs of students team up (in groups of four) and share what they've drawn. The teacher asks them to also discuss in their groups how seeing these pictures in their minds made the story more interesting.

Last step: The teacher finally reveals that this is called imagery, and rather than provide a definition, asks the groups to each write a definition for imagery together. Each group then shares the definition with the whole class.


I taught high school students and used this very lesson. As they learned more complex literary devices (e.g. allusion, diction, irony), I would always strive to make the learning experience one where they did most of the talking and nearly all of the doing. On a side note, I'm not dismissing the value or importance of direct instruction; it plays a necessary role in the classroom. Just ask yourself this: Is there a balance between these three types of teaching in my instruction: direct, facilitation, and coaching? (See Wiggins' and McTighes' Understanding by Design for more on these types of teaching.)

And in case you need to justify to other faculty or an administrator why you are taking more time than a colleague down the hall to teach an idea/content/concept, there's plenty of research out there to support this constructivist approach in the classroom. You could also remind them of this well worn yet far from worn out quote by Confucius:

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

What direct instruction have you transformed (or plan to) for your students? Please share in the comment section below.

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