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Tools for Teaching: How to Transform Direct Instruction

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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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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Joanne Cohoon's picture
Joanne Cohoon
Researcher & Educator in Science, Technology & Society

I appreciate the view that direct instruction is also an important part of a lesson and your reference to Wiggins and McTighe (2005), but it still seems that you ignore the research consensus. Rosenshine (2012) summarizes what we know from research in cognitive science, classroom practices of master teachers, and cognitive supports. Based on findings about which all three areas agree, he writes, "The most effective teachers ensured that students efficiently acquired, rehearsed, and connected knowledge. Many went on to hands-on activities, but always after, not before, the basic material was learned."

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Editor

Hi Joanne,

I understand the point you are making and I'm not disagreeing with you, or the research you sited. The point of this post is that there are some concepts and knowledge we teach that do not need to go through the process of direct, guided and then, hands-on. We can begin with discovery (hands-on and I would add, minds-on) and then follow that with checking for understanding, then direct and guided instruction for those who need further support.

For example, if I were teaching students to write thesis statements and a diagnostic of the class indicated they had very little prior knowledge and experience with this, I would take the approach of direct instruction, guided practice, and then application. However, for teaching imagery, or other topics that are mini-lesson topics, I took a student-centered, discovery approach.

It's important that we first "diagnose" where are students' are in their understanding and application of the specific knowledge/concept we are about to teach. That way, we can ultimately determine the best instructional approach.

Rebecca Alber

Irene Paparizos's picture
Irene Paparizos
High School math teacher from Cleveland, OH

I found your blog to be very insightful. Student engagement is a big challenge that many teachers in my school face. Because of this, our district has been discussing the idea of having more student-centered lessons prevalent within our classrooms. As a high school math teacher, I was originally apprehensive as to how such a classroom model would work. However, after reading your comments, I now believe that I could implement this teaching technique. For example, I no longer have to directly teach my students the formula for how to find the sum of the interior angles of a polygon. Instead, I could give each group several polygons and ask them to create as many triangles as they can in each polygon. Since they know that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is always 180 degrees, they can record how many triangles they can create inside each polygon and then come up with the interior angles formula based on the pattern that they see. After this, I can have the students come up with a short summary of their findings and share them with the class. With this method, I believe that my students will more effectively learn the content. Students will be more engaged because they will have the responsibility of discovering the formula. Working within a collaborative setting also allows for a more self-paced instruction for my students which will better allow me to differentiate my instruction and offer guidance when needed. Furthermore, I also really like that you did not completely dismiss the idea of direct instruction and that a successful classroom incorporates many teaching strategies. Sometimes, direct instruction is needed to remediate student misunderstandings. I look forward to incorporating these techniques in my classroom this year!

Mariella Barkouras's picture
Mariella Barkouras
ESL Teacher from NYC

I enjoyed this post very much. I just finished reading another blog post on the site (I am a newbie) about thinking aloud and modeling with students. Since I teach ELLs I can picture infusing the two methods for a really strong initial lesson on imagery (or any literary device for that matter). Thank you for the ideas!

Heather Eichler's picture
Heather Eichler
K-5 Math and Reading Specialist from Florida

This was a very insightful post. I have recently attended a cooperative learning conference where we spent a great deal of time speaking about letting students learn by doing. I teach math intervention students (and reading intervention students as well), and we have seen a big shift in our district away from teaching the 'tricks' for solving problems, and more towards teaching the understanding. This requires the students to manipulate the problems in such a way that it actually makes sense to them. Oftentimes I try to let them explore and apply what they already know to see if they can make sense of the math, before I plug in the missing pieces for them. Then after they have analyzed and made meaning of their work, I will teach 'the tricks' that help them quickly solve down the road. I will be back to read more over the next weeks/months!


Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Editor

Hi Heather,

Thanks for your comment and for all the hard work you are doing! Finding those new "tricks," is always the quest of a passionate teacher like yourself.

Take care,
Rebecca Alber

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Editor

Hi Mariella,

Fantastic that you are on a quest for ways to best serve your ELLs. A site that I find as an incredibly helpful resource is Colorin' Colorado. You can find there lots of outstanding literacy tips and strategies for reading, writing and speaking lessons for English language learners.

Thanks for sharing with us.

Rebecca Alber

Abdelillah's picture

To me both approaches,say inquiry-based learning or learner centred and direct instructions or modeling aren't contradictory at bottom but they are complementary.Teachers sometimes resorts to modeling for a short while when they engages the class in a new terrain totally unknown by their students.When the latter are on the write path,they are given opportunities to discover,to create,to produce...Additionally,constructivism theory main claim is to construct .This implies that we don't reject what we were formerly doing but to use it as abasis for a good start.

Mark Treadwell's picture
Mark Treadwell
Mark is an international education consultant developing models for how the brain learns (neuroscience perspective) and what that means for educators in terms of effective practice.

Great post and can I add to your work the notion that providing learners with control/agency over their learning only works if they have the competencies to achieve this. Otherwise we are back in the 1980's doing inquiry all over again and that did not go well. Applying the Learning Process takes the inquiry approach and adds a set of additional tools to the learners toolbelt . More information on this a the blog or downloads the free resource - all free and all the best

Marie Garrido, LiteracyLightBulb!'s picture
Marie Garrido, LiteracyLightBulb!
Instructional Specialist for Secondary Literacy

I am a proponent for inquiry-based lessons, or discovery lessons as you named them! Your lesson engaged students authentically! I just wanted to emphasize thinking level. I noticed that the discovery lesson that you described helped students identify and find examples of imagery---a Depth of Knowledge of 1-basic understanding and 2-comprehension just like the example of direct instruction that you contrasted it with. High school students are expected to do much more than simply identify and comprehend imagery---they must be able to analyze and evaluate an author's use of imagery, analyze an author's style of imagery, be able to compare and contrast use of imagery between two or more different authors, and be able to effectively use imagery in their own writing to develop character, mood, and tone. This lesson makes a great introductory lesson that can go much more depth, but too many teachers think they are done teaching when students know the definition and can find examples of a concept. A study was done analyzing classroom activities and it was found that 90% of the classroom tasks were Depth of Knowledge Level 1 while standards such as the Common Core require students to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize--Depth of Knowledge Levels 3 and 4. We owe it to our students to take them to the next level of their thinking!

Marie Garrido, LiteracyLightBulb!

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