Friday, June 15, 2012

Direct Instruction: A Relatively New Evolutionary Phenomenon?

Can we have schools without direct instruction? Probably not. However, it recently occurred to me that "direct instruction" as an evolutionary phenomenon is relatively new. Centuries ago, our forefathers learned through visual and auditory stimuli in the environment,  not teachers or books. Our brains and bodies are wired for this type of "on the go" learning, and it is likely this predisposition that draws us to puzzles, sports, and yard work. (Okay, maybe not yard work...) There are immediate, tangible pieces of evidence that shape our next steps.

I also think that this is why games such as Angry Birds and Doodle Jump are so popular. There are no instructions or directions; you just play. As you put the pieces together and gain momentum, you become immersed and motivated by the situation. Inevitably, you get better. Before you know it, you are pretty darn good.

Recently, I saw two middle school students present their learning about Minecraft. Minecraft is a game where you build shelters by placing blocks strategically in an environment. Everything they learned was "self taught" and they expressed a growing enthusiasm for the game. No one "taught" them how to play, but through lots of trial and error, they garnered a sophisticated understanding of the environment.

Why do these types of activities inspire such focus? How can we replicate these types of open, ended learning activities in our classrooms? What should learning look like in our classrooms? Is direct instruction the most efficient way to develop understanding and strategic thinking?

Perhaps we should embrace our evolutionary heritage and foster learning beyond the classroom walls. What do you think?

CC Photo Credit: Congo's Caper Bots by Jenn and Tony Bot


  1. Kristen wrote:

    How can we replicate these types of open, ended learning activities in our classrooms? What should learning look like in our classrooms?

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    Loved the bit, Kristen.

    My answer to your question, though, is going to be pessimistic as all: We'll NEVER get to the kind of learning environments that you describe here as long as we have content-driven curricula to follow.

    Here's why: Curriculum writers JAM our courses with so much content -- content that teachers are then held accountable for in a high-stakes way on standardized tests -- that the time-intensive learning process that you describe isn't possible.

    It's the emphasis on doing versus knowing again, right?

    Teachers won't start making time for doing until knowing is deemphasized -- and the people who make choices about the knowing-doing balance in schools are still firmly entrenched in the knowing camp.

    If that ever changes, maybe we'll have a chance of creating the environments that you describe. I think teachers, students and parents would embrace that kind of learning environment.

    But when my job literally depends on nothing more than the scores that my kids churn out on knowledge-driven end of grade tests, it's difficult to imagine a time where I would feel safe giving kids the kind of space that it takes to pull off a classroom where learning on the go was possible.

    Does this make sense?

  2. Hey Bill-- your comments make complete sense and I hear them quite often. I am often frustrated by misguided policies that do injustice to our students. HOWEVER, I wouldn't be doing MY JOB if I didn't push back on you a little bit. Don't you think that if we teach students authentically, encourage them to transfer their learning to authentic contexts, and emphasize problem solving that they'll do BETTER on standardized tests? Students usually perform most poorly on questions that ask them to use the content in different or novel ways. If we emphasize open learning with lots of feedback, might they be BETTER at these types of questions? Just pushing here... Love your comments and the dialogue. ;-)



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