Direct Instruction: Getting It Right


‘The Young Sabot Maker’ by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937).

For many, it is a truism that we learn from our mistakes. This leads to an approach to education which places pupils in unfamiliar territory which they have to explore for themselves. They may stumble; they may take wrong turnings, but that’s an accepted, in fact a welcomed, part of the learning process.

The intellectual territory which our pupils must explore is rugged. Many greater minds than theirs over the ages have ended up wandering down a narrow valley which turned out to be a dead end, and never getting out again. Many greater minds than theirs have fallen over cliffs as they stumbled across the terrain, without the lights to guide them, or the better paths, which later ages discovered.

It is our job as teachers to guide our pupils through this rugged terrain, as an expert guide takes uninitiated travellers over a mountain pass safely. He has the knowledge to make sure they reach the other side. He has the experience. He knows the pitfalls and the dangerous false paths that will lead to disaster.

Mistakes are not helpful for those at the beginning of the intellectual journey. Beginners need careful guidance, or they are likely to end up in all sorts of difficulties and picking up all sorts of misapprehensions. Of course, they will learn something, but it is just as likely to be the mistake as it is to be the right answer. Or maybe they will find their way over to the other side of the mountains by some miracle or slice of beginner’s luck, but they would have reached the goal more efficiently with careful guidance. And they might have done it once, but will they be able to do it again? A one-off lucky right answer is very far from secure mastery.

Direct instruction is based on this principle: the principle of getting it right. When following a direct instruction programme of study, the carefully guided, incremental path that pupils take will mean that they very rarely make mistakes, and when they do, those mistakes are quickly corrected so that they do not solidify into permanent misapprehensions.

It is also part of the principles of direct instruction that you do not begin by scaling Everest. You practice repeatedly in the foothills, then you travel to the first base camp over and over again until you know the route inside out. You need to know that route, the route which wiser and more experienced travellers mapped out, and many other similar routes to other mountain peaks before you can begin to think about planning your own mountain climbing expedition.

It’s the age-old principle of apprenticeship. You learn first by imitating the masters that have gone before you, and you need to do that for years before you can begin to work independently. Once you do begin independent work, you will not be inventing it from nothing, like the mythical Romantic genius. Your work will be based on the solid principles that have been worked out through centuries of slow, painful human progress.

Rubbish in, Rubbish out

My older brother studied physics, while I studied literature. He now works as an IT consultant, while I continue to study literature (and teach it a bit too). Over the years, our divergent intellectual paths have led to a fruitful exchange of metaphors. I even made use of the different theories of light (wave versus particle) in my PhD thesis on postmodern poetry.

Brains may not be comparable to computers, but there are still many principles of computing that can help us think more clearly about education.

Rubbish in, Rubbish out

This is my favourite. It doesn’t matter how clever your coding is: if the end user feeds your elegantly designed software with rubbish, they will not get good results. The actual content fed into the system cannot be ignored.

In teaching, content is often relegated to a footnote in discussions of how to improve. Vague abstract notions about pedagogy and transferrable skills for the twentieth century, or technological fads, or the harvesting of spurious data according to mythical notions of ‘progress’, prevent teachers from actually examining the content they are teaching, or spending time improving their own subject knowledge.

Nor does it matter much how a school is governed or whether it selects academically, if the content of the curriculum is still packed full of, for example, ideologically driven anachronistic gibberish about how Shakespeare was a feminist, or a socialist. And no matter how many exciting activities you design, no one will know much about the geography of Britain after five years of doing the geography of shopping or the leisure industry.

Whatever your methods, whatever your governance structure, the principle remains: rubbish in, rubbish out.

It’s a Software Problem

Most of the computer problems that cause us so many headaches arise from software issues, not hardware. Computer hardware is actually very reliable, but the complexity of the hundreds of different programmes running on it, the endless updates and patches and security threats and compatibility problems, not to mention the above mentioned tendency of users to mess things up, lead to myriad issues which can cause us to conceive an unjust desire to throw at the wall the poor innocent piece of metal suffering under all this oppression.

That’s how the discussion can go with schoolchildren too. Instead of examining poor methods of instruction, poorly designed curriculum, slack discipline or self-serving school leadership, we are too eager to place the blame on the hardware: the children themselves. ‘What can you do with these children?’ teachers ask. ‘Of course I’d like to teach them proper academic content, but they wouldn’t cope,’ many claim.

But it’s not a hardware problem. With effective methods of instruction, a coherent curriculum and strict discipline, every child can learn a huge amount of important knowledge. The normal human long term memory is almost limitless. The bottleneck is the working memory. We’ve just got to stop crowding it with distractions and trivia, and then we can harness the true power of the hardware which every ordinary child possesses.

Reboot and Start Again

My older brother once recounted to me an episode from a comedy series where IT staff changed the recorded message on their computer help desk, to include the suggestion ‘Have you tried turning it off and on again?’ Their workload decreased dramatically.

So often the seemingly insoluble difficulties we experience with our computer equipment resolve themselves when we just make a fresh start. Right now, the state education system is going through a system reboot. Many schools will fail to start up again after the power down, but it is to be hoped that many more will emerge refreshed and able to shed the rubbish that has been clogging up their processing power and causing them to freeze up at the crucial moment.

The brand new laptop that is Michaela shows us how things should be functioning. They haven’t spent years installing unnecessary software that just slows down the system and produces nothing of value.

Selection Is Inevitable; Curriculum Matters More

Non-selective education is a myth. There is no such thing as a non-selective school, because there is no school which can admit every pupil who applies. That is a practical impossibility. Every school has selection criteria. Priority is given, for example, to those with statements of special educational needs. And is anyone going to tell me that such statements are evenly and justly distributed among the population? There are all kinds of reasons why some children end up with them, and others don’t, whatever their difficulties might be. One of those reasons is that their parents pay for a dyslexia report to be done.

Then, of course there is the selection by location. This makes some of the country’s so-called comprehensives some of the most expensive schools in the world, because their postcodes contain such expensive property. There’s one near where I live where you have to be a millionaire to buy a family house in the neighbourhood. This, of course, works in the other direction, with property prices being depressed by the perception of poor local schools, as middle class parents move out in search of better opportunities.

The fact is, that whatever policy the government introduces, those with more money and cultural resources will find ways of getting better opportunities for their children. And why shouldn’t they? I was happy when my nephew got a place in a grammar school. He’s less likely to be persecuted for being intelligent there, as both his father and his uncle were when they went to the local comprehensive. I have every sympathy with parents who are just trying to do the best by their children.

There is no way of flattening the whole education system into a single standard. Even within the same school, a child may have a better or worse teacher, which will have a significant impact on their education. Flattening everything out can never be achieved while the human race is so infinitely various. Like all utopian socialist ideals, this goal simply ignores human reality, perhaps because it is proposed by those who don’t really believe in the existence of humanity: in the existence of rational beings who are radically free to make choices for themselves.

Still, the government’s energies are not best spent on reintroducing academic selection. The best way of ensuring that as many children as possible receive a decent general education, regardless of their background and despite the variability of teachers, is to produce a proper, knowledge rich national curriculum and a set of excellent resources for delivering it. This is the hard business of actually making decisions about what children should be learning and how they should be learning it. Fiddling about with systems of governance and selection is just a political sideshow in comparison to this.

Image: ‘Little Schoolboy of Bonmahon’ (circa 1915) by Edith Collier (1885-1964).

Learning to Love Literature

That hotel, which is pure surface, apparently.

In Seven Myths, Daisy Christodoulou rightly identifies the philosophy underlying progressivism as postmodernism, because of its rejection of truth, which then leads to a refusal to pass on definite knowledge, seeing in this merely the imposition of one person’s beliefs upon another. Thus the central purpose of education, which as Chesterton points out, is only ‘truth in a state of transmission’, is lost.

But there is another aspect of postmodernism which poisons education: the declaration that there is no depth, only surface, as in Fredric Jameson’s famous analysis of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles in The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Staying on the surface means gazing at the forms of literature, and declining to enter into its deeper meaning. Indeed, English undergraduates are taught to reject the whole concept of deeper meaning which can appeal across ages and generations as a humanist myth that has been disproved by the more advanced thinking of the cultural materialists. Materialism denies the soul, and therefore denies the existence of any transhistorical human nature to which great writers could appeal across the centuries. We are left only with shifting surfaces, supplemented by reductionist sociological readings that turn literature into a mere historical artefact, and usually one which supports the evil oppressors.

Thus the very existence of a deeper content to literature is systematically attacked by university English departments, and we are left with two things: form, and sub-Marxist historical context. Two boxes which GCSE and A level examiners are endlessly ticking. There isn’t any message. Or if there is, the medium is the message. Or the message is the same message over and over again: that everything is written to support the powerful and crush the poor.

How excruciatingly dull and lifeless.

All my teaching career, I’ve battled with the expectation to place form and context so prominently, when what I really want to talk about is content. Does anyone read anything because they want to admire its form or comment on how it relates to economic arrangements? Or do we read things because we’re interested in their subject – I mean their human subject? Of course there is a connection between the form, context and content, and for the fullest understanding of meaning, we need a sensitivity to the forms of literature as well as its living, human context, but the form is never an end in itself and the artwork can never be reduced to historical documentation. The form is merely a means by which the artist communicates. The artist wishes to communicate something to the reader. He is an artist because he is highly skilled at shaping language to communicate. What he communicates can have multiple meanings, layers of meaning, certainly, but meaning there is, and meaning is what the reader is looking for.

Meaning at its highest level is significance: philosophical significance, moral significance, human significance. The meanings of great literature are endless and inexhaustible. That’s why people keep reading it generation after generation. They don’t keep reading it so they can say, “Wow, look how he used personification there” or make erudite comments on how the base has shaped the superstructure. They read it for meaning, deep meaning which changes their lives.

That’s where the love of reading comes from. And that’s why we so often kill it in schools. David Didau has written about this recently, inspired by a controversial lecture from the ever interesting Frank Furedi. One of the points David considered was whether we do not think enough about what pupils are reading, because we are too concerned about how they learn to read. This is so crucial. In every area of the curriculum, but especially in the arts and humanities, the how has replaced the what. Form has replaced content: this is the skills agenda. It is one of the progressive mantras, and it is thoroughly postmodern. It doesn’t matter what you read. What matters is that you develop skills of literary and contextual analysis, and you can do that with any material, so the argument goes.

It’s certainly true that you can analyse anything, even the most trivial products of popular culture. George Orwell was one of the first to do this, with his essays on seaside postcards. These artefacts have an interest for their cultural meaning. But they are not of interest in themselves. They do not have the intrinsic interest of great literature. They do not have a meaning which can appeal across the generations, because it is deep enough to speak to any human soul. When we favour form over content, analysis over meaning, context over artwork, we take the power out of the hands of the artist and place it in the hands of the scholar and the critic. Thus does literature crumble into dust; thus does it turn into a dead butterfly pinned to the page.

The life of literature is in its meaning. That’s why we love it, if we love it at all. Everyone who has fallen in love with literature will say that it has changed their life. And they’ll never say it changed their life because of the subtle use of a concluding couplet or the skilful deployment of metaphor. Those techniques may have helped it to have the impact it did. But it was never the artist’s intention that we should stop at the surface and never enter the depth.

How are we to lead our pupils into these depths, so that they can discover the joy of reading? Firstly, we need to do a lot of reading great stories out loud, from a young age. Right from the start, children can start meeting Goldilocks and Robin Hood and St George and King Arthur and Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver and Ebenezer Scrooge. Exposure to a wide range of great stories from a young age will open their minds to all the wonderful experiences of literature. They should be listening to stories that are well beyond their ability to read, because it gives them a glimpse of the exciting territory that lies ahead once they have mastered that skill.

Secondly, we need to do a lot of memorisation, and this can begin even before children can read. Memorisation can be done entirely orally, and it gives possession of beautiful and meaningful words to the child. They can own them, and turn them around in their heads, speak them loud and soft, taste them in a way that cannot be achieved without this ancient, wise practice of committing to heart.

There it is. Simple. At primary school, alongside thorough training in the skills of decoding, lots of reading out loud and lots of memorising. And there’s no reason not to continue sharing stories and committing poetry to heart at secondary school.

Further reading:

Against Analysis, Or Why William Doesn’t Engage the Reader

To Educate Human Beings, You Must Believe in Their Existence

(Image from Wikimedia).

Academic Knowledge

Academic knowledge is a mysterious and an ominous thing. We are told that young children are not ready for it, that some children will never cope with it, that ordinary folk have no use for it, that only elitists care about it.

What is this arcane and dangerous substance? How can it be distinguished from common or garden knowledge, so that we can place government health warnings on it, for the sake of public safety? After all, we wouldn’t want young children going too near it. Perhaps it’s time we put age restrictions on serious works of literature and history, and placed them on the top shelf in bookshops?

Clearly it is urgent that we establish some means of classification. Academic knowledge must be handled with tongs and kept well out of sight when tender young minds are present. So let’s look at a few examples. Consider fairy tales. They have lasted through many generations, have huge cultural resonance, and typically involve life or death battles between good and evil. This is looking serious: they share so many characteristics with Shakespeare’s tragedies. Therefore I suggest they be removed from the shelves of primary schools, in favour of cuddly stories about small children who lose their favourite teddies. The young must be protected!

And what about history? I have been shocked to discover that some young children are still being exposed to some actual historical dates. Such things have been proven by science to be inimical to the development of their creativity. Never must 1066 be mentioned again. Children must make their own history, by sharing family stories with each other, otherwise they might be in danger of discovering that they are not in fact the centre of the universe. Just imagine how traumatic that discovery would be for our delicate young pupils. Their little brains might never recover from it.

It’s time to get serious about protecting the young and vulnerable from the mental health risks posed by this toxic substance. Academic knowledge must be avoided!

(Image from Wikimedia).

Educational Perjury

Rubber StampWhen one of our daughters was in preschool, we were presented with a lovely file containing lots of labelled photographs. The photos combined with the annotations were supposed to ‘prove’ all kinds of things about our daughter’s development. The time taken to compile all of this must have been significant. At the same time, our daughter was not, as far as we could tell, being taught any kind of objective knowledge in a coherent systematic way. For example, she was encouraged to discover her own way of writing the letters of the alphabet, rather than being required to begin a systematic course that would have given her the first steps towards attractive and legible handwriting.

It was clear that more time was being spent gathering ‘evidence’ than doing explicit teaching. In spending their time this way, staff were dutifully following the requirements of the early years curriculum, as the school interpreted them.

Like joyriding through a multistorey carpark, this obsession with so-called ‘evidence’ is wrong on so many levels.

Firstly, the evidence isn’t even evidence. It is the recording of one current performance, not proof of any kind of fluent mastery. If a pupil knows something today, and we believe that means he will know it forevermore, we are deluding ourselves. Thus, if we spend time fabricating a wonderful one off performance for the sake of producing such spurious evidence, we are involved in nothing less than a time-wasting sham of education.

If current performance cannot determine mastery, does this mean that we should not be testing our pupils? Of course not. We should be testing our pupils very frequently. But the tests should be genuine tests, not fabricated performances, and we should not be abusing the results of the tests by claiming that they are evidence of mastery, or a lack of it.

Tests are an excellent way of consolidating knowledge that has already been taught. That is their key function. As a measure of mastery, they must be viewed with extreme suspicion. Even if everyone in the class scores 100℅ today, what will they score tomorrow? Or next month? We must always, always be on our guard against the widespread and pernicious fallacy that current performance is a measure of long term learning.

So how do we know when to move on? How can we ever have any confidence about whether our pupils have mastered something? Instead of generating spurious ‘evidence’ to ‘prove’ this, or just ‘going with our gut’, we need to turn to programmes of instruction that have been tried and tested over many years and with many pupils, and look at the ways they build mastery using a carefully designed schedule of spaced and interleaved repetition. We need to look at how programmes designed by organisations such as the National Institute for Direct Instruction work, and either adopt those programmes, if they focus on the content and skills we want to teach, or do our best to apply their principles of instruction to what we are teaching.

If we’re serious about mastery, we’ve got to stop wasting time faking evidence. It’s educational perjury.

Substandard Poetry in Exam Anthologies


Yes, I remember Adlestrop. But some of the other GCSE poetry, I’d rather forget.

I’ve been working on finalising my resources for teaching GCSE over the summer, and it has caused me to reflect on some of the material I am required to teach. In selecting novels and plays, I have been able to make choices of texts which I know will build cultural capital. As well as being great works of art, the literature I have chosen – Macbeth, A Christmas Carol and Animal Farm  – are all texts which have had a significant influence, and which form reference points which are valuable to learn for the sake of cultural literacy.

In selecting poetry, I have a choice of three collections put together by the exam board. All of them contain poetry from 1789 until the present day: in other words, from the Romantic era onwards. Firstly, the 1789 start point is a missed opportunity. It cuts out the work of wonderful poets such as Donne, Marvell and Herbert entirely. Still, I am grateful that at least it goes back that far. The older selections are all worthwhile, both as works of art and as culturally influential, but once we get past the middle of the twentieth century, the quality goes rapidly downhill. In the selection I have chosen, which I consider the least worst option, nothing later than Elizabeth Jennings is good enough or culturally influential enough to merit the time and effort of studying it in preparation for a major public exam.

I have a simple way of testing whether poetry is worth studying, at any age or level of ability: is it worth memorising?

What makes a poem worth memorising? Firstly, the beauty of the words that the poet has chosen, in the order which he has placed them, make great poems priceless intellectual possessions which we should want to give to our pupils. Secondly, great poems, precisely because they are memorable and beautiful, make a significant contribution to the culture of our nation. Are they likely to be referred to by educated people? Have they had a large impact on later writers and thinkers? William Morris said that everything in a house should either be useful or beautiful. Great poems are both. Memorising great poems is a rich and exciting experience for young people, which gives them an intellectual and aesthetic gift which will last a lifetime.

That’s why it’s such a tragedy when substandard poetry of questionable cultural importance forms such a large part of exam board anthologies. Huge numbers of young people will be focusing their minds on these poems. They may even be memorising them (although this practice is strangely rare). If they’re going to put all that effort in, it should only be for the best and most important writing. It should not be for lines like these:

let me be your vacuum cleaner
breathing in your dust
let me be your ford cortina
i will never rust

Is anyone seriously going to claim that such lines merit as much space in the nation’s poetry study as Blake’s

I wander thro’ each charter’d street
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Ask yourself: if you were going to memorise one of these, which would it be?