Direct Instruction Transforms Behaviour

We must be very clear that the choices made by pupils are their own responsibility. If they decide to be rude or defiant, they have made that choice, and they must take the consequences. Few things make my blood boil more than hearing senior leaders blaming classroom teachers for pupil behaviour.

But at the same time, we must acknowledge that the methods used by teachers will influence the behaviour of pupils. When teachers spend their time trying to entice pupils to learn something through an endless variety of activities, the implicit message pupils receive is that they are consumers of an education product. And the customer is always right. They are at liberty to ignore the teacher if they don’t ‘buy’ what the teacher is ‘selling’.

So the endless and exhausting task of trying to persuade pupils that learning is fun will have a serious negative impact upon behaviour. On the other hand, when whole class instruction is used, with regular routines and the consistent expectation of full attention from all pupils all the time, classes that seemed to be impossible when they were faced with edutainment can become calm and ordered places. It doesn’t happen overnight, but with firm and persistent effort over a number of weeks, behaviour steadily improves.

Behaviour improves with direct instruction because all pupils know what is expected of them. A good course of direct instruction will include a large amount of repeated practice to ensure mastery. Not only does this make sense from a cognitive point of view, it creates calm and order, because the pupils are not only practising whatever element of the curriculum is being covered, they are also practising how to practise: how to focus the mind consistently on one clear area of study and repeat it until mastery is achieved. This kind of practice is methodical and reassuring, and satisfying in a quiet way. But no pupil could mistake it for entertainment, so they don’t respond as they would to entertainment: with boos, cheers or indifference.

Behaviour improves with direct instruction because when pupils are not practising, the lessons are directly led by the teacher, interacting with the whole class. The teacher stands at the front and expects every pupil to track her. She calls out key concepts and the whole class repeats them. She calls on individuals and they repeat the concepts, word for word; there is no ambiguity about what is expected of them. She goes through worked examples with the whole class, calling on individuals at key moments, without asking for hands up. Answering questions is compulsory, not voluntary. Everyone knows that if they are failing to pay attention, they will be spotted. No one is neglected. Everyone is included. Group work divides and excludes. Whole class interactive instruction is the most inclusive method possible: no one is left out, disaffected, labelled as useless, left behind, disenfranchised. No one has any of these common reasons to start misbehaving.

Behaviour improves with direct instruction because pupils are never asked to do things they cannot do. They are never asked questions to which they do not know the answer. The steady, incremental nature of a well designed programme of direct instruction means that pupils are never thrown in at the deep end. They gradually master each element of the curriculum, and the curriculum is coherently organised so that they are never required to run before they can walk. So often pupils begin to misbehave because they are baffled, so they give up and start mucking about instead.

If you want a calm, ordered classroom in which everyone can make progress, start using direct instruction. You’ll be amazed at how difficult pupils who ignored your every attempt to entertain them will quite contentedly work steadily on clear tasks with definite outcomes. They will gain the calm satisfaction of making progress, and happily leave behind the fraught and confusing role of consumer which had previously been forced upon them by misguided educational ideology.


7 thoughts on “Direct Instruction Transforms Behaviour

  1. I’m one of those lucky souls who’s never known anything other than DI. As an NCO instructor in the TA, our Methods of Instrutction syllabus encompassed everything you’ve outlined above–and it worked a treat even when you had to teach map-reading to a class full of hung-over Scouses and Jocks on a Sunday morning.. When I started tutoring ‘dyslexic’ kiddies, I immediately recognised that Englemann was singing from the same song sheet, and I used SRA Spelling Mastery for years before I wrote a similar programme with additional overlearning to specifically suit the needs of SEN pupils. Finally, I was engaged by a local comp to teach literacy skills to SEN pupils because I was already teaching half of them privately. In the three years I taught there, I never once had to discipline a pupil. I quite enjoyed teaching–it was as stress-free as anything I’ve ever done. No doubt it helped that I’d already spent 20 years in the building trades–mature entrants to the profession are almost always at a considerable advantage, as are those who instinctively feel at home with working-class kids.

    The only essentials that I would add to your list is that I always ensured that every pupil was busy every minute, and I always had a short written test at the end of every session, with everyone eagerly competing to get the best score.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A cousin of my wife who did TA instruction once explained it to me as EDIP: Explanation, Demonstration, Imitation, Practice. I haven’t come across any better summary of straightforward traditional teaching.


      • EDIP was actually just for teaching physical skills, like weapon handling. The same principle governed the knowledge lesson delivered in the classroom with bums on seats, but was considerably more detailed, warning us against death by PowerPoint and stressing the need for continuous confirmation. We always started with a review of the previous lesson (or lessons, as aplicable) and given useful advice like never turning your back on the class to write on the board. We were advised never to rabbit on for more than about 90 seconds without firing a few questions at the less adept soldiers to ensure that everyone was getting it. Every bit of it served me well in civvy street.

        Interestingly, my son served in the Army between 2006 and 2010, and his Methods of Instruction courses were almost exactly the same–except for compulsory ‘diversity’ training, usually delivered by an officer. Otherwise, most training is delivered by NCOs, who are trusted to use their judgment to a degree that would astound a teacher in a maintained school. People find it hard to believe that the Army is the only organisation that I’ve ever been a part of that didn’t offend my libertarian principles.


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