Traditional teaching methods have been challenged in recent years by a holistic approach where the teacher acts as a conduit to inquiry rather than an authoritative instructor. However, a recent report published by the New South Wales Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) encourages direct instruction, otherwise known as explicit teaching, as one of seven major pillars of teaching.
Direct instruction has been in vogue for hundreds, if not thousands, of years as the preferred method in transmitting information from teacher to student, parent to child and employer to employee. Even the ancient Eastern tradition of guru/disciple relationships uses this principle, with the word ‘guru’ literally translated as ‘teacher’. Direct or explicit instruction implies that the teacher is an authority fully capable of delivering correct information in a natural progression.
Direct instruction methods can be questioned:
- What makes a good explanation?
- How do we ensure students are comprehending key ideas?
- How can concepts be sequenced effectively?
- What is the correct balance between abstract thinking and concrete examples?
Objections toward the direct teaching method have sprung up in the last couple of decades. The method is often described as “drilling”, “stifling”, “patronising” or even “condescending” toward students who would otherwise flourish given the opportunity to utilise their enquiring minds. The result has been a shift toward “inquiry learning” where the teacher or lecturer becomes a passive participant or facilitator in the learning process.
Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) science course facilitators have been requested to provide evidence they are incorporating inquiry learning into the curriculum. The VCE study design offers guidelines.
“In VCE Physics, students develop a range of inquiry skills involving practical experimentation and research, analytical skills including critical and creative thinking, and communication skills”.
Critical thinking is in vogue, and students are encouraged to use a creative approach toward learning. Inquiry learning has developed into a serious component of teacher training, with direct instruction relegated to the back seat.
As with any debate, proponents of opposing arguments are unwilling to cede to the opinion of their adversary, and are more interested in holding their ground, even in support of unproven theories. Supporters of direct instruction, and those who profess inquiry methods, are often at loggerheads about how best to educate a new generation of Australians.
Impartial observers, on the other hand, are often able to perceive the potential harmony between opposing elements and synthesise the two. It appears quite obvious that both direct instruction and inquiry methods have a valuable place in teaching and learning. Inquiry methods are dependent on formative knowledge of the subject, otherwise they can lead to wasteful diversions or dead-ends. The analogy of a building is applicable, where design elements and strong foundations come first, after which there is ample opportunity to add personalised schemes and ornamentation.
A teacher is supposed to know more than his or her students, otherwise the whole system would fall flat. Direct instruction doesn’t have to result in a monotonous delivery of rote learning, which can be as dry as a dog biscuit, and equally difficult to digest. The best teachers will command rather than demand the respect of students by displaying leadership, empathy, feedback, and the ability to relinquish power to the student’s inquiring minds at times when it is most beneficial for progressive learning.