Dory says…

“Some activities, such as playing pop music in pop music groups, solving crossword puzzles and folk dancing have no standard training approaches. Whatever methods there are seem slapdash and produce unpredictable results. Other activities, like classical music performance, mathematics and ballet are blessed with highly developed, broadly accepted training methods. If one follows these methods carefully and diligently, one will almost surely become an expert.” Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

Saturday mornings in the Wells household begin with a manic game of hunt the swimming kit before a trip to the local leisure centre for my son’s swimming lesson. 

Both of our kids are making their way through the stages of Aqualetes, based on the nationally recognised Swim England Learn to Swim programme. As you watch the sessions unfold over time, you can see the way everything has been carefully sequenced – from the way the instructors get children used to having water in their hair through doggy paddle, breaststroke, back and front crawl to developing the children’s knowledge of survival strategies. I’m still not quite convinced by butterfly or backwards skulling, but the rest all makes sense. 

Last week, I watched as one of the teachers called a boy back to the side of the pool, re-explained the correct leg movement for breaststroke, showing him with her arms, then gave him two more opportunities to show her that he could do it correctly. The boy set off the first time and you could tell from the reduction in his speed and slight awkwardness in his movement that he was really thinking carefully about the corrections he’d been coached to make. His legs were moving better, but the front half of his body was submerging more between each stroke. This corrective stage was affecting his fluency but he was trying to do exactly as he’d been told. The second time through, his performance improved. It wasn’t, by any means, perfect but it was more fluid and resembled breaststroke more closely. This was Stage 5 swimming and he was moving closer to Stage 5 performance. 

“You’ve been struggling to make things right. That’s how a superhero learns to fly.” The Script. 

Watching this expert swimming teacher and her pupil reminded me of a couple of other interactions I’d seen recently on Twitter about Direct Instruction and scripted lessons. If you’re uncertain about what Direct Instruction is, then this is worth reading. In essence, it’s a carefully sequenced, carefully scripted approach to teaching which is designed to ensure mastery of the content covered. The programmes, written by experts, have been tested and reworked based on a set of core principles. They are designed for students who, based on assessments, are currently at a very similar level in terms of the knowledge gaps they address. They are designed to maximise the impact of the interactions between teacher and students. Here’s a page of scripted material from Corrective Reading, available from McGraw Hill. 

Direct Instruction was road-tested in the most extensive educational experiments ever conducted: Project Follow Through. Details of how this was done can be found here.

The objections to Direct Instruction on Twitter seem to come in two main forms. The first is that the Direct Instruction programmes are likely to be detrimental to students as their scripted nature negates the fact that students are human beings who don’t talk in scripts – scripting is dehumanising, opponents argue, and students aren’t all the same. The second is that scripting deprofessionalises teachers. In particular, there is a concern that new teachers will not learn how to plan themselves or how to adapt to the needs of different learners. 

We run two Direct Instruction programmes at our school and are planning on implementing a third next year. Though I haven’t personally taught one, I’ve observed a number of sessions and I’d disagree with both of the issues raised above, though I can partially understand why people might raise them. 

The students who are learning through these programmes need the structured support which they receive from the teacher, the materials and the method of delivery, even more so than the boy in the pool last Saturday. They need explanations which have been planned with precision; they need their teacher to ask questions which elicit responses from them, either individually or chorally, in order for that teacher to intervene and correct swiftly where necessary; and they need each session to build on the last with application of new material as well as knowledge that has previously been mastered. All students need these things, but these students have gaps in their knowledge which need closing quickly, efficiently and in a humane way. Some of the critics of Direct Instruction seem to imply that it is a robotic process. When I walk past the classrooms where these sessions take place, it seems far from robotic. These classrooms are places of joy because the students taking part are motivated by the fact that they are building their knowledge together from one session to the next. 

The teacher leading the session loves it too and certainly doesn’t feel de-skilled by the process of using the script. They can see, over time, the students retaining more knowledge and able to apply this in more skilled ways. The feedback they get from the students, because of the way the scripts are designed, is more frequent and interventions or corrections can be made immediately due to the clarity of the questioning. 

So, should we be concerned for new teachers? Well, when I look back on my very first lesson ten years ago, I think not. I was going to be teaching my mentor’s top set Year 9 group for a one off lesson on persuasive speaking. I must have spent the week beforehand preparing myself. I recorded, on videotape, Thursday’s episode of Question Time. Amongst the panel members that week were Richard Branson, Theresa May, presumably a model of poor speech, and Margaret Beckett. I spent ages and ages watching a short clip, rewinding again and again and again until I’d pulled together worksheets on a rickety word processor for each of the speakers. Different students would focus on different members of the panel and then feedback to other students in jigsaw groups. 

Genius and a worthwhile use of a new teacher’s time? 

No. 

I thought it was ok and it probably wasn’t a car crash. But probably not a car crash is not a good model of lesson for students and is not a good model for teacher training either. As a result of all the time I’d spent on resourcing, I’d spent almost no time on the precision of my explanation of what makes excellent panel debate or on the concision of the questions I’d ask afterwards. I also had no sense of how this lesson would have fitted into the whole curriculum and, because I was so busy focusing on whether I could pause the VHS at the precise moment I wanted, I had no time to focus on the basics of classroom management. I had a limited mental model of what expert teaching could be like and I’d certainly not practiced teaching using someone else’s model – a decent model mapped out or scripted by an expert. I was basically sinking in style rather than swimming through substance.  

Though I’m not advocating their use for every lesson, what Direct Instruction scripts offer is a way to rapidly and efficiently build students’ knowledge whilst also benefiting trainee and expert teachers. 

As an added bonus, I’ve yet to see any DI materials featuring faltering politicians.

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