To Broadcast or Sow Direct? The uses of whole class direct instruction.
Gardening and farming analogies are frequently applied to teaching. We think of cultivating young minds, of developing a growth mindset, or nurturing our students. This morning, whilst walking the dogs, I noticed the crops in the fields I walk through are looking incredibly healthy this year, certainly in comparison to this time last year. It’s been a great year for it; lots of rain showers and sunny spells has meant the ground has remained damp and fertile, whilst at the same time there’s been some fairly serious photosynthesis taking place into the bargain.
I got to thinking about how the way we teach our subjects is very similar to this. When we provide the right conditions, or learning environment, our students can thrive. If there is a supportive, warm and fertile atmosphere, our students’ minds will grow and develop. If they are sustained with effective and nutritious feed (i.e. instruction, questioning and feedback) their minds will become strong and self-supporting and as they grow up they will harvest and reap the rewards.
But then I started to think about how we actually impart the knowledge. Ideally, we would like to sow what the kids need to know directly to each one individually and in a personalised way so that they can just get on with analysing, evaluating and being creative. But realistically, unless our students are totally independent and resilient learners, this isn’t possible. There has to be an element of broadcasting, of whole class teaching and discussion. Although the whole class approach isn’t very fashionable at the moment, it is an essential part of nearly every lesson. How else do we model best practice?
And, of course, sometimes it can just be far more economical to just tell them what they need to know and then let them go off and put that information to use through other tasks and activities. There are clearly some teachers who can carry off whole class direct instruction much better, more effectively and for longer time periods than others. My most memorable teachers were the ones that could do this, but I can remember only four; one in my last year of primary school and three from university. None of my secondary teachers had the charisma or personality to do it for any length of time.
And therein lays the rub: broadcasting, or whole class direct instruction, needs to be used for a purpose. If you are one of the lucky ones who can hold a class’s interest and develop their minds through this, knock yourself out and use it liberally. But if, like me, you’re not, only do it as much as you have to. Teachers need to be brutally self-critical and honest in this regard, otherwise we’re wasting everybody’s time.
So back to the analogy; the key to all good teaching is variety. A variety of nourishing feed (direct instruction, questioning and feedback), a variety of weather conditions (differentiated and targeted support strategies), and plenty of opportunity to harvest and enjoy the rewards of what has grown.