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Education Reporter
Traditional Education vs. Direct Instruction
What's the difference between these teaching methods?

by Tracy J. Hayes
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Traditional education is sometimes described as "direct instruction," because the teacher stands in front of the classroom "directly instructing" the students in the subject matter at hand. The terms "Direct Instruction" (which refers to a teaching method) and "teacher-directed instruction" (used in traditional education) are examples of how words in our language can be perceived as one in the same, when in fact they are very different from one another. Deceptive semantics has created much confusion among many educators as well as parents.

The major difference between traditional education and Direct Instruction (DI), therefore, is the method in which the content is taught.

Traditional education focuses on content-rich curriculum that introduces, teaches and reviews a particular subject. The content moves from simple to complex, spiraling back to refresh the students' memories of previously-learned material, while progressing in that subject. Some textbook publishers make recommendations about what content is to be taught, but in most traditional education classrooms, the teacher decides how the "what" is to be taught.

To help determine student achievement in traditional education, weekly quizzes and end-of-chapter tests are administered. One hundred percent mastery is not expected. The teacher knows that with time and review, both knowledge retention and test scores will improve. The object of traditional education is to offer students a broad foundation of information, based on facts and figures, that will be retained for future application on high stakes assessments, education and career objectives, and lifelong wisdom.

Direct Instruction is based on behavioral psychology and the work of American professor B.F. Skinner. DI focuses on content-rich curriculum that introduces a subject via a stimulus expecting a particular response from the student. It requires the teacher to use operant conditioning (reinforcing the desired response by a stimulus) and behavior modification techniques. In a DI classroom, the teacher must follow a prescribed set of lesson plans, sometimes in script form, and use certain cues such as clapping, with the intent to incite a certain reaction, such as unison chanting by the students. Many DI programs use rewards and tokens to generate predetermined responses.

DI is a teaching method that bypasses the brain and causes an unnatural reflex that is controlled and programmed. This manipulation causes some students to become so stressed that they actually become ill and/or develop nervous tics.

Many DI programs are designed for the computer, with built-in bells and whistles to control the pace and learning outcomes. With OBE already in many schools, Computer-Assisted Learning (CAL) is also promoting affective/subjective goals.

The DI method expects students to achieve mastery in each area of instruction before moving on to the next level (mastery learning). Teachers teach to the tests, and students are told what to expect. Since students know in advance what material they will be tested on, much important content is skipped over.

Testing is frequent and skills are drilled to perfection, so scores are usually high in the early years of Direct Instruction. Typical classrooms, however, consist of students with varying abilities, so the amount of content is decreased to accommodate the slowest learner. In some schools, cooperative learning is used to appease the high achievers. Since review of previously learned material is not encouraged, overall retention of information is less. SAT scores are low, and the ultimate application of knowledge is not achieved, and in some cases, stifled.

Tracy Hayes is an education researcher in Massachussetts.

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