Foundations of Education


Describes the direct instruction approach to teaching and learning.

Key Concepts

  • direct instruction

Graded Tasks

  • prepare for your seminar this week

The Direct Instruction Classroom

"With the rise of industry [in the late 19th century and early 20th century], standardization of the curriculum and a delivery system based on a Newtonian mechanistic model was adopted. The school system became a closed machine with top-down administration, predetermined standards, lock-step definitions of content by grade, and fixed rules of behavior. Obviously the system worked well to prepare students for the factory or the office. With its emphasis on assimilation, conformity, and traditional values, it was able to handle the masses of European immigrants and the growing [North] American population. Mass production philosophy and assembly line concepts lent themselves to efficiency in the production of trained workers at low cost." (Pulliam, 1987, p. 241)

The Why Shoot the Teacher? video segment you watched in Week 6 serves as a good example of the way students have traditionally been taught in schools. Following a direct instruction approach, students are each assigned an individual desk at which to work. All of the student desks face the front of the classroom where the teacher stands and delivers the lessons. During a lesson, the teacher may ask students questions in an effort to assess how well they understand the subject matter that is being presented. A teacher may ask a question of all students (in which case students are expected to raise their hands if they have an answer) or instead call on a specific student. The teacher is 'the sage on the stage'. They are the centre of attention (i.e., 'the stage') and considered to be authoritative in their knowledge of the subject under study (i.e., 'the sage').

In terms of classroom management, the teacher retains full authority in the classroom. No student is permitted to speak or leave their seat unless given permission by the teacher to do so. Students who break the 'no moving around' and 'no speaking without first being called on' rules are disciplined for doing so.

Subjects are taught in sequence, one at a time. Each subject has a discrete period of time which is devoted to it. Sometimes, a bell signals the transition from one subject to another.
Photos of rows of school desks in a classroom.
Rows of desks facing the front of the classroom are characteristic of the direct instruction classroom. In the photo above, note the tennis balls on the feet of the chairs. A premium is placed on silence in the direct instruction classroom. In general, only one student should be speaking at a time. (Photo Credit: David Hutchison)
The direct instruction approach has clear benefits. For example:

  • it is highly structured
  • the classroom rules are clear to all
  • the teacher and student roles are well defined
  • the delivery of content is systematic and sequential
  • there are few distractions
Despite the above benefits, the direct instruction approach has faced fierce criticism from educational reformers who view the approach as stifling student creativity and freedom.

The quotation below (from Maria Montessori, an educational reformer and the inventor of the Montessori approach to education) may be somewhat over-the-top, but it does exemplify the criticisms that have been levelled against the direct instruction approach by educational reformers:

“In all pedagogy up to our own time, the word education has been almost synonymous with the word punishment.... Those delicate, trembling limbs are held to the wood for more than three hours of anguish, three and three of many days and months and years. The child’s hands are fastened to the desk by stern ... looks ... and when into the mind a thirst for truth and knowledge the ideas of the teacher are forcibly driven ... the little head [lies] humbled in submission.” (Montessori, 1936, pp. 281-282)

Since 1900, the history of education in Ontario (and North America more generally) can be understood as a (still ongoing) competition between the direct instruction approach and progressive education. As will be explored in the topic pages which follow, progressive education emphasizes a more student-centred approach to teaching and learning in which the teacher is less a 'sage on the stage' and more a 'guide on the side' - a facilitator of student learning.


Montessori, Maria. (1936/1963). The Secret of Childhood. Bombay: Orient Longmans.

Pulliam, J. D. (1987). History of Education in America. (4th edition). Columbus, OH: Merrill Publishing Company.

Social Context and Teaching Approaches

Re-read the quotation at the top of this topic page.

In light of the quotation, consider how the topics for
Week 8 (e.g., 20th century social change and the industrial economy) and the direct instruction approach complement one another. As the quotation at the top of this page notes, the social conditions of the 20th century influenced how students were taught in schools.

In preparation for your seminar this week, write out an answer to the following question. Your TA may call on you to share your answer in the seminar:
Q10.1: How do the social conditions of the 21st century influence how students are presently taught in K-12 schools? (Answer Length: 100 - 150 words | Format: Point Form)
Potential Seminar Question