I just read “How Well Do We Learn From Experiential Or Inquiry Learning Approaches?” by Patti Shank. It’s an excellent article where she compares direct instruction and indirect instruction.
Direct instruction is where an instructor gives information and practice activities to directly teach the content. Indirect instruction is where an instructor guides the participants to figuring things out on their own through case studies and simulations.
Typically, instructional designers will say indirect instruction is better than direct instruction, but Patti lays out an excellent case for both forms, and when direct instruction makes sense. My biggest take-aways from her article are these:
1. Overall, we should consider using direct instruction when the learner has little background knowledge. If we throw them into case studies when they don’t have the knowledge or experience to solve the problem, they will get frustrated and the cognitive overload will likely hinder their learning.
2. People build their knowledge in increasing layers of complexity, so it can be very valuable to start out with some direct instruction to ensure the proper foundation is set. Then we can have the learner apply that knowledge using indirect instructional methods.
I’ll add that I also think it’s critical to get that foundation right because any faulty understandings can cause problems moving forward. I used to teach classes to enhance business acumen, and people had all kinds of misconceptions about our tax status, how our budgeting process worked, etc. Faulty understandings cause problems for any learning we layer on top of it. It’s true that sometimes the “a-ha” moment of a carefully crafted case study can disrupt these misunderstandings, but sometimes it’s better not to leave that to chance and just tell learners that most people think something works a certain way, but it really doesn’t.
I agree wholeheartedly with what Patti is saying about the importance of direct instruction. I will add, though, that I believe we often underestimate how much our learners already know. Be careful about always assuming your learners are novices just because they haven’t had the training yet. For example, I have done a lot of leadership development training. In one class we taught people how to have difficult conversations regarding employee performance. I can guarantee that many of my participants had already had those conversations, or at least knew enough about them to be afraid to have them. We could use a tiny bit of direct instruction to show a conversation model, or we could probably jump right into role plays and case studies to practice it.
Overall, my biggest take-away from Patti’s article is not to be afraid of using direct instruction – it’s not a terrible format. But make sure you’re recognizing what you’re trying to teach and the level of depth you’re traying to achieve.
This week I looked at using direct instruction with the novice learner. Look for my post next week where I’ll look at how all of this applies to expert learners too!