I recently 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.
In my blog last week I shared my biggest take-aways from her article. She focuses mostly on the benefits to novice learners, so this week I’ll share my own thoughts on how I think this can also apply to expert learners.
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.
Patti’s focus is primarily on novice learners, giving them critical background information and foundation. In addition, I think there are also times when direct instruction also makes sense for expert learners. As instructional designers, we often think direct instruction is bad, especially for experts who have so much foundational knowledge, but there are lots of times when it makes sense.
There are many times that the expert already knows so much that they only need a little bit of extra information to be able to apply their current skills in a new way. For example, long ago I did a project where we developed training for accountants. They were already well-versed in the US Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), the standards that companies in the US must follow when they compile their financial statements. However, this global client was transitioning to using the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) for their financial statements and needed to teach the IFRS rules to their accounting staff.
I designed a number of interactive scenarios where learners applied the IFRS rules. But the client reminded me that these expert learners didn’t need all that practice. All they needed to know was specifically how IFRS rules differed from US GAAP rules. We didn’t need to do a lot of applied practice because these learners already knew the accounting basics; to do anything more than just explain how the new rules were different would be a waste of their time.
Such direct instruction can take the form of a short in-person class or eLearning, or it could even be a communication or job aid. Really ask yourself, what’s the most efficient way of getting the learner to the end state? If they have enough background knowledge, you may not need to give them a lot. Expert learners have existing mental models they can use to provide their own framing and context, so don’t 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 background knowledge the learner has.