The worst of all forms of teaching, except for all the others

My wonderful colleague @jhc_porter broke out the Churchill quotation “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” as a discussion point over family lunch this week. Watching the confusion and dawning realisation on the pupils faces as they wrestled with understanding the logic of this statement was both adorable and hilarious.

We can shamelessly plagiarise Churchill’s words for teaching.

Explicit direct instruction is the worst form of teaching, except for all the others.


The worst form of teaching…

One can easily look at the concept of a didactic lesson and tear it apart. All the pupils know and can do different things. They will all pick up new concepts at different speeds. They will all require different amounts of practice to master a new skill. Nuthall found that pupils  already knew 50% of what was taught. The problem is, they all knew differing parts of the domain. It’s not like you can cull 50% of the curriculum, because different pupils didn’t know different thing.

Whenever the teacher is talking, what they’re saying will be unnecessary to a certain portion of the class. This sounds like a real problem, right? Little Jonny already understands how to add fractions. Why are we making him listen to it being explained again?

Prescription: individualised instruction and eradicating teacher talk. The drive for overwhelming differentiation and reduced explicit instruction does, in part, seem to have its roots in this noble aim not to waste pupils’ time listening to stuff that’s too hard or too easy*. All they want is for everyone to be in the goldilocks zone of optimal porridge temperature.

This results in well-meaning educators instigating various “innovations”. We get lessons with 5 different activities going on at once, none of which have been sufficiently explained by the teacher (there wouldn’t be time to). At its worst, we get 1970s style SMP cards that pupils work through at their own pace. 


…except for all the others

Despite the goldilocks problem of direct instruction it still outperforms discovery! It seems a pupil will still learn more from an expert who is telling them stuff they already know some of the time than they will from no expert telling them anything 100% of the time.

The Sutton Trust’s report on great teaching says: Enthusiasm for ‘discovery learning’ is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction (Kirschner et al, 2006). Although learners do need to build new understanding on what they already know, if teachers want them to learn new ideas, knowledge or methods they need to teach them directly.

The EEF summarises: Individualising instruction does not tend to be particularly beneficial for learners. One possible explanation for this is that the role of the teacher becomes too managerial in terms of organising and monitoring learning tasks and activities, without leaving time for interacting with learners or providing formative feedback to refocus effort. The average impact on learning tends overall to be low, and is even negative in some studies, appearing to delay progress by one or two months.

Project Follow Through showed astounding results for Direct Instruction.

Willingham says that “Research shows that instruction geared to common learning characteristics can be more effective than instruction focused on individual differences.”

Didactic teaching might get the porridge temperature wrong at times. Better to have your porridge off-temperature occasionally, than to not have any porridge at all.


Found yourself nodding along to this? You’d probably be a great fit at Michaela. We’re doubling in size next year, and therefore recruiting in lots of subjects! Take a look at our ads or pop me an email at 



*There are other motives too, some ideological, all covered better than I could in Rob Peal’s book.

3 thoughts on “The worst of all forms of teaching, except for all the others

  1. Tim Jarvis @timothyjejarvis

    Is this because of class size? Would discovery learning be more effective than direct instruction with a smaller group? The idea that there is too much management and not enough feedback or interaction with pupils under discovery learning would seem to suggest so.

  2. Marnie

    I find that individualized learning is hard because it requires a teacher to have a well-developed, deep knowledge of multiple subject’s developmental pathways as well as insight into each student’s emotional/psychological needs. Few teachers have learned either as students or through teacher prep how to think rigorously about a sequence of development in every essential domain.

    For example, when a student writes an essay without paragraph breaks, multiple misspellings, a hidden thesis statement, and few details to support his point, how should the teacher respond? Which skill is most critical in the hierarchy of learning English? Get the answer wrong 2 times in a row and the student is stagnating. Then add in the problem of the the student’s resistance to working on their writing. How best to inspire? On what does the teacher focus? And what if the child is reading and decoding 2 year’s below grade level? Do we still have a thesis statement problem or do we really have a reading/decoding problem? Has the student even read informational text with deep comprehension more than a handful of times?

    These problems with matching instruction to the student still exist even with a whole-class approach. But I wonder if deciding that individualized instruction doesn’t work may be premature. I haven’t
    seen these studies yet, but I would consider them useful if they included measures for qualitatively evaluating the quality of the teachers’ ability to individualiz well.

    I have seen numerous teachers trained in the Montessori approach get outstanding results from an individualized environmnent. I have always assumed it came from the rigor of their developmental sequences for writing, reading, math, and child development. A well-prepared teacher knows what skill the child is missing and she knows exactly which activity will address the need. But I didn’t receive that kind of prep despite getting a master’s and an additional reading specialist’s certificate.


Go forth and opine