A tweet from Edutopia titled, “Dispelling Myths About PBL and Direct Instruction” had me quite confused today. In the tweeted video, the speaker, Dr. Darling-Hammond, explained how it would be incorrect to assume that Project-Based Learning (PBL) and direct instruction are antithetical because they are actually complementary instructional techniques that mix well. If direct instruction were defined as simply “telling students things on occasion”, or if PBL were defined as simply “assigning projects on occasion”, I’d agree. However, when we define direct instruction as a whole system – that of I do, We do, You do, and epitomized by Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction and recommendations from Cognitive Load Theory – it seems that they are quite a bit less compatible than Dr. Darling-Hammond would like.

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive load theory (Paas & van Merriënboer, 2020) supports direct instruction. In order to reduce the burden on working memory during initial learning, cognitive load theory recommends providing models and examples upfront, and then slowly fading these supports as learners grow in expertise. Problem solving without direct guidance in the form of models and examples is highly cognitively demanding for learners (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006), with the possible exception of students who already have prior knowledge about the content, or are blessed with exceptionally strong working memory abilities. For students who struggle to control and manage their learning in the best of conditions, asking students to self-regulate their learning during a open-ended project presents an insurmountable – and unnecessary – challenge that is mitigated by providing direct guidance from the beginning of instruction.

Is an initial teacher-led “I do” phase typical of PBL? Well, in Trev Mackenzie’s Inquiry Cycle (below), learning begins with Determine Your Focus, Start with an Essential Question, Brainstorm Questions, and so on. Never in the cycle – not even at the beginning – do we see an explanatory phase with tons of cognitive load-reducing examples.

A central tenet of PBL is that teachers empower students to initiate a personal inquiry and then provide supports as a guide on the side. When teachers say that they are providing “direct instruction” during project time, what they mean is that they circle around the room in a guiding role to provide “just-in-time” help and feedback. Of course, this reduces the amount of guidance a teacher can provide any one student by a factor of 25-30, assuming that all students are attended to evenly, and it requires that teachers study up on 25-30 different project topics, which each require their own unique sets of models and examples. In every instance of PBL that I have encountered, an “I Do” phase where students are given models, examples, and partially solved problems to solve in small steps before they’re allowed to attempt to solve similar problems, is entirely missing. Teachers cannot even try to integrate an “I Do” phase into their PBL instruction (other than to make futile attempts at teaching domain-general skills like creativity and critical thinking, but I digress) due to the rather obvious fact that it’s impossible to teach everyone about the same thing when everyone is doing completely different projects. This facet of PBL puts it completely at odds with recommendations from cognitive load theory and direct instruction.

Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction

Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (2012) is a popular instructional model that most afficianadios of direct instruction, and Rosenshine himself, consider to encapsulate the major techniques of direct instruction. I have put the 10 Principles in the column on the left in the table below. As you can see, direct instruction is a teacher-led whole system that comprises more than just telling, and that requires full guidance from the beginning of instruction, and a gradual release of responsibility to make way for independent practice (as opposed to independent discoveries or inquiries) once teacher-determined material has been internalized.

On the right side of the table I’ve added two popular PBL models that I have personally seen used, and implemented as an instructional coach, in PBL schools. PBL is a child-led system where students ask questions and investigate problems that are important to them. What is absent is a teacher delivering foundational content and orchestrating deliberate, scheduled practice until skills become automatic. Contrary to Dr. Darling-Hammond’s insinuation that it is silly to think of PBL and direct instruction as two separate, incompatible methodologies, it is clear to me that Rosenshine’s definition of direct instruction is quite different, and largely incompatible, with popular forms of PBL.

Direct Instruction
(Rosenshine, 2012)
The Inquiry Cycle (@trev_mackenzie)Kath Murdoch’s Inquiry Cycle (link)
Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning. Determine your focus(Tuning in)
What do I know about the topic?
How do I know about it?
Present new material in small steps with student practice after each step: Only present small amounts of new material at any time, and then assist students as they practice this materialStart with an Essential Question(Tuning in)
What am I wondering?
What am I feeling?
Ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students: Questions help students practice new information and connect new material to their prior learningBrainstorm questions(Finding out)
Where might I go to find out more information?
What resources might I use?

Provide models: Providing students with models and worked examples can help them learn to solve problems fasterBrainstorm subtopics(Finding out)
What are my questions?
What am I feeling at this phase?
Guide student practice: Successful teachers spend more time guiding students’ practice of new materialSelect a subtopic(Sorting out)
How can I sort the information I have found?
How are my ideas changing?
How is it connected to what I know?
Check for student understanding: Checking for student understanding at each point can help students learn the material with fewer errorsAccess prior knowledge(Going further)
What information do I wish to share
Who will be my audience
Are all my questions answered?
Obtain a high success rate: It is important for students to achieve a high success rate during classroom instructionIdentifying wonderings(Making conclusions)
What do I know and understand about the central idea?
Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks: The teacher provides students with temporary supports and scaffolds to assist them when they learn difficult tasksResearch(Making conclusions)
What am I going to do with what I have learned?
What would I do differently?
Require and monitor independent practice: Students need extensive, successful, independent practice in order for skills and knowledge to become automaticMake cross curricular connections(Taking action)
How can what I have learned help me in my life or help others?
Engage students in weekly and monthly review: Students need to be involved in extensive practice in order to develop well-connected and automatic knowledgePerform, reflect, revise(Taking action)
What was the highlight of the inquiry?
How will my actions affect others?

It should be mentioned that it is entirely possible to use direct instruction – I do, We do, You do – to facilitate a project. I did it all the time as a design teacher, and I see it happening daily at the arts-focused school that I currently work at. But in no way are these direct instruction units “based” on a project, but rather the project is assigned after foundational knowledge and skills are taught as a means for independent practice and application of the taught material. This fundamental difference seems to be lost on Dr. Darling-Hammond and the legions of tweeters who seemed to agree with her statements on Twitter. As an instructional leader, I will continue to advocate that schools provide students opportunities to engage in projects, but I cannot support the idea of a whole unit, or semester, or year, turning into a project. Nor can I support an instructional design where the majority of the instructional guidance provided comes “just-in-time” (i.e., a teacher circling around the room to meet the needs of students as they come up, often one at a time). This sort of instruction unfairly disadvantages students who struggle to process too many elements of information at a time and students who do not already have vast stores of prior knowledge by way of family background and investment. I do think there is a role for project-based learning in after-school programs.

I can anticipate some people challenging this post by either saying, a) I’ve misrepresented either di or PBL, or b) Arguing that it doesn’t matter what we call things as long as each teacher uses the best techniques at their disposal to meet the needs of their learners.

For a), feel free to enlighten me by posting some literature in the comments below. For b), I cannot agree with this position. We are a profession; custodians of an intellectual technique; who should know the names of things in the technique better than the average person off the street. In the event of murky definitions, whether they be between traditionalism and progressivism, pure discovery and guided discovery learning, one-way lecturing and interactive explicit teaching, and so on, we should be in the business of specifying, clarifying, and refining the definitions of the techniques that we’ve come to use. We should be striving to co-construct a common language around teaching rather than shrugging our shoulders or claiming a moral high ground through the fallacious reasoning of false compromise.

References

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75–86. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1

Paas, F., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2020). Cognitive-load theory: Methods to manage working memory load in the learning of complex tasks. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 29(4), 394–398. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721420922183

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2005.00507.x

10 thoughts on “Are PBL and Direct Instruction Compatible?

  1. The difference is that most if not all PBL assume that the student do it themselves and direct or explicit instruction assumes that the teacher has the lead. There’s quite a difference between “Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning” and “Determine YOUR focus”/ “What do I know about the topic? How do I know about it?”

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  2. Interesting read, cheers.
    I wouldn’t say your misrepresenting PjBL, but your discussion seems to be more about a ‘pure form’ of the approach. Where it’s the POI, inquiry cycle, TBLT, or whichever framework we employ, there’s usually some flexibility in practice? I agree that we should have clear and shared definitions of these approaches but we should also appreciate that the framework as we define it isn’t necessarily how it is realised in the classroom. For me, the Kirschner et al article you refer to makes that mistake in that it just assumes certain approaches are minimal guidance without a real effort to gather evidence of classroom practice.

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    1. Thanks for your comment 🙂

      I can only speak from experience here, but as a coach and admin I’ve seen a lot of teachers who say that their PBL is quite unstructured, brag about their classes being quite noisy and messy, go on and on about the virtues of unconditional choice, etc, etc, but when we look at their classes they are often teaching with an I do, you do, we do format to varying degrees of effectiveness. I’ve also seen teachers whose “direct instruction” includes none of the interactive questioning elements and lacks enough independent practice to get students towards mastery. To your point, it may be possible to identify two pure forms, and in doing so we may find that very few people actually do either of them, but I think doing so is valuable because it would move the profession from one of nebulous folk wisdom towards specific and describable methodologies. Lots of advantages for PD, professional discourse, and teacher/parent choice in schools when this shift is made, imo.

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      1. Nebulous folk wisdom is quite a term!
        Would you say you place less value on teacher intuition, experience and knowledge of our own learners these days, since your deeper exploration of cognition and ‘the science of learning’?

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  3. Good question, Pete. I think I place the same value as before on intuition. Many questions cannot be answered by research, either because the evidence is wanting or because it’s more of a matter of values than an empirical question. But there are a list of “must trys” and “could dos” that are more likely to work than their alternatives. Would I spend a training asking teachers to define spaced practice and to discuss whether or not they thought spaced practice was a worthwhile teaching technique? Not really… wouldn’t it be much more sensible, given that spacing out practice is as close to settled science as it gets in education research, to suggest a set of practices around spaced practice and then to facilitate the conversation around how these can be adapted to fit specific contexts?

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    1. I see what you’re saying there, but as you say, spaced practice is close to settled science. What about topics that aren’t as such?
      For example, you mention Rosenshine’s principles in your post (spaced practice being one from what I remember). Many of Rosenshine’s principles, while they may fit with skill acquisition theory or acquisition of knowledge, don’t necessarily align with what we know in general about (eg) the theory of second language acquisition (depending on interface position). With this in mind, is it right for us to facilitate conversations on how these principles can be adapted, or rather should we still be debating whether or not they should actually be promoted as ‘good practice’ in a catch-all sense? That’s without considering how much they apply to teaching at, say, primary or EYFS – which seems a hot topic among some in my PLN.
      There have been some interesting thoughts on this from the likes of Tom Sherrington recently, who blogged about ‘not whether but how’ regarding the POI (not his words, my take). Such rhetoric seems to be encouraging educators to commit to these principles even though they are not necessarily efficacious, under a guise of them being ‘evidence-informed’.
      For me, teacher intuition, experience, etc can sometimes be the buffer which prevents the pendulum swinging too far in one direction. The sum of the staff room tends to rein in too much blind faith in any set of principles with healthy skepticism.

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