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Teacher-directed or student-centered instruction? Both, please!

By December 20, 2022No Comments

By Bryan Goodwin and Kristin Rouleau

As a teacher, you’ve likely been cautioned at some point to steer clear of lecturing, delivering direct instruction, or doing anything that remotely resembles being a “sage on the stage.” Instead, you’ve likely been encouraged to let your students take charge of their own learning, explore their own interests, make their own discoveries, and arrive at their own conclusions.

Yet, in practice, teachers often find that turning learning over to students can leave them spinning their wheels, procrastinating, getting off track, and generally struggling to learn. Many research studies (as reported, for example, in John Hattie’s Visible Learning books and resources) appear to suggest that direct instruction is more effective than student-centered approaches, which adds fuel to the fire of debates that flare up every few years or so in the pages of education journals and periodicals over which is better: teacher-directed or student-directed learning. So, where does the truth lie? Should teachers use direct instruction or student-centered learning?

A photo of a teacher interacting with her students and a photo of students working on a group project

We would argue that the answer is yes—that is, teachers should intentionally plan to use both approaches over the course of a curricular unit of study. In our synthesis of more than 100 scientific studies conducted in classrooms with diverse learners, we discovered that the best approach to teaching and learning reflects a Goldilocks-like “just right” integration of direct instruction to build foundational knowledge combined with student-centered tasks to deepen learning though independent practice, reflection, and application. In short, both sides in this debate are little bit right, and a little bit wrong.

Far from stepping away from the process of learning, teachers need to serve as “sherpas” who guide and support students at each step of the learning journey. That starts with creating a plan for learning that identifies what students should learn and how they will demonstrate their learning (i.e., their success criteria). Teachers should provide ample direct instruction (e.g., providing visual examples, modeling processes, and building students’ vocabulary) to build students’ foundational knowledge. But we know from brain science that after about 5 to 10 minutes of focused learning, students’ brains need a break. So instead of lecturing ad nauseam, teacher-directed instruction should occur in short bursts followed by opportunities for students to pause and process their learning by, for example, engaging in initial application of a new skill while receiving feedback or discussing high-level questions with peers.

Teachers should also structure opportunities spread over time for students to independently practice what they’ve learned. Ultimately, these cycles of learning prepare students for hands-on and minds-on learning experiences to demonstrate their learning—for example, engaging in research and writing projects, guided investigations, and real-life problem solving. We know from cognitive science, in fact, that only through opportunities to create something with learning are students able to develop the complex, multiple mental connections to new learning needed to retain it deeply.

In too many classrooms, this final extension and application phase of learning is lopped off. Teachers teach something; students practice and study, then take a test—and afterward, forget up to 90 percent of what they’ve learned within 30 days. In short, the teach-study-test model of learning leads to “fast learning” and “fast forgetting.” Nonetheless, research also paints a dismal picture of minimally guided learning, which has been shown to have particularly detrimental effects on low-achieving students.

Here’s the good news—as we show in our new publication, The New Classroom Instruction that Works. By eschewing the false dichotomy of direct instruction versus student-centered instruction, and instead, integrating both, all students can achieve at high levels. Indeed, the best approach to learning isn’t either direct instruction or student-guided learning. Rather it’s both, woven together in repeated cycles of direct instruction followed student-centered opportunities for reflection, practice, and application.

Bryan Goodwin, president and CEO of McREL, thrives on translating insights from education research into practical strategies and professional learning for effective teaching and school leadership. He is the author or co-author of multiple McREL books, including The New Classroom Instruction That Works, Learning That Sticks, Building a Curious School, and Instructional Models.


Kristin Rouleau, Ed.D., vice president of Learning Services at McREL, works with schools, districts, and state departments of education, both domestically and internationally, as they navigate change and implement evidence-based practices and structures to increase student achievement. In addition to consulting, coaching, and facilitating professional learning, Dr. Rouleau has co-authored several McREL books, including Learning that Sticks, Curiosity Works, and The New Classroom Instruction That Works.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.