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Early on in my project-based learning journey, I made a vow to go 100% project-based. My students would learn everything through exploration and discovery. I would remain the guide on the side observing the process and helping out only when necessary. After leading students through a highly-structured documentary project, I decided to pull back entirely. This would be more student-centered and authentic.

Then it tanked.

Not a week later or a month later. Two days into the project, I realized my mistake. My students didn’t have enough background knowledge to navigate the complexity of the project. I had skipped the concept attainment lesson with the goal of learning through the project. However, my students didn’t have a conceptual understanding of the topic. Still, I pushed forward, though the inquiry phase and into research, where I realized that most of my students were unable to do online research. At that moment, I took a timeout. I used direct instruction to build some conceptual understanding of the topic. I then used direct instruction and guided practice to help students learn how to do research.

I learned something valuable through those mistakes. Authentic projects can coexist with direct instruction. If authenticity involves making the learning real and relevant to students, then there might be moments when direct instruction might be the authentic choice. Yes, we want the learning to be student-centered, but as teachers, we still have moments when we need to use direct instruction. True, it’s important to be a guide on the side. However, you’re still the expert and sometimes you need to teach students the concepts and skills they need in order to thrive in an authentic project.

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Why Direct Instruction Still Matters During Project-Based Learning

If you’re new to PBL, here’s a quick explanation of the model:

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The Buck Institute for Education (PBL Works) identifies the following seven project design elements:

  1. Challenging Problem or Question
  2. Sustained Inquiry
  3. Authenticity
  4. Student Voice & Choice
  5. Reflection
  6. Critique & Revision
  7. Public Product

Note that project-based learning can work in tandem with other pedagogical models, like inquiry-based learning, design thinking, and problem-based learning. But the key idea remains that students are learning through projects and as a result, they engage in deeper learning.

When you look at those seven design elements, they don’t initially seem compatible with direct instruction. However, there are some key reasons to use direct instruction within your PBL units plans.

1. Direct instruction is necessary to build background knowledge and conceptual understanding.

I began this article with the story of a failed project. My biggest mistake was assuming that students had the background content knowledge they needed to engage in the sustained inquiry and research phases of their project. Although my goal was to honor student agency and choice, I failed to provide the opportunity for students to wrestle with the concepts. From an equity perspective, I need to give every student the opportunity to gain background knowledge.

This is a key reason we still need direct instruction within PBL. According to John Hattie’s research, inquiry-based learning had only a .31 effect size on student learning. However, Hattie clarified that inquiry is still vital for learning. Inquiry-based and problem-based learning are ineffective in learning surface-level information. However, they are highly effective in learning deep information. Hattie argues that inquiry should occur after students have gained prior knowledge.

We can build this prior knowledge through direct instruction. It might involve an outline of core concepts or the front-loading of vocabulary. Often, it includes a concept attainment lesson. Note that concept attainment lessons don’t have to be long, drawn-out lectures with slide after slide of text. Some of the best concept attainment lessons are actually discussions, guided experiments, simulations, or game-based learning activities.

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By starting with an interactive approach to direct instruction, you can actually pique students’ interest in the project while also helping them gain a deeper conceptual understanding of the topic.

2. Direct instruction can reduce cognitive load.

Greg Ashman wrote an interesting article about the downside of inquiry-based learning and student achievement. In his article, he makes the distinction between epistemology (what it means to know something) and pedagogy (what it means to teach something). Scientists can engage in open inquiry because they have a wealth of prior knowledge (addressed in the last point). However, students who lack that prior knowledge often struggle with cognitive load.  This was a key issue raised over a decade ago by Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark, who linked a minimalist approach to PBL to cognitive overload. However, a year later, Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, and Chinn pointed out that the researchers had conflated unstructured discovery learning with project-based learning, problem-based learning, and inquiry-based learning.

The bottom line is that direct instruction can reduce the cognitive load for students. This might include an initial concept attainment lesson or a smaller direct instruction activity embedded within the project.

3. Direct instruction can help facilitate skill development.

Creative projects require students to master certain creative skills. This might involve research, problem-solving, brainstorming, or peer assessment. However, you might need to introduce these skills through direct instruction. I’ve heard teachers say “don’t waste time showing kids how to make a video. Let them make a video.” However, a video is challenging to make. Whether they learn it through a tutorial or a guided lesson, they need some direct instruction in order to master the skill. Similarly, a short direct instruction lesson can help students learn the best practices for making slideshows or podcasts.

When my students did Scratch video game projects, we used a Gradual Release of Responsibility approach starting with direct instruction, guided practice, a mash-up game (where they combined two games) and finally their longer video game they created from scratch. Similarly, when my current students learn to write lesson plans, craft assessments, or design their Professional Educator Blogs, I use direct instruction to help facilitate skill development.

Initially, I viewed this as less authentic than “real PBL.” But then I realized that in nearly every creative skill I learned, I sought out experts who guided me through direct instruction. I watched videos on YouTube to learn about techniques.

4. Direct instruction can help facilitate guided inquiry.

The Buck Institute includes “sustained inquiry” as an element of project-based learning. However, inquiry doesn’t necessarily mean students are on their own asking whatever question they’re curious about and finding the answers. Heather Banchi and Randy Bell conceptualize inquiry on a continuum from a more guided to open approach. Note that their approach focuses on science but the process can be generalized to other content areas:

  • Level 1: Confirmation Inquiry
    The teacher has taught a particular science theme or topic. The teacher then develops questions and a procedure that guides students through an activity where the results are already known. This method is great to reinforce concepts taught and to introduce students into learning to follow procedures, collect and record data correctly and to confirm and deepen understandings.
  • Level 2: Structured Inquiry
    The teacher provides the initial question and an outline of the procedure. Students are to formulate explanations of their findings through evaluating and analyzing the data that they collect.
  • Level 3: Guided Inquiry
    The teacher provides only the research question for the students. The students are responsible for designing and following their own procedures to test that question and then communicate their results and findings.
  • Level 4: Open/True Inquiry
    Students formulate their own research question(s), design and follow through with a developed procedure, and communicate their findings and results. This type of inquiry is often seen in science fair contexts where students drive their own investigative questions.

I explore these ideas in this short video (warning: there is a Harry Potter reference)

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Here’s where direct instruction comes in. As teachers, we may need to engage students in a direct instruction activity to help facilitate structured inquiry and guided inquiry.

5. Direct instruction can work as an embedded intervention

When project-based learning runs smoothly, you will have students working independently. However, you might have students who need additional support. It might be an ELL student who needs a small vocabulary or grammar mini-lesson. Or it might be a student who is struggling with a particular skill set within the project. In these moments, you can do small group direct instruction as a support for students.

6. Direct instruction can reduce project fatigue.

This sounds odd but even in a highly engaging project, students often need a break from the routine that sets in within a project. When engaging in creative work, it’s common to experience project fatigue. Even if they love the project, students will often get tired of doing research, working on prototyping, or revising their work. A highly engaging period of direct instruction can create a sense of mental space while also building background knowledge or helping with skill development.

Direct Instruction within a Design Thinking Project

So, what does this actually look like within a larger project? Consider the phases of the LAUNCH Process. This is a design thinking framework you can use to structure the phases of a PBL unit:

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L: Look, Listen, and Learn

In this first phase, students look, listen, and learn. The goal here is awareness. It might be a sense of wonder at a process or an awareness of a problem or a sense of empathy toward an audience. You might use a concept attainment lesson at the start of a project However, you might also pull aside a small group and do a direct instruction mini-lesson to clarify misunderstandings.

A: Ask Tons of Questions
Sparked by curiosity, students move to the second phase, where they ask tons of questions. You might do guided inquiry here and use direct instruction in a way to facilitate the inquiry process. But you might also pull aside a small group and do a skill-based inquiry lesson with sentence stems to guide students who are struggling with the question process.

U: Understanding the Process or Problem
This leads to understanding the process or problem through an authentic research experience. They might conduct interviews or needs assessments, research articles, watch videos, or analyze data. In this research phase, you might do some direct instruction on a part of the research process. For example, we also used the five c’s of critical research:

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Initially, I might need to do some direct instruction and have students practice the research process. However, I might also need to pull aside a small group and do direct instruction as a small group intervention.

N: Navigate Ideas
Students apply their newly acquired knowledge to potential solutions. In this phase, they navigate ideas. Here they not only brainstorm, but they also analyze ideas, combine ideas, and generate a concept for what they will create.

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In this area, you likely won’t need to embed direct instruction into the project. However, you might need to do some direct instruction to help students understand the brainstorming process. If it’s a longer unit, you might do some direct instruction on how to do project management.

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C: Create a Prototype
In this next phase, they create a prototype. It might be a digital work or a tangible product, a work of art or something they engineer. It might even be an action or an event or a system. Typically, you’ll have students working independently in this phase. However, they might need to learn a particular prototyping skill. If it’s a documentary, you might need to do optional mini-lessons showing how to film videos and operate a camera or how to use a program like iMovie or Final Cut for editing. If it’s an engineering project, you might need to show students how to use a 3D printer or how to navigate 3D modeling programs.

H: Highlight and Fix
Next, they begin to highlight what’s working and fix what’s failing. The goal here is to view this revision process as an experiment full of iterations, where every mistake takes them closer to success. Here, you might need to do direct instruction as a review of skills for the previous prototyping skill. You might also need to clarify misconceptions through a small group direct instruction intervention. But this is also where you might take a break from your project and do a direct instruction lesson to help break up the monotony and reduce project fatigue.

Launch to an Audience 
Then, when it’s done, it’s ready to launch. In the launch phase, they send it to an authentic audience. Here, direct instruction might involve a mini-lesson on marketing or a whole class discussion on what it means to launch.

Direct Instruction Doesn’t have to Be Boring

I tend to brace against the idea of lecturing. It conjures up images of a crowded hall and a professor droning on and on while we sit in the audience feverishly taking notes. But lectures aren’t inherently bad. After all, I love a good podcast or TED Talk. I regularly deliver keynotes for conferences, school districts, and universities. Great direct instruction is often an act of storytelling. It’s exciting and fun. The following are a few ideas for how to keep direct instruction engaging for students:

  • Keep direct instruction interesting. Some of the best direct instruction involves storytelling. It’s engaging and motivating. You might have visuals or videos you use to tap into student interests.
  • Make direct instruction interactive. You might use game-based learning or simulations to teach a concept. You might add pair-share and discussion activities to break up what would traditionally be a lecture. Or you might add a TPR (total physical response) to the front-loading of vocabulary. But the idea is to give students the opportunity to make sense out of the information and build on their prior knowledge.
  • Tie the direct instruction to the larger project. Help students to see that the direct instruction will help them understand the concepts or develop the skills they will need in their project.

Ultimately, there’s a time and a place for direct instruction within PBL. A student-centered approach does not require us to ditch all things “teacher-directed.” Sometimes, the most authentic, student-centered approach might just be a quality direct instruction mini-lesson. Direct instruction can feel less authentic. However, it might just be what students need in order to gain the skills and conceptual understanding needed to access a project — and if that’s not authentic, I don’t know what is.

Curious About Project-Based Learning?

Are you thinking about getting started with project-based learning? If so, you might want to check out the PBL toolkit. It includes resources, a free eBook, and a sample project.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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