How Andreas Schleicher Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Teacher-Directed Instruction

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In 2016 the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a report for maths teachers based on data from its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). It was based upon the 2013 round of PISA when mathematics had been given special attention by researchers. I noticed something very odd about this report and a subsequent article for Scientific American that was also based on PISA 2013. The report and article focused on everything other than one of the most obvious conclusions from the data: that ‘teacher-directed’ instruction was more effective than a ‘student-oriented’* classroom climate where, for example, teachers assign problems for students to work on in groups (at least as far as the OECD have defined these terms and collected the relevant data). You can read my various investigations here, here, here and here.

When data from the science-focused PISA 2015 round was released later in 2016, this pattern held for science too. It is hardly a surprise because we have known something similar for decades. For instance, writing in 1984, Jere Brophy and Thomas Good surveyed the findings of the previous few decades’ process-product research and noted the effectiveness of what they described as ‘active teaching’:

“Students achieve more in classes where they spend most of their time being taught or supervised by their teachers rather than working on their own (or not working at all). These classes include frequent lessons (whole class or small group, depending on grade level and subject matter) in which the teacher presents information and develops concepts through lecture and demonstration, elaborates this information in the feedback given following responses to recitation or discussion questions, prepares the students for follow up seatwork activities by giving instructions and going through practice examples, monitors progress on assignments after releasing the students to work independently, and follows up with appropriate feedback and reteaching when necessary. The teacher carries the content to the students personally rather than depending on the curriculum materials to do so, but conveys information mostly in brief presentations followed by recitation or application opportunities. There is a great deal of teacher talk, but most of it is academic rather than procedural or managerial, and much of it involves asking questions and giving feedback rather than extended lecturing.”

Unfortunately, the OECD had caught themselves on a hook of their own creation. Student-oriented instruction was part of the OECD’s definition of effective teaching. Perhaps that is why their own finding that teacher-directed instruction was more effective was not something they decided to shout about.

This now appears to be changing. Andreas Schleicher, the coordinator of PISA, recently visited Michaela Community School in North West London and was so impressed that he has written about his visit. I have never visited Michaela, but I have met Katharine Birbalsingh, Michaela’s Headmistress, and I am prepared to accept that it is a highly unique school. It has also enjoyed considerable success with the first cohort of its students to take GCSE exams.

We might suggest a variety of hypotheses for Michaela’s success, but Schleicher zeros in on one: ‘teacher-directed instructional practices’.

Schleicher hints that the OECD may have been on something of a journey. He notes the repeated findings from PISA of the effectiveness of such an approach:

“Some consider this a statistical fluke; but it has been a consistent finding. Others suggest it’s simply that teacher-directed instruction is more common in the high-performing East Asian countries that do well in PISA for other reasons; but the pattern is clearly visible in both East and West. Yet others suggest that teacher-directed instruction only prepares well for tests predicated on recall and memorisation. But that’s not what PISA is about; to do well in PISA, students have to be able to extrapolate from what they know, think across the boundaries of subject-matter disciplines, apply their knowledge creatively in novel situations and demonstrate effective learning strategies.”

Schleicher describes what teacher-directed instruction looks like at Michaela, alongside other unusual aspects of Michaela life such as their family lunch and silent lesson transitions, noting that he cannot quite reconcile himself to the latter. Nevertheless, it is clear that Schleicher has visited Michaela with one hypothesis in mind – that teacher-directed instruction is effective. This is something of a departure and there will no doubt be more joy in heaven over this than 99 of my own feverish and arcane blog posts on the matter.

As coordinator of PISA, Schleicher is likely to have an inkling about what the results of PISA 2018 will show when they are published in early December. Maybe the weight of evidence is just now too high. Maybe it became time for the OECD to stop trying to fit the data to the narrative and to start fitting the narrative to the data. Maybe after PISA 2018 we will all stop going on about Finland. Who knows?

I will be watching with interest.


*I dislike using this term as a label for a certain set of teaching practices. Who is not focused on students? It seems like a rhetorical device similar to the way progressivist education is often described as ‘child centred’.

7 thoughts on “How Andreas Schleicher Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Teacher-Directed Instruction

  1. My feeling is that Schleicher, like Hattie, cannot resist the urge to gravitate into the soft comfy couch of telling educationists what he knows they want to hear. I’ve seen him bend himself into pretzels to turn the clear data from PISA into an exercise in word-yoga in order to confirm the right peoples’ biases. This is indeed a good change, but let’s see his larger pattern. To what extent will his proclamations transmogrify depending on his audience?

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