On Balance

To be on the side of balance.

I am a little concerned that the discussion about explicit instruction is in danger of being framed as one that pits those in favour of balance against explicit instruction fundamentalism. This would be an error.

In fact, all teachers use a wide range of teaching strategies and so balance will be evident pretty much everywhere. Despite the fact that I have been pointing to the evidence in favour of explicit instruction, I use a range of strategies in the classroom. Let’s take the example of science practical work. I believe that it is not the best basis for learning scientific principles because conducting the practical work requires all of the students’ attention, leaving little left to ponder the science. However, I still use practical work because I believe it is motivating and that it provides a hook on which to hang later learning; “Do you remember when we did the experiment with the pendulum? Well…”

I have noted how the proponents of systematic synthetic phonics – who are just as interested in comprehension as anyone else – have suffered from being portrayed as antagonistic towards balance. This obfuscates a worthwhile discussion.

Instead, we should be discussing the nature of the balance of approaches that different practitioners use.

Do all teachers know, for instance, that there is a great deal of evidence in favour of explicit instruction? Certainly, early in my career, I would often use explicit instruction but feel guilty about it because I thought that I should be facilitating group work or inquiry learning instead. So this was still a balance but of an unsatisfactory kind.

In this article, the kind of balance on offer involves acknowledging explicit instruction as a important part of the basic pedagogical arsenal but then criticising the respected indigenous leader Noel Pearson‘s attempt to introduce an Engelmann-like Direct Instruction programme as, “skilling and drilling students to the point of exhaustion.” I have not seen this program in action but this characterisation sounds a bit far-fetched given its antecedents. And no evidence is presented to support it. Balance?

I have also read blogs where people state that explicit instruction should be part of a balanced approach and yet then call into question the research that supports its use. Like Gregory Yates, I know of people insisting that explicit instruction is only any good for teaching rote knowledge or procedures but other approaches are needed for developing higher order skills. This is not what the evidence shows and it is not the sort of balance that I would agree with. Indeed, I have seen philosophical arguments ventured that suggest that explicit instruction is about authority and control. The theorist Paolo Friere even thinks it prevents people from becoming more human. And he launched a field called ‘critical pedagogy’ that has its adherents in schools of education to this day. It is hard to see why anyone so morally opposed to a practice would wish it to take a significant role within a balance of approaches.

Explicit instruction also seems to suffer from a double standard. Despite there being little evidence suggesting that inquiry learning is effective, it is widely promoted. No-one seeks to think critically about this. And yet people are quick to find fault with any research that shows the effectiveness of explicit instruction; and finding fault with any individual study is easy enough to do in the social sciences. However, the evidence in favour of explicit instruction is unique in the field of education in that multiple studies from different perspectives over many years and using diverse methodologies all converge on the same result: explicit instruction is highly effective, whatever we are trying to teach.

If we had a genuine interest in balance – rather than a rhetorical one – then teachers would leave teacher education institutions with a better understanding of explicit instruction and how to make it effective. And yet it seems to get little time. I have even met teacher educators who have never heard of Project Follow Through – this tells us something of priorities.

Take, for example, the specification for the Graduate Diploma of Education at the University of Southern Queensland. The outgoing primary and middle years routes contain two entire courses in “Inquiry through the curriculum” where “Students will be required to develop short term learning plans which demonstrate knowledge of appropriate curriculum documents and the integration of knowledge and skills across learning areas utilising a pedagogy based on inquiry.” Yet I cannot see any courses on explicit or direct instruction.

That doesn’t seem very balanced.


5 thoughts on “On Balance

  1. I was interviewing a teacher the other day who asked about teaching styles in my department. I explained that I don’t impose particular styles on the department. I expect them to consider whether the students have learnt what was intended from any activity and to think it is worth continually striving to do better.
    Very amusingly this candidate then gave me a long talk about the importance of teachers doing less, basically it seemed my ‘balanced approach’ was wrong as teaching should be pupil centred.
    You are quite right, given the pupil centred orthodoxy of the moment, the sort of orthodoxy that allows a candidate to presume he is saying what schools want to hear by arguing against balance, anyone actually in favour of balance would be arguing for more focus on direct instruction.

  2. So glad to see your voice and point of view in this ongoing discussion. I’ve seen everything you mention here for the last 20 years, with just a little bit of improvement in that time. I hope we can see more and more balance over time.

  3. Thanks for this post, Greg. Over and again I highlight the Simple View of Reading diagram when it comes to confirming or explaining that, yes, Systematic Synthetic Phonics addresses the technical alphabetic code knowledge and phonics skills and that, of course, there is more to reading than ‘just phonics’. The phonics content, however, is best taught systematically and explicitly because the English alphabetic code is the most complex alphabetic code in the world so why wouldn’t teachers unpick it and teach it well (why indeed?!).

    The conclusions of the national review of the research on how children read and how best to teach reading in the US in 2000 listed ‘five pillars of literacy’ or ‘the big five’. These are phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. All five of these features should be features of a good Systematic Synthetic Phonics programme – and then, of course, there is additional higher-order language, literacy and literature enrichment in school and at home. That is the balance!

  4. I have even met teacher educators who have never heard of Project Follow Through – this tells us something of priorities.
    It also tells us a lot about the politics of education, the role of “evidence” in EdLand, educational research methodology, as well as the educationese of terms like “balance,” and “explicit” that you treat in the present blog.

    Today, in the Internet era, the opportunity for Natural Educational Experiments that can clean up the cross-talk abound. Since you mention Noel Pearson’s work, it can serve as a case in point.
    Pearson is using one Instructional Model. There are other possible Models. All a local authority or school needs to do to enter the inquiry/Experiment is to call their shot on the Model they are using to teach reading in the primary years. (Whatever they say is fine. If it’s “Teacher’s Choice” or “Witchcraft”–no argument, that’s their Model. We’ll see how those Models fare, along with how the other models fare). The Models constitute the “independent variable” in the experiment.

    The “dependent variable” in the experiment is readily available in the Screening Check currently being used statutorily in England to distinguish between children who have been taught/learned how to handle the Alphabetic Code and those who still require further instruction. It’s a psychometrically sound instrument, fit for purpose of the Experiment here.

    “What you see is what you get” in the results of the experiment. The results to date in England provide empirical evidence that supports the argument you make in the blog. The results also have much wider ramifications for reading instruction instruction and throughout the English-speaking world.

    The experiment will be unobtrusive, essentially at no additional cost, and will yield research evidence that can be immediately implemented. Seems to me that warrants conducting the inquiry.

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