Let us be explicit about the explicit

I often write about ‘explicit teaching’ and I have chosen this term with great care. The alternative term, ‘direct instruction’ is problematic due to the fact that it has several, closely-related meanings. Conventionally, ‘direct instruction’ with lower-case first letters tends to have the same meaning as explicit instruction and this approach is summarised well by Barak Rosenshine here (he did much of the initial process-product research that led to a description of this teaching method).

However, ‘Direct Instruction’ with capitalised first letters usually refers to specific programs develop by, or using the methods of, Siegfried Engelmann and his associates. This includes all of the features of explicit teaching but adds a curriculum design element; specifically, lessons and units are planned by specialist planners and the lessons themselves are effectively scripted. It is to avoid confusing these two meanings of ‘direct instruction’ that I choose to use the term ‘explicit teaching’.

It was therefore with horror that I encountered (via @BarryGarelick) a presentation by a highly influential teacher educator – Deborah Loewenberg Ball – to the National Council of Teachers of Maths (NCTM) in the US. In this presentation we are informed that explicit teaching is not direct instruction:

Hmmm.. It seems to me that explicit instruction therefore differs from direct instruction in that it leaves more items implicit. In direct instruction, presentations show students how to complete tasks but, presumably, in explicit teaching, they do not.

I certainly do not agree with the view that all tasks completed through direct instruction are ‘uncomplicated’. The purpose of breaking tasks down into their constituent parts is in order to not overload working memory. This way, in incremental steps we can develop students to the point of completing really very complicated tasks. The idea is that we just don’t dump them in there from the outset and let them fend for themselves, like in the Hunger Games or something.

It also should be made clear that this is a very personal interpretation of what ‘explicit teaching’ means and that it is one that is not widely shared. For instance, the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation in New South Wales (CESE) promotes explicit teaching and gives a definition much more in line with direct instruction:

The key problem here is that there is significant potential for confusion. Teachers could be left unaware of where the evidence lies. Researchers, of course, have the right to promote their views and their research. However, if researchers employ this eccentric definition of ‘explicit teaching’, teachers might mistakenly think that all of the research supporting explicit teaching practices, such as the evidence Rosenshine cites above, supports the practices that Deborah Loewenberg Ball is advocating.

That would be unfortunate. The research supports direct instruction.

Hey Google, what does 'explicit' mean?

Hey Google, what does ‘explicit’ mean?


3 thoughts on “Let us be explicit about the explicit

  1. Well done Greg. I have noticed a tendency for educators having no sympathy for basics instruction to utilize that terminology, but with their own twist added. For example, in Alberta after steady criticism for failing to support memorization of math facts, the ministry publicly announced that it has supported basics and math facts all along and pointed to a Grade 5 outcome in the curriculum saying “see? Math facts”. The outcome was a page-long list of “strategies” for computing single-digit multiplications like 6×5 (… you see, 3 x 5 = 15 so then you double…). In other words, workarounds for NOT having memorized those facts. The objective is so that there no longer exists a term meaning “memorizing” multiplication tables, to take away the criticism by defining it out of existence. Well, it made it harder to articulate the critique but we managed it, and after a year they added the phrase “… and recall [multiplication facts]…” However this is a very small victory given that this two-word phrase is added parenthetically to an entire page of workarounds carrying the implication that it is NOT assumed that students have these facts memorized.

    They’ve done the same with “discovery” and “inquiry” — in fact now there are at least half a dozen terms that are largely interchangeable, but if you criticize one they quickly assert that it is not what is being used, and … how could you be so ignorant as to use the wrong word like that? It is a tactic for deflecting criticisms.

    It seems pretty clear that this business of fiddling around with the meaning of explicit versus direct instruction. I would not be surprised (but have no idea how to demonstrate) if this were a direct response to the increasing attention being paid to the results of Project Follow Through — they want to be able to assert that they support, yes indeed, good old “explicit instruction” but then turn around and have plausible deniability for any implication that this might mean instruction according to something resembling ACTUAL direct instruction. So they can claim to be on the “right side” of the PFT results while repudiating anything actually shown to be of value in the study. Watch for those arguments. I suppose the comeback ought to be, “Well, since you’ve distinguished so clearly from direct instruction, I guess you don’t fall into the camp of methods shown effective in PFT … They should not be allowed to have it both ways.

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