All explicit, all the time

Dan Meyer has written a blog post about implicit versus explicit instruction. I am not sure that it demonstrates very much but it has led to an interesting conversation in the comments which is worth checking out.

When linking to this post, Ben Riley of Deans for Impact made the following comment:

Riley - all explicit, all the time

This made me wonder: Who is this directed to? Who is arguing for “all explicit, all the time”?

First of all, we probably need to sort-out what we mean by ‘explicit’. To me, ‘explicit instruction’ has two plausible meanings as either a phase of a lesson or a more generalised teaching approach.

In the former, it probably means a period of instruction that is whole-class and teacher-led and where the teacher is relating a narrative, explaining a concept or demonstrating a procedure (I would add that it is better if such a period is highly interactive but this isn’t needed for the definition). It seems improbable that anyone advocates doing this all of the time. Teachers who use this approach are likely to at least move on to a subsequent phase of independent problem solving within the lesson. As students progress from novice to expert then we should see fewer of these explicit instruction phases and more of problem solving. For instance, I hardly did any explicit teaching of this kind in the last few weeks of my 2015 VCE physics class.

The term ‘explicit instruction’ might also refer to a more generalised approach that includes all of these phases but that is characterised by fully explaining new concepts and procedures. It would then be distinct from inquiry learning, problem-based learning and so on where students have to find out some things for themselves.

Where I refer to ‘explicit instruction’, others might use the term ‘direct instruction’. Barak Rosenshine has written a useful paper on ‘five meanings of direct instruction’ which is worth reading. The first meaning is any generalised, teacher-led approach. The second meaning is the form of direct instruction that emerged from process-product studies of effective teaching and he lists the following characteristics:

  • Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning.
  • Begin a lesson with a short statement of goals.
  • Present new material in small steps, providing for student practice after each step.
  • Give clear and detailed instructions and explanations.
  • Provide a high level of active practice for all students.
  • Ask a large number of questions, check for student understanding, and obtain responses from all students.
  • Guide students during initial practice.
  • Provide systematic feedback and corrections.
  • Provide explicit instruction and practice for seatwork exercises and monitor students during seatwork.

This definition extends beyond a single phase and includes student practice. So, would I sign-up to doing this ‘all the time’?


I want people to accept that this is a good model for teaching new content to novice students but I also recognise that this is not always the objective. In this piece for The Conversation, I suggest that we might sometimes want to build motivation or to mix things up a bit and so let me expand upon what I mean.

I think we need to be careful with motivation. I have written before that I don’t think it works the way that many people think it does and this is the substance of my disagreement with Dan Meyer. I am not convinced that implicit teaching approaches are more motivating than explicit ones whilst at the same time leading to better learning. However, for some students in a class who are much closer to the expert end of the scale, this may well be the case (due to the expertise reversal effect). “Mixing it up” means that we can occasionally give these students something better suited to them. Of course, you wouldn’t want to do this ‘all the time’ because you would effectively be teaching only the top end of your class.

I think we also sometimes want to build interest in a subject more generally. When I used to teach middle-school science, I would set aside something that I called “T-time”. The “T” stood for “Tangential” and it was an opportunity for students to ask me any question that they liked about science. This was in recognition of the fact that they would have been wondering about things that did not relate to the topic we happened to be covering – ‘do aliens exist?’ was popular. I didn’t want to see those interests extinguished and so I created a space for them. Conducting experiments in science lessons may partly serve a similar function.

In “Why don’t students like school?” Dan Willingham talks of a science demonstration that his daughter was shown. She could not remember the scientific point of the demonstration and Willingham uses this to caution us about flashy hooks that might distract from content. But what if conveying content is not the objective? Sadly, I’ve known many teachers show a movie to their class in the last week of term. I would much rather students saw a series of scientific demonstrations, whether they understood the science or not. The objective would be for them to go away thinking that science is pretty cool rather than for them to understand any specific content.

I think that the kinds of maths games and puzzles that Dan Meyer promotes could have a similar role to play. The problem arises when you place them at the heart of instruction where, for most students, they are likely to be less effective for teaching concepts and content.

All explicit, all the time? No. It depends what you’re trying to achieve and who your students are.


8 thoughts on “All explicit, all the time

  1. I agree with everything you say except the showing the film in the last week of term. It is how I introduced scores of pupils to Star Wars. I feel this justifies the practice.

  2. olivercaviglioli says:

    With my background in special education, where Direct Instruction was developed and fully accepted, it meant exactly what it said. I’m guessing the necessary variations in practice happened when applied to mainstream education.

    One of its main champions in the UK was professor Peter Mittler from the Hestair Adrian Institute in Manchester. He recounted an incident when he was demonstrating this approach to a class of students with severe learning difficulties, reading from the Distar script and clicking his fingers as directed, when a young lad with Down’s syndrome stood up and told him to fuck off.

    Mittler recounted this episode to his always eager special educators, to be wary of too much teacher dominance by an over-use of this approach.

  3. Thanks for stating a set of components that characterize your view of explicit instruction. As a non-combatant, I am often unsure what the participants have in mind during their math wars skirmishes.

    How would you define the approach that Dan advocates?

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