Six tips to improve your explicit teaching

Perhaps you have read a few articles on explicit instruction and you want to try it out. One of the attractions is that explicit forms of teaching are quite similar to default forms of teaching. Most teachers probably stand at the front, explain things and then set tasks for students to complete, whether they feel guilty about this kind of teaching or not. However, there are a number of key things that a teacher can do to make explicit teaching more effective. We know this mainly due to a body of research that took place in the 1960s and 1970s and that examined which teacher actions correlated to the greatest gains in student knowledge. Barak Rosenshine gives an excellent summary here.

I am going to draw upon this research, some additional studies and a little of my own experience to suggest six key strategies that you can implement to help take you from default teaching towards the kind of explicit teaching that the research supports.

1. Break it down

You are more of an expert than you think. Provided that you have studied your subject in some depth then you will have constructed ‘schema’ in your mind that map complex ideas and the relations between them. In fact, these schema are what you are trying to build in your students’ minds (If you haven’t studied your subject deeply then I wish you and your students the best of luck).

Now, imagine a concept that you want to teach; the greenhouse effect, how to construct a paragraph, the effect on the world economy of a growing Chinese middle-class. Break it down into a number of component steps. If you can’t break it down then it’s likely that you are trying to teach a trait such as ‘resilience’ or an abstraction such as ‘critical thinking’. If so, toss these objectives out and start again. You can reassure yourself that if you attend to the details, these big themes will largely look after themselves – if you build it, they will come.

Once you have broken down your concept, pause and then try and break the steps down even further. You are in possession of expert schema that enable you to quickly dart between your initial set of steps. Your students will not necessarily be able to follow this and so you need to explain the unexplained. A key principle of explicit instruction is to be even more explicit than you think you need to be; to fill in the gaps. Avoid making assumptions.

2. Ask lots of questions

It is easy to find yourself adrift from your class. In my ebook, Ouroboros, I explain this as a vicious circle – a teacher who understands the concepts silently conspires with students who don’t know what they don’t know. Both are fooled.

By asking lots of questions, you force yourself to confront your students’ lack of knowledge. This is how you know whether you have succeeded in breaking down the concepts in a way that the students understand. If students cannot predict who will be called-upon then this strategy also helps to ensure that they are paying attention. I don’t have a “no-hands” rule in my classes but my students usually stop raising their hands when they realise that it makes little difference to whom I ask.

3. Consider asking for whole-class responses

An efficient way of checking for understanding is to ask for a whole-class response. This can be as simple as thumbs-up for ‘true’ and thumbs-down for ‘false’. I find mini-whiteboards work well in mathematics. Engelmann-style Direct Instruction programmes make use of choral responses. The key is to ensure that students feel relaxed enough to offer their answers without feeling threatened or motivated to copy from someone else. A clear structure that requires all responses at the same time also helps.

4. Explain why

We are often presented with a false choice between explicit instruction and ‘teaching for understanding’. Explicit teaching is characterised as ‘telling’. I find this odd because, to my mind, the most pivotal part of explicit teaching is explaining and I don’t view ‘telling’ and ‘explaining’ as the same thing at all. It might be just semantics but the idea of ‘telling’ implies to me that a teacher is simply showing students how to do something such as perform a mathematical procedure without explaining why.

This may happen in some classrooms. But I suspect it is due more to teachers not having a full grasp of the concepts themselves than to the mode of instruction.  I think that the qualities of a good explanation could be better researched but there is certainly plenty of evidence for their importance.

I think there are a number of issues which lead to this strange blindness to explanations. Firstly, if we teach a child a mathematical concept and then drill her in performing the procedure, it seems likely that she will retain knowledge of the procedure once she has forgotten the explanation. This might lead to the conclusion that the explanation was never taught. There is also an unhealthy focus on ensuring that conceptual understanding is always achieved before procedural fluency. This is particularly apparent in the U.S. and American researchers are highly influential across the world. Yet cross-cultural comparisons show that countries in the Far East, whilst still prioritising conceptual understanding, are much more relaxed about when it comes, seeing it as more of an iterative process.

This is an important point. Understanding is not a miraculous threshold that we cross once. It is a gradual, liminal accumulation and reordering of knowledge as the schema build in a student’s mind. This means that our explanations can be partial and provisional. For younger students we might want to explain the flip-and-multiply rule for fractions by giving a few concrete examples whereas older students might be shown an algebraic proof. It’s not a line. It doesn’t end.

5. Teach non-examples

I hadn’t held a clear view of this until I attended researchED Melbourne earlier this year and heard Kerry Hempenstall talk about Engelmann-style Direct Instruction. I have now bought a Kindle copy of “Theory of Instruction”, the book that Kerry referenced and I intend to make my way through this lengthy tome at some point.

In his discussion of non-examples, Hempenstall gave the example of teaching a new letter. He showed the letter in different fonts and colours and then showed an example of a different letter – a non-example. The idea was to instruct the students that it’s not this.

This seems like a good way to explore the space around a concept. What is this space and where does it end? What is definitely outside of this space? It links to the notion of key misconceptions and I am aware of the idea that many such misconceptions come from over-generalising or over-applying something that is true in a different situation.

So I have started to teach non-examples with more confidence. There seems to be an efficiency about closing down dead-ends before students ever venture down them. For instance, imagine you are teaching classic patterns problems (although I would actually quibble about the value of these kinds of questions but that’s another matter):

Patterns question

The key error many students will make is to state that the answer is n+2 because, in order to get from one term to the next, we need to add two. But this is not the answer to the question that is being asked. The second term contains 5 matches, not four.

Discussing this non-solution has another advantage in addition to efficiency. Once a student has arrived at n+2 for himself, he now has a stake in that answer. It is ego-involving. He may be less prepared to accept that it is wrong and may even remember formulating the answer without remembering that it was incorrect. Which leads neatly to my final point.

6. Teach for experience

If you ask many teachers what they are trying to achieve then they are likely to refer to the ideal of developing independent learners who can respond to novel situations or problems. We value the archetype of the student who is able to solve problems that she hasn’t seen before.

Yet the vast majority of problems that are solved in the world are figured out by people going, “I’ve seen something a bit like this before.” One goal of our instruction therefore has to be exposing students to as many different examples of a concept, problem or argument as we can manage. If a student enters an exam and thinks, “I know what this question is getting at,” then he has a huge advantage.

Tactics such as distributing practice and interleaving different kinds of examples are now relatively well known but I think we also need to select our examples with the express purpose of intentionally building these memories of different questions, problems and contexts.


12 thoughts on “Six tips to improve your explicit teaching

  1. I generally leave conceptual understanding to the end, after they can do it. And normally as an aside, if you understand this fine, if you don’t, don’t worry too much. If you tell them first why something works, then their brains are busy working on that when you try to go onto how to do the questions. Conceptual understanding is also often a level higher than how to do the questions and they often don’t get it anyway. And despite what the picture the progressives paint of kids eager to investigate, they’re often not that interested, they just want to be able to do the questions. I didn’t “understand” Trigonometry till after I’d done my Maths degree and been teaching for 5 years. I’ll never forget it. I went to the pub on a Friday night with my colleagues. Reached across for my pint and it suddenly popped into my head. I went “Oh yeah, that’s how Trigonometry works”.

    • I had the same kind of experience (dubbed ‘knowledge object’ by Noel Entwistle). During two school years I could not ‘understand’ analytical geometry; however, I was able to do the problems. After one day cramming for the exam, I suddenly ‘understood’. I was able to fluently handle every problem asked (I was interrogated). Got the highest grade. Lucky for me, I was not interrogated on trigonometry, I hated that subject and was not at all fluent in those formulas. I have forgotten my analytical geometry, not having used it ever after.

    • Bobby Dixon says:

      Wow! This was an eye opener for me. I’ve been teaching my students the traditional way and it’s wrong, but we are doing what we are told to do like we are robots. Everything is taught at the same time, the same lesson. There’s no room to do anything different. I guess we are robots.

  2. This is fantastic. Thank you.

    I like how you make a distinction between teaching by telling and teaching by explaining. It makes a lot of sense to me.

    I am still not convinced by ‘breaking it down’ but the weight of advocates for it makes me think there’s a good chance I’m wrong here.

    In terms of explaining a concept by giving examples of what it is and what it isn’t, I have started doing this recently and found it fantastic. My understanding of it is based on this simple post:

    One point I would make is that I would look to the judicious use of Multiple Choice Questions for whole school responses as opposed to thumbs up/ down:

    Best, Rufus

  3. Tend to agree with most, actually all, of this, Greg. I’m trying to also be more aware in my teaching of a couple of evidence-based elements of explanations that I think most science teachers tend to incorporate somewhat instinctively: concrete representations of abstract concepts (which I think is particularly important/obvious in science teaching) and the linking of verbal explanations with graphics (but I think we often need to simplify the diagrams in science, initially). I’m sure you will have come across these but anyway from the Pashler et al (2007) IES Practice Guide . I see non-examples when teachers are critiquing children’s work but rarely as an earlier part of a learning sequence. Best wishes.

  4. I think this is an excellent post. I would suggest slight modifications to 1 and 3 to make them even more powerful.

    1. “Break it down” the more expert you are the harder it will be to anticipate mistakes a beginning learner even if you break it down into the simplest of steps (as what is simple to you may not be simple to a beginner learner) so include some sort of checking question after your break down to see if you have to further break it down. Mazur style concepTests are far and away the best thing for this checking stage especially if you keep the correct answer to yourself until after the short peer discussion phase and then question again.

    3. Consider asking for whole-class responses

    Whole class responses can be made even more efficient if you use an open ended answer question first and then a multiple choice with the options based on the student responses to the open answer stage instead of true and false. This allows you to pick up misconceptions effortlessly and solves the expert problem. It has many other benefits as well.

    Very practical post!

  5. Queen's English says:

    Awesome post.

    “Understanding is not a miraculous threshold that we cross once. It is a gradual, liminal accumulation and reordering of knowledge as the schema build in a student’s mind.”

    Can you write another post with more detail about this? I’m very interested in this but not sure where to go to read more about it.

  6. Pingback: Direct instruction | Driffield School and Sixth Form Teaching and Learning Blog

  7. Pingback: My Most Influential Blogs – A Chemical Orthodoxy

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