What is explicit instruction?

Embed from Getty Images

When I write about ‘explicit instruction’ I mean something quite specific. It is the set of practices that emerged from the process-product research of the 1960s and 1970s. Briefly, researchers visited classrooms, recorded various teacher behaviours and then looked for correlations between those behaviours and students’ academic gains.

Thomas Good and Jere Brophy worked hard to collate these findings but probably the most elegant summary comes from Barak Rosenshine in an article for American Educator that I often link to and that I strongly recommend.

The experimentalists amongst you will note that this model emerged out of epidemiological research – a set of correlations – rather than from experiments. This is true. But, as Rosenshine points out, it has since been verified in a range of different contexts.


Rosenshine has written a separate piece that helps explain why I prefer the term ‘explicit instruction’ to ‘direct instruction’. The latter term is ambiguous, with Rosenshine identifying five different meanings.

One meaning of ‘direct instruction’ is any form of teacher-led instruction, whether it uses the practices identified in the process-product research or not. Another use of ‘direct instruction’ is pejorative where it is portrayed as a harsh, authoritarian system or as lecturing.

Explicit instruction is clearly not lecturing because it is highly interactive. Rosenshine suggests asking lots of questions. This serves two purposes. Firstly, students will pay attention if they think they might be called upon to contribute at any time. Secondly, teachers suffer from the ‘curse of knowledge‘, a cognitive bias that makes us assume that students understand more than they do. By constantly asking questions, we are forced to backtrack and re-explain concepts that they haven’t grasped. It essentially provides real-time feedback on our performance.

I would also add that, in a supportive explicit setting, students are more likely to ask their own questions of the teacher, providing additional, powerful feedback.

Whole system

Explicit instruction, in the way that I have defined it, is a whole system. It follows the ‘I do, we do, you do’ model with the ‘you do’ part ranging from a close replication of what the teacher has just done to tackling ill-defined tasks by selecting and applying the strategies the teacher has taught. The defining feature is that canonical methods are fully explained and modelled to students before they attempt to put them into practice themselves. Yet this doesn’t mean that this is the only phase in the process.

When people assert that a particular model of inquiry learning includes some ‘explicit instruction’, they are not using this term in the same way that I am. They must mean a bit of just-in-time lecturing. It’s worth pointing out that ‘inquiry learning featuring a bit of lecturing’ did not emerge out of the process-product research as a highly effective approach.

This also highlights the vast difference in overall levels of guidance between explicit instruction and inquiry learning. Teaching explicitly forces us to confront the curse of knowledge and break things down even more than we might initially think necessary whereas inquiry requires us to leave out some guidance from the outset. The two approach therefore diverge significantly and this is the reason why inquiry is less effective.

A range of objectives

Despite what some may claim, I am aware of no evidence that explicit instruction is good for the recall of basic facts but that some alternative is needed to reach more highfalutin goals.

I teach VCE physics and maths. Both of these subjects have state-set exams and these exams always include some questions that are different in form to those that have come before. This means that I have to teach for transfer. The way I attempt to do this is to get students to master skills and procedures before exposing them to a range of increasingly varied and complex problems – a classic explicit instruction approach.

I have also worked a little with English teachers. The challenge here is to identify the component parts because everyone is focused on the final complex task; the essay. But those components exist; knowledge and understanding of a text, the construction of topic sentences, analysis as opposed to summary and so on.

Is explicit instruction ‘traditional’?

Traditional approaches to education are teacher-led. This is probably biologically primary; the natural way to teach. Humans have presumably been instructing each other since the advent of language.

However, explicit instruction is a particularly effective form of teacher-led instruction. Left to our own devices, we might not replicate all of its features.

I think this leads to an important conclusion. If teachers want to become more effective then explicit instruction is a way to do this that works with the grain. It is going to be easier to adopt than some revolutionary teaching method that probably isn’t very effective anyway.


44 thoughts on “What is explicit instruction?

  1. ..and then follow the explicit instruction up with plenty of retrieval practice for the vocab, concepts and procedures used. Explicit help for the students to remember them. Also worth mentioning that another specific meaning for direct instruction is Englemann’s methods from Project Follow through, which I think is what Hattie is using when he ranks it on his scale of effect sizes.

  2. You continue to make assertions that you you do not support with evidence. Re:” When people assert that a particular model of inquiry includes some explicit instruction, they are not using this term in the same way I am. they must mean a bit of just -in -time lecturing.” Really? What an arrogant, unsupported assumption. To whom how many have you spoken with about their meaning and application of the term inquiry? I have used a model/ framework of teaching that included different levels of inquiry, as described by the NSTA, out of the U.S., as well as explicit instruction, as described by you. I have never used just ” a bit of just-in-time lecturing”. I have, however, often used just-in-time explicit instruction, sometimes before an inquiry segment, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes afterwards, depending on a range of factors and through using my teacher judgment , always keeping my goal of deep, coherent understanding of the target concepts and skills as my guide.

    • Stan says:

      If Greg had been more careful here and just written: in my reading of and discussion with proponents of inquiry based learning I find that when people…” would you have been okay with this posting?

      I think Greg is trying to say the explicit/inquiry dichotomy is not just something you can mix up in small segments of one or the other. In his definition of the explicit approach it forms the basis for which you would decide how to mix explaining and asking. Also, in his definition of explicit instruction you would not leave out key information that in inquiry based teaching you would deliberately leave out.

    • I am sorry that you are offended but the basic point stands: anyone who says they do some ‘explicit instruction’ as part of inquiry learning is using the term in a different way to me. And it’s my definition that has its roots in process-product research.

      • You claim that your point that “anyone who says they do some ”explicit instruction’ as part of inquiry learning is using the term different to me”, still stands, but my challenge to that point also still stands: what evidence do you have to back your point up? You could validly claim that anyone you have talked with or read about is using the term differently to you, because you could have clarified it with them in conversation, or in their writing; however, you offer no support for the claim than ‘anyone’ who uses the term ‘explicit instruction’ is using it differently than you. That is your opinion, and I say it is unfounded.

      • If they claim to be using explicit instruction as part of inquiry learning then they are using that term differently to me because explicit instruction is a whole system as described above.

  3. Stan says:

    Greg one complaint heard about explicit instruction or non-inquiry approaches in general is that they teach everything by memory rather than by achieving a deep understanding.

    I know you present links to evidence that shows the contrary but it is also interesting to know how this works in the teaching method.

    For me it is easier to think of a math example than a physics one. In math you might explain with examples how geometric proofs work but you would not explicitly show every proof. At some point students are asked to find a proof they have not been explicitly shown but what they are being asked to prove would still be explicitly given. I use this example as in general there is no formulaic way to find a proof.

    I think it would be interesting to hear what sorts of physics problems you expect students to do where the specific solution would not be explicitly taught.

    • The definition of learning that I use is Paul Kirschner’s: a change in long term memory. Therefore, I see no distinction between ‘teaching by memory’ and some other kind of teaching because all teaching has to be ‘by memory’. ‘Understanding’ is a red herring because it’s not qualitatively different to knowledge. Knowledge is what understanding is made from. When students approach a new type of problem then they apply what they know to it. I suggest ensuring that they know as much as possible by this stage.

      • Stan says:

        Someone could say that there are different types of knowing. For example I could know all the information about riding a bike but be unable to ride a bike. Being able to ride a bike involves parts of my nervous system memorizing responses that I cannot describe so that someone else has them.

        The distinction here is that we can memorize the facts about riding a bike by reading and reciting them. But we can only learn to ride a bike by practicing riding one.

        Is the same type of memorized skill is involved in solving certain types problems or say writing an essay. Just as with riding a bike the skill is easily measured so this is not some vague idea such as depth of understanding.

        Saying its all memory seems to miss that some types of memorization work differently from others. To memorize how to write a good essay you need both transferable knowledge on language and essay structure but you also need whatever it is you come to know when you practice writing. You could not become good at writing just by memorizing what you read about it.

      • You are distinguishing between declarative and procedural knowledge. Having recently taught my girls to ride a bicycle, I can confirm that I did explain to them how to do it. Similarly, writing consists of sub skills that can be taught. It’s just that, over time, these skills become automatised. There are some skills that don’t benefit from explicit instruction but these are biologically primary skills which we have evolved to acquire through immersion.

      • Stan says:

        Greg, I am not suggesting that there is nothing in riding a bike that can’t be explicitly taught. (In my turn to teach it I used demo of a bike staying vertical with no rider when sent down a gentle slope and developed my sons coordination with pedaling and steering with training wheels before expecting him to put it all together.)

        But the focus on the word instruction in the term explicit instruction gets in the way of discussing how to develop the automaticity that is a requirement for competence whether biking or writing. You can’t instruct someone to automate their knowledge. They have to do the thing on their own.

      • I don’t see the tension that you are suggesting. If you read the post above, you will see that explicit instruction includes lots of practice. You tell students what to do and they practice it. I’d be interested to know what actions are required in solving maths problems or writing essays that cannot be explicitly taught.

      • Stan says:

        I checked the post again. It does mention students practicing but doesn’t say how much this is in relation to the total time spent.

        My point is mainly that if you were trying to sell a patented teaching method that involved the sort of instruction you describe and lots of practice you should probably avoid calling it explicit instruction. This name leaves it open for misinterpretation.

        If explicit teaching always involves lots of practice then no I can’t think of anything known that can’t be taught this way. I just think that given the phrase explicit instruction is normally used, not explicit teaching, it would be helpful to describe how practice is involved in more detail.

  4. Pingback: Understanding the PISA 2015 findings about science teaching | Filling the pail

  5. Pingback: Struggling at mathematics  | Filling the pail

  6. madeupteacher says:

    What I understand to be explicit teaching.

    I once watched a pair of ‘practitioners’ giggling at a young child covered in sellotape.They were making a lot of notes and thought it was hilarious.
    The child had been trying to make a rocket for some time without success and had ended up covered in sellotape. “She will work it out soon and then she won’t forget how to do it because she will have worked it out herself….” Explained the practitioner, still laughing.
    I approached the child and asked if she needed help. She said yes. I showed her how to use the tape and the serrated edge. I explained how she could leave bits of tape on the side of the desk to use later. The child was visibly relieved.
    I returned to the ‘practitioners’ and explained that that is what I thought teaching was all about.
    I did despair a little at that point in my career .

  7. Pingback: Inquiry-based learning predicts charter school failure | Filling the pail

  8. Pingback: How to improve teaching | Filling the pail

  9. Pingback: Four ways cognitive load theory has changed my teaching | Filling the pail

  10. Pingback: 7 tools for thinking about education | Filling the pail

  11. Dragan says:

    “Having recently taught my girls to ride a bicycle, I can confirm that I did explain to them how to do it.”

    I keep abreast of motor skill learning literature, and I have never seen this claim before. It is broadly believed that one cannot “explain” how to ride a bike (or how to keep balance while skiing, or swim, etc.).

    Greg, could you clarify this statement? Are you saying that you verbally told (explained) your daughters how to ride a bike, and — thanks to this explanation — they were able to ride a bike? Or are you saying that you gave them some instructions, and then they worked at it until they figured out how to remain balanced? In the latter case, it seems odd to say that you “explained” it.

  12. Pingback: Teaching and learning– what actually works? | Reflections of a science teacher…

  13. Pingback: Reduce maths anxiety with explicit teaching | Filling the pail

  14. Pingback: The Learning Sciences: Two Perspectives | Getting Smart

  15. Pingback: Alphabetical Signposts To Teacher Excellence – E – Teach innovate reflect

  16. Pingback: #BecauseESOL | Sam Shepherd

  17. Pingback: #CogSciSci – an introduction – A Chemical Orthodoxy

  18. Pingback: Balancing Equations, a ‘Live Drawing’ Approach – RSC Ed Tech Group

  19. Pingback: A million hits… – Filling the pail

  20. Pingback: Personalized Learning Is a Distraction: Intentional and Effective Uses of Technology in the Classroom – Mr. G Mpls

  21. Pingback: Personalized Learning Is a Distraction: Intentional and Effective Uses of Technology in the Classroom | Citizen Ed

  22. Pingback: What is explicit instruction? – Being and becoming a Headteacher

  23. Pingback: Explicit teaching for all – Filling the pail

  24. Pingback: Teaching methods still matter – Filling the pail

  25. Pingback: Matthew Oldridge: Playing dice with our children’s futures – Filling the pail

  26. Pingback: The mathematics curriculum that is taking a parent to court – Filling the pail

  27. Pingback: Pedagogy: Changing Minds Changing Lives | TeachingScience

  28. Pingback: Has a new study just proved that students like explicit teaching but it’s ineffective? – Filling the pail

  29. Pingback: It’s what effective teachers do – Filling the pail

  30. Pingback: So you want to know how to teach reading? – John Kenny Blog

  31. Pingback: Welcome | Filling the pail

  32. Pingback: Explicit teaching – what’s in a name? | Filling the pail

  33. Pingback: Conceptual Understanding | Filling the pail

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.