What is explicit instruction?Posted: March 15, 2017
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.
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.