How to improve teaching

You might be wondering about the following question: Why do I expend so much effort evangelising about explicit instruction and criticising the ideology of progressive education when most teachers use explicit forms of teaching most of the time? I’m not sure I entirely accept the premise. In some schools and sectors, implicit teaching (e.g. ‘balanced’ literacy) plays a large role. However, I would concede that there is an awful lot of explicit teaching out there and this is for a good reason – the alternatives are unwieldy, impractical and lead to worse results.

So what’s my problem?

Progressive education ideology is about more than just teaching methods

I am currently in the process of completing physics coursework with my Year 12 students. The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) is our exam board and they have made it compulsory for my students to design and complete an investigation themselves which they must then present as a poster. As relative novices, this is an educationally vacuous task. Where does it originate? Progressive ideology.

And that is just one example of how bad ideas hamper effective teaching. In my recent blog post on progressivism, I listed many more; the Australian Curriculum, L3 in New South Wales, the framing of discussions about student behaviour and so on.

Default explicit teaching is not research-informed explicit instruction

It is wrong to assume that any kind of teacher-led instruction is what I mean by ‘explicit instruction’. In my experience, default teaching can suffer from a number of problems. For instance, the teacher might be engaging with only a few of the students in the class, allowing others to effectively opt out. This will be related to the teacher not collecting information about what students know and can do. This ‘formative assessment’ is vital to teacher decision making – does a concept need to be reexplained? Without this feedback, teachers are biased to assume that students understand more than they do.

Effective explicit instruction breaks ideas into small, digestible components. One component is presented and the students practice this before moving to the next one. Gradually, components are brought together into larger units. Teachers with little experience of the process may find it hard to identify these components and so their presentation will tend to range over a number of components at the same time before students move into a practice phase. Important points will be left unsaid and students will be required to make inferences which some will fail to do.

There are teaching schemes that are specially designed to apply these principles and avoid student misunderstanding but they are unpopular and so are not widely used. Instead, most teachers are improvising their own programmes and so these ideas are critical.

Up the garden path

Plenty of teachers are aware of the shortcomings of their own teaching but when they look for advice on how to improve they are led into fantasy lands of constructivism or ‘deeper’ learning or pedagogies based upon political ideologies rather than science. This is the greatest concern. The fact that progressivism is the dominant ideology in our schools of education makes it hard for them to pass on knowledge of how to make explicit instruction more effective.

That’s why it is up to us. Teachers need to take charge themselves. Let’s professionalise. Let’s pass on the knowledge that has been hidden from us. Let us learn from each other.

Together, we can improve teaching.

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5 Comments on “How to improve teaching”

  1. Ian Fillingham says:

    Do you have any ideas for explicit (or direct) instruction when teaching GCSE Biology? I can see how it works with physics and chemistry (and have used it), but I’m a bit stuck when it comes to biology even though I’m a biology teacher.

  2. Iain Murphy says:

    I think you need to strengthen your argument with respect to the year 12 – create your own experiment. Yes, it is probably based in progressive ideology but that doesn’t mean the explicit teaching model can’t be applied to it. It does require thinking beyond the year 12 classroom.

    Some assumptions/points on the task
    1. Students have studied Science for 6+ years by this point, when are they going to be considered more than novice?
    2. That no one else can teach the skills required to undertake this task. We start on experiment posters using the year 12 models in year 9. We set the experiment so the chances of good results improve. This gives our students years of practice. I know not all schools do this, but why not?
    3. The Australian Curriculum has students discussing variables (independent, dependent and controlled) from Year 7, so which skills haven’t they developed? Maybe as science teachers we need better avenues to assess their understanding of these concepts and feedback to future teachers.
    4. Shouldn’t year 12 the last year of secondary education be more than regurgitating facts, what form of assessment would replace the experimental poster in its current state.
    5. Creativity isn’t the same as progressive. It just creates messy real world results that might require some level of understanding to work with, surely this is the fun part of being a science teacher

    Just my thoughts, I agree it can be a bad task, but it doesn’t have to be.


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