When you think about it for more than thirty seconds, it is pretty obvious that explicitly teaching children how to do something is better than asking them to figure out all or part of it by themselves. This is precisely the approach that we use when safety is at stake such as when we teach kids to swim or cross the road. Indeed, the entire evolution of language and culture blows raspberries at the figuring-it-out-for-yourself hypothesis.
The fact that a turn towards explicit teaching has been linked to improvements in reading for children in Western Australia and for children from indigenous backgrounds is hardly surprising. The only puzzling part is why we ever turned away from it in the first place.
Unfortunately, in education, we have to constantly push this boulder uphill.
At the recent DSF ‘Language, Literacy and Learning’ conference in Perth, I met many like-minded people. It is a rare jewel of an education conference that takes an unashamedly evidence-informed approach. From the delegates, you sense both the relief at being intellectually at home and a sense of frustration that the wider educational currents are pulling in an entirely different direction. We know that schools need to focus on rigorous, structured explicit programmes to teach reading, mathematics and subject knowledge more generally. Unfortunately, they want to waffle vaguely about 21st century skills, mindfulness or whatever the latest fashion happens to be.
I found myself in a few discussions about this conundrum – a kind of Dunning-Kruger effect writ large where direction is set by those who apparently posses the smallest amount of relevant knowledge – and I pointed to a key problem. DSF is short for the ‘Dyslexia-SPELD Foundation’ of Western Australia. SPELD, in turn, is short for ‘SPEcific Learning Difficulties’. Despite our ideological adversaries claims to inclusiveness, this allows a certain amount of othering to go on. Explicit teaching may be appropriate for those other kinds of kids with special educational needs, they may concede, but regular, normal kids don’t need it.
We see this attitude displayed when a school with an unsystematic approach to early reading grabs for a systematic synthetic phonics programme to use with the students it fails. We also see this in universities where, I understand, the education faculty and the special education faculty often have little to do with each other, with the latter sometimes taking in refugees from the former.
In a way, this makes a kind of sense.
It was Snow and Juel who, in 2005, pointed out that ‘Explicit teaching of alphabetic decoding skills is helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some’. Yes, some children will learn to read without explicit teaching, but there is no advantage to this and it probably takes longer and embeds a few misconceptions along the way. However, without explicit teaching, some children will really struggle. The evidence from education research and educational psychology strongly suggests that you could extend Snow and Juel’s statement to include explicit teaching of all academic content.
However, the fact that the alternatives to explicit teaching are most harmful to those who have learning difficulties has the corollary that advantaged children who have more resources to draw upon are harmed the least. This may explain why implicit teaching methods are often most celebrated by schools who teach advantaged children. Advantage masks the shortcomings.
A university’s education faculty may be able to pursue its obscure sociological agendas because it has cut loose the kids that most clearly demonstrate the inadequacies of its methods.
Explicit teaching is not lecturing. It is not a one-way presentation. When I started teaching, I couldn’t make the alternatives work and so I used a form of explicit teaching that I developed for myself from observations and experience. It was not optimal. I wish I had known then about what the research actually showed and I am going to do everything I can to make sure that this knowledge is available to future generations of teachers.