Do you think it is possible for a person to communicate a concept to another person? So do I. In fact, it would be bizarre to suggest otherwise, right? Welcome to the world of education.
Lorraine Hammond recently wrote an excellent piece for The Conversation, explaining what ‘explicit instruction’ involves. This follows on from this week’s news about NAPLAN and the fact that in some areas where we are seeing improvements, explicit instruction has been identified as a possible cause.
In the comments on Hammond’s article, Scott Webster, Associate Professor of Education at Deakin University, wrote the following:
“When we delve into learning more deeply we find that, along with Dewey and Vygotsky, conceptual re-formation cannot occur due to explicit instruction simply because what is ‘explicit’ can only ever be ‘information’ and not conceptual ideals. Both Dewey and Vygotsky were highly critical of explicit and direct instruction.”
I do not know whether this accurately represents the views of Dewey and Vygotsky and it does not really matter. We can easily be drawn into endless exegesis of such writers, as I have discovered when writing about Dewey. No statement can be made that someone will not challenge as a misinterpretation and because they are no longer with us, we cannot check with the source. So be it.
The point I would ask is why we would rely on scripture in the first place? How do we know that Dewey’s or Vygotsky’s views are correct? I know Vygotsky did some experimental work, but we should be able to point to far more than this as the basis for claims about education, particularly ones that fly in the face of common sense. Are we really supposed to believe that only ‘information’ can be explicitly taught and not concepts? If this were true, we should be able to point to a wide body of experimental evidence that shows that, for example, students cannot transfer their learning to novel situations unless they discover the concepts for themselves. I am aware of no such body of evidence.
Webster also tries to draw a distinction between ‘learning’ and ‘education’ in some manner that is not entirely clear. Later, he states that he is concerned about ‘indoctrination’ and links explicit instruction to ‘training people to be indoctrinated’. Invoking Godwin’s law, he suggests that in the 1930s, ‘the country with the lowest rates of ill-literacy at this time was Nazi Germany.’
So the problem with teaching kids phonics or their times-tables or the order of the planets in the solar system is that it all ends with Nazi Germany.
Yet explicit teaching has vastly more evidence to support its use than any of the commonly promoted alternatives such as inquiry learning. Perhaps this is why some academics feel the need to turn away from the evidence. Maybe it is a kind of performative peacock’s tail – the more you can deny reality, the greater your commitment to the cause?
In a sense, it doesn’t matter, it just reconfirms my view that teachers need to take control of education.