It’s what effective teachers do

Embed from Getty Images

My most popular post of all time is my rough description of what I mean by explicit teaching. This fact bothers me a little because if I had known that it would become so popular, I might have spent a little more time constructing it. Nevertheless, the bones of a definition are there: what it is and what it is not. It is a whole system that moves through ‘I do’ to ‘we do’ to ‘you do’ and it is interactive. By this definition, lecturing is not explicit teaching. By this definition, a little bit of teacher explanation in the middle of an episode of inquiry learning is not ‘explicit teaching’ because it is an episode rather than a process.

In the post, I reference Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction as a source. In pretty much every other article he has written on the subject, Rosenshine calls this approach, ‘direct instruction’. Yet perhaps due to his own misgivings about the number of different interpretations there are of ‘direct instruction’, he leaves the approach unnamed in Principles of Instruction.

It is important to recognise where Rosenshine’s principles come from. He did not make them up. Although aspects of them have been more-or-less confirmed by experimental evidence (such as the use of worked examples), Rosenshine’s principles originate in process-product research conducted largely in the 1950s-1970s. This research was correlational in nature. Researchers observed classrooms, made notes about different aspects of teacher behaviour and then sought to correlate these behaviours with gains in learning made by students. Rosenshine’s principles therefore reflect what it was that the most effective teachers were doing in these classrooms.

Rosenshine is not a lone prophet of explicit teaching. Thomas Good and Jere Brophy reviewed the same body of research and described these teaching behaviours as ‘active teaching’:

“Students achieve more in classes where they spend most of their time being taught or supervised by their teachers rather than working on their own (or not working at all). These classes include frequent lessons (whole class or small group, depending on grade level and subject matter) in which the teacher presents information and develops concepts through lecture and demonstration, elaborates this information in the feedback given following responses to recitation or discussion questions, prepares the students for follow up seatwork activities by giving instructions and going through practice examples, monitors progress on assignments after releasing the students to work independently, and follows up with appropriate feedback and reteaching when necessary. The teacher carries the content to the students personally rather than depending on the curriculum materials to do so, but conveys information mostly in brief presentations followed by recitation or application opportunities. There is a great deal of teacher talk, but most of it is academic rather than procedural or managerial, and much of it involves asking questions and giving feedback rather than extended lecturing.”

Why am I making this point?

I often find that research that supposedly shows the superiority of problem-based learning or inquiry learning over direct instruction compares these approaches to a form of direct instruction that would not meet my definition of explicit teaching. In a recent series of randomised controlled trials, for example, the direct instruction condition was described like this:

“In traditional classrooms, students copy facts about bone tissues and the names of the 206 bones of the human skeleton that teachers have written on the blackboard into notebooks. They are then tested based on the lectures and material that they have read in textbooks.”

There are other problems with this trial. Even with the low quality comparison condition, the effects of problem-based learning are quite low and the authors do a weird thing where they measure the effect after seven months but then extrapolate that to generate an effect size after four years. This seems to neglect the well-known phenomenon of the effects of teaching interventions washing out over time. If problem-based learning is essentially acting as a placebo then we have no reason to believe there will be sustained effects. Nevertheless, Forbes breathlessly reported this trial as, “New, Strong Evidence For Problem-Based Learning.” It’s not. But I digress.

I think some people wonder whether I am changing the rules to suit my argument. When I point out that explicit teaching is interactive or that it is a whole process and then use this to argue that the control condition in a particular trial is not explicit teaching, I wonder whether some people think I am playing a trick and making up the definition of explicit teaching to suit my argument.

It is therefore worth remembering that I did not make it up. It’s what effective teachers have been doing since at least the 1950s.


9 thoughts on “It’s what effective teachers do

  1. Alice Flarend says:

    “When I point out that explicit teaching is interactive or that it is a whole process and then use this to argue that the control condition in a particular trial is not… ”
    I can see this argument because it is the same argument I want to make when I hear people talk about inquiry as just letting students figure out everything without any structure. It is also a process and has structure.
    I think both you and I come from a physics background. The definitions there are more straight forward and agreed upon. When I was working on my nuclear engineering doctorate, there was no discussion that my first chapter would be about what interpretation of the definition of high level nuclear waste I would use.
    Decades later, the first chapter of my education PhD includes an extended discussion of cognitive vs sociocultural views and which lens I was going to use to view the behavior of my teachers in order to interpret their learning and opportunities to learn.
    Definitions must be made clear and delineate boundaries. Then a useful discussion can occur.

    • Pure discovery learning is such a disaster that I suspect it is rare in schools. I am prepared to accept that most forms of real-life inquiry learning involve guidance. However, that doesn’t really change anything.

      The key difference between inquiry learning and explicit teaching is in the initial phase of teaching a new concept. Inquiry learning takes a full explanation and takes something away from it. Explicit teaching takes a full explanation and adds something to it: even more structure.

      If the goal is to learn something like a simple list of words or if the learners are already expert in the material then there is evidence that the inquiry approach is effective. However, I would suggest this is rare in schools, although the latter condition may be met in later phases of learning after initial teaching and practice of the concept.

      What advocates of inquiry learning have failed to really answer is this: if some guidance is better than none, why not full guidance from the outset? What advantages can be demonstrated from taking something, however big or small, away from a full explanation of a concept?

      • Alice Flarend says:

        1) a full explanation is never that. Students come with a variety of preconceptions that they, and the teacher, are not even aware of. Guided inquiry can root out those ideas and make the teacher and student aware of them to use in building lessons. Conceptual change research addresses the need to be aware of your ideas before you can change them.

        2) students will have to learn things on their own for the rest of their lives. Practicing intellectual risk taking is beneficial. We both have had students who just want to parrot back what we say and not think any deeper. They need to think deeper. I want them to question.

        3) students gain expertise in experimental work in a situation where the exact steps are not spelled out for them. They manipulate equipment and variables. As a teacher, I guide them in this, but I also allow them to make mistakes, which are then corrected, but the mistakes address their incorrect understandings in an effective way.

        I suspect we are close on this that it seems. Inquiry and direct instruction both involve getting kids actively thinking. The labels get in the way. For me, inquiry can be setting up an initial phenomenon for students to puzzle over as they try to develop an explanation. The student and I can then see their initial ideas and I can use them to address the concept in class. I then have them form an explanation after I think they have a sufficient grasp of a concept. This is an assessment for the teacher and a logical step for the students.
        Inquiry can also be determining which variable affect the period of a pendulum of the amount of friction. Inquiry can be finding patterns in the different types of projectile motion scenarios.

  2. Trent says:

    Thanks for explaining this further! Are there any good books on the subject that you know of (preferably with examples for specific subjects)?

  3. I have always thought enquiry learning was analogous to re-inventing the wheel. Alice’s explanation is interesting, but why would you try to get students to work out what is already known? There is no evidence that supports learning in this way having better outcomes than explicit teaching, indeed a lot of evidence to the contrary. And this sort of enquiry learning works badly with the humanities. In those subjects enquiry based learning is very liable to result in some students gaining a great deal and others learning virtually nothing. Enquiry learning embeds the advantages of middle class children over less advantaged children. Explicit teaching gives all of them the knowledge they need and the ability to use it effectively – and enjoy it, too.

    • Alice Flarend says:

      My experience and knowledge of the research base is solely in science teaching so I cannot respond about the role of inquiry in the humanities.
      Part of learning science is to learn the role evidence plays in the advancement of science. Therefore, getting students to work out what is already known is part of learning science. Explicit teaching does not give all students the knowledge they need if they have not grappled with whether they have evidence for their conclusion. Also, while much is science is intuitive to nonscientists, must is also counter-intuitive. Inquiry can build a more scientifically correct intuition.
      There is research addressing the power structure of middle or upper class students over less advantaged ones. Teaching can address this gap if it allows students to increase their ability to communicate their ideas in both their natural language and school language. Both must be addressed. Inquiry or explicit teaching can both do this.

  4. I have no problem with students working out what they already know. I do not see how explicit teaching can avoid giving students evidence for scientific conclusions, however. Asking novices to work out conclusions for scientific concepts leaves them somewhat at sea – and many may not actually understand the concepts they have investigated. They are not scientists, they do not have the basis of knowledge to act as if they are, any more than school students have the expertise to come to decisions on the causes Henrician reformation or the reasons for the Civil War between Charles I and Parliament. They don’t have enough knowledge to do these things – they need explicit explanation.

    • Flarend Alice says:

      It appears you are equating what I am advocating for with pure discovery, which I am definitely not. Students can, however, gather evidence from practical work or from a data set. For example, students can determine the Law of refraction based on the angle of incoming light and on the speed of light through materials with some simple measurements and data given to them. What I am advocating for is to form the habit of using evidence to draw conclusions.
      As far as your historical example, I am assuming the students have already studied about the time period including the economics and religious concerns. They could figure out some possible causes of conflict. They can come up with many wrong ones, especially given their modern social lens, but that is another opportunity for additional evidence. Again, it is not like turning students to the topic out of the blue or having use inquiry fo everything.

Leave a Reply

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

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

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter 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.