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.