Is Explicit Instruction the Right Approach?

Let’s start by defining ‘explicit instruction’ as highly structured, interactive teaching where students are explicitly taught everything that they need before being asked to apply it in gradually wider and freer contexts. It can also be understood as the I-We-You model where responsibility is gradually shifted from teacher to student. In even simpler terms: tell them stuff, ask them questions about it and ask them to apply it.

To some, this approach can seem ill-suited to the more complex, higher-order aspects of learning (in English, these are the things like creative writing, essay writing and textual analysis) and it may seem that explicit instruction is more suited to the teaching of basic, fundamental concepts and skills like sentence constructions or vocabulary. There is a certain allure to this mode of thinking: the restrictive nature of explicit instruction seems to clang against the desired features of freer and open-ended tasks. We want students to write with flair, to make perceptive and nuanced arguments and to craft beautiful, creative pieces of work that shimmer with originality and imaginative ideas. Will excessive structure stifle this process? Is explicit instruction the wrong approach here? Should we instead adopt a less structured approach that is more aligned with discovery and inquiry?

I would argue that we are making a form of category error here. The nature of the task or content should not be the determining factor as to which broad instructional approach to use; instead, we should choose our instructional approach based upon the level of expertise of the student.

Let’s look at some evidence in support of the idea that explicit instruction is entirely suitable for complex, higher-order tasks:

Process-Product Research

In the 1970s, researchers set out to ascertain what it was that made teachers effective. They visited classrooms in an attempt to draw correlations between the teacher’s actions and the resulting academic outcomes. The findings were collated by Brophy and Good in this paper and the now ubiquitous Principles of Instruction is perhaps the most famous summary of this research. The ‘Principles of Instruction’ are seen by many as a list of common, explicit teaching strategies. When summing up their findings towards the end of the paper, Brophy and Good explain:

‘At least two common themes cut across the findings, despite the need for limitations and qualifications. One is that academic learning is influenced by the amount of time that students spend engaged in appropriate academic tasks.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we should consistently deliver efficient lessons where students spend maximal time thinking about content. Open ended group work can make this difficult to achieve as the potential for-off task behaviour is greater than classic whole class teaching.

The second is that students learn more efficiently when their teachers first structure new information for them and then help them relate it to what they already know, then monitor performance and provide corrective feedback during recitation, drill, practice or application activities.

This statement seems to implicitly describe how to ensure students engage in Fiorelli and Mayer’s three stages of cognitive processing from Learning as a Generative Activity:

  1. Select information to attend to.
  2. Organise the material into a coherent cognitive structure in working memory
  3. Integrating it with relevant prior knowledge activated from long term memory

In the absence of explicit instruction, a possible concern is that students will fail to ‘select’ the correct information, effectively precluding them from engaging in the second two elements of cognitive processing.

Brophy and Good then continue:

‘For a time, these generalisations seemed confined to the early grades or to basic rather than more advanced skills. However, it now appears that they apply to any body of knowledge or set of skills that has sufficiently well organized and analysed so that it can be presented (explained, modelled) systematically and then practiced or applied during activities that call for student performance that can be evaluated for quality and (when incorrect or imperfect) given corrective feedback.’

So can explicit instruction be used to teach creative writing or analytical essays? If the statement above is to be believed, then yes it can. Extended writing can be explained, modelled and practiced; it can also be evaluated and feedback can be given. In fact, I’m struggling to think of a skill-whether complex or not-that falls outside of this description. Is this because the description is so wide and vague that it is meaningless? Perhaps it is because ‘explicit instruction’ includes so many broad principles, many of which would also be claimed by pedagogical approaches that see themselves in opposition to this school of thought. Perhaps when we say ‘explicit instruction’, it is understood by some in the pejorative sense of being a robotic and excessively didactic approach, instead of an approach that contains many elements of ‘common sense teaching’ and things that most good teachers probably do, whether they proudly label their practice with a specific pedagogical flavour or swear no allegiance to a particular school of thought? All of these questions are worth asking: concepts in education can be nebulous and professionals often seem to be talking past each other, lost in a fog of indeterminate signifiers.

Despite the conceptual wooliness and obvious overlap between supposedly separate pedagogical approaches, the issue remains that the complexity of the task should not be the defining consideration when choosing an instructional approach. If instead, we accept that an instructional approach should be chosen based upon the level of expertise of the learner, then explicit instruction is suitable for teaching complex tasks like extended writing.

Research into Cognitive Strategies

Successful extended writing is difficult to define and proficiency will take many guises. An essay will be made up of many different sub-components that, when coherently combined, will result in the perceived proficiency of the final piece. Added to this, judgements of quality will be inherently subjective; after all, the aesthetic and personal nature of writing is what makes it interesting and enjoyable. So does this mean that we cannot explicitly teach extended writing? If there are myriad ways of writing a good essay, then how are we to help students get better at this important skill?

One solution is through ‘cognitive strategies’

In The Use of Scaffolds for Teaching Higher-Level Cognitive Strategies’, cognitive strategies are defined as being  ‘more like supports or suggestions than actual step-by-step directives.’

Here’s a summary of how to teach these:

These suggestions share many of the conceptions mentioned by Brophy and Good (modelling, practice etc), and this is unsurprising given the fact that cognitive strategies research is one of the three sources of research that underpin Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. You will notice that independent practice is the final stage here, preceded by a gradual shift from teacher to student, and through a clear process of backwards fading, from models to completion problems to the removal of all support when they finally do it for themselves. Again, this is I-We-You.

In the final section of ‘‘The Use of Scaffolds for Teaching Higher-Level Cognitive Strategies’, Rosenshine and Meister explain:

‘Such concepts as modelling, thinking aloud, using cue cards, anticipating errors, and providing expert models, can also be applied to the teaching of well-structured skills’

So cognitive strategies can be used for both basic and more complex skills, lending further support to the idea that the type of content should not be the determining factor in choosing between direct instruction or inquiry methods.

They then continue:

‘This suggests that instead of a dichotomy, there is a continuum from well-structured, explicit skills to cognitive strategies. At all points in the continuum, some instructional practices, such as presenting information in small steps and providing guided practice, are important. Yet, as one moves from well-structured skills to cognitive strategies, the value of providing students with scaffolds-models, concrete prompts, think-alouds, simplified problems, suggestions and hints-increases.

 ‘The tools that we refer to as scaffolds are at a middle level of specificity. That is they provide support for the student, but they do not specify each and every step to be taken. There is something appealing about this middle level. It lies somewhere beteween the specificity of behavioural objectives that seemed overly demanding to some, and the lack of instruction that many criticized in discovery learning settings. Perhaps it is the beginning of a new synthesis.

And this is where we return to the problem of fuzzy concepts and talking past each other. For those who see direct/explicit instruction as being ‘behavioural objectives that seemed overly demanding’, scaffolding will probably still feature in their practice; equally, for those who see ‘the lack of instruction’ in ‘discovery learning’ as a problem, scaffolding will also almost certainly be a strategy that they use.

Cognitive Load Theory

According to Clark et al, ‘prior knowledge is the one individual difference that has been consistently shown to interact with different instructional methods’. The ‘Worked Example Effect’ and the ‘Expertise Reversal Effect’ would point to the fact that, irrespective of whether the content is simple or ill-structured, novice learners would benefit more from studying worked examples whereas experts would be better attempting to apply their knowledge by solving problems. Sweller et al maintain that ‘we should provide learners with as much relevant information as we are able’  and that ‘assisting learners to obtain needed information during problem solving should be beneficial’ as well as positing that ‘Providing them with that information directly and explicitly should be even more beneficial.’, statements that seem like explicit teaching to me!

So where does this leave us?

Instructional choices should be made based upon the expertise of the student, expertise here referring to their level of prior knowledge:

There is an important addition though. Prior knowledge here should not, however, be read as something akin to ‘general proficiency’. Let me explain what I mean. Even if a student is a phenomenal writer who can skillfully apply a wide range of sentence constructions, analytical components and different essay structures, if you want to teach them something new, the most efficient way of doing this will probably be through explicit instruction. While they may be proficient at lots of useful stuff, if they know nothing about Absolute Phrases, asking them to work them out for themselves or succeed with minimal guidance is probably not the right approach.

When you teach something new to someone, you should begin with explicit instruction. The complexity or structure of the task is probably irrelevant, the important variable being the level of expertise of the student in that specific thing.

In this sense, teaching reminds me of a fractal. If you zoom into an essay, whatever component you zoom into should have been initially taught via explicit instruction before support was gradually removed and students were asked to practice it independently. The structure of an efficient instructional sequence will look almost identical for teaching essay construction, paragraph composition, sentence creation or vocabulary acquisition: I-We-Yous all the way down.

Strategies to Increase Pace

In the early stages of my teaching career I was sometimes told by observers that I should work on my pace. The feedback was almost always about increasing the pace of my lesson but this was rarely explained any further. I knew that being ‘pacey’ was good; I had little idea as to how this translated into good practice.

I’ve come to realise that a ‘pacey’ lesson is an efficient lesson: the time spent in class will be maximally productive with little to no time wasted at all.

What follows is a list of advice and approaches that I’ve picked up over the years:

  1. Plan your lessons by focusing on what students will be thinking hard about at all times

If we accept that ‘learning happens when people have to think hard and that memory is the residue of thought‘, then it is worthwhile trying to ensure that students think deeply for as much of the lesson as possible. Equally, there should be no unnecessary gaps, waiting or general faffing about. Cutting things out and sticking them to other things is often a good example of faffing about. Time is a precious, finite resource and we need to maximise every minute.

2. Have an open ended task on the board as students enter.

Whole class instruction in my lessons usually begins in one of three ways:

a) Some form of retrieval practice

b) Deliberate practice of sentences or vocabulary

c) Whole Class Feedback

Typically, some students arrive at class a bit earlier than others and the time gap between the first and last student to arrive can sometimes be a few minutes. Because of this, I start most lessons with an open-ended task up on the board so that students can begin working as soon as they enter. The tasks are deliberately open ended-I often give them a 5 minute limit- so that low and high attainers can attempt them successfully, the differentiation here being by the depth and complexity of the outcome.

Here’s a few examples:

a) How is Romeo presented in Act 1?

b) How do you know that Jonas lives in a dystopian society?

c) What kind of man is Utterson?

3. Know where the lesson fits into a sequence of learning

A lesson is almost always part of a longer instructional sequence. Sometimes a lesson will focus on building knowledge as you explain, discuss and question new concepts or ideas; sometimes it will involve modelling and practising a specific type of writing, sentence construction or analytical component. Effective instructional sequences often span multiple lessons and the tasks and approaches within them should undergo a number of changes as student competence develops. One way of describing this transformation is the I-We-You continuum as the responsibility for learning gradually shifts from teacher to student. So what does all this have to do with pace? If you know where a lesson fits within a wider sequence, it is often easier to judge exactly what needs to be achieved within the lesson in question. This then allows you to make better informed decisions as to the variety of examples that you need to present, how much practice may be necessary at a particular stage of a sequence and when it may be appropriate to move from guided to freer practice.

4. Equipment and Resources

Ensure that students have everything that they need for the lesson. Well-planned booklets can be really helpful here as they should contain everything that a student will need for the entire unit. Printing off a booklet at the start of a unit for each student means that I rarely have to rush around and print additional resources. If you do need to hand out resources during a lesson, do this when students are working individually in silence, not when they have finished a task. This means there is no wait time and you can check what they are working on as you move around the class.

At my school, the expectation is that all students are responsible for bringing the equipment they need for class and if they don’t, they receive a consequence. Having also worked in schools where teachers hand out pens freely with no consequence for ill-prepared students, my current situation is a thousand times better-less time is wasted and students rarely appear in class without a pen anymore.

5.Content takes priority

Students should be able to instantly grasp what they have to do in a learning activity, allowing them to focus all of their concentration on the content that is being learned. If we are to teach challenging and unashamedly academic content, then we should not be adding to the cognitive load by creating complicated methods of delivering that content: tasks should be procedurally simple; if they are not, then students will need to simultaneously work out how to approach the task as well as getting their heads around the content within it. Time spent working out the rules of a convoluted activity is time not spent thinking about what they are meant to be learning

6. Repetition isn’t boring

If you want to master anything-including all aspects of teaching-you will probably need to engage in repetitive, deliberate practice. The more familiar you are with a specific routine or approach, the faster and more fluently you can implement it. Pacey lessons often involve procedures and tasks that have been done many times by the teacher and the students, both being so familiar with the instructions that the teacher is able to devote maximal concentration to behaviour management, misconceptions and questioning, while the student can devote maximal attention to what it is they are learning.

Here are just some of the things that can be approached in the same way almost all of the time, instead varying the content, level of support or extent and scope of the practice:

  1. Using a booklet and annotating.
  2. Vocabulary Practice
  3. Sentence Practice
  4. Retrieval Practice
  5. Modelling extended writing.

Once you have worked out the most efficient and procedurally simple way of teaching a specific piece of content, then repeat this method over and over again until it becomes honed, speedy and automatic. Not only will this make lessons pacier, but it will allow you to concentrate on dealing with misconceptions and behaviour so you can focus on the content and students, not whether you have explained the task properly

7. Set precise expectations for everything.

Set precise time limits for tasks-some teachers use timers for this but I usually make it up, telling them ‘you’ve got three minutes left’. The advantage of making it up is that you can speed up or slow down the time they have left based upon what you see the students are doing: if they are struggling, you can stretch the minutes; if they are whipping through it, you can speed up the time.

It is also worth ensuring students know exactly what you expect in terms of output: One page? A paragraph? Six lines? The inclusion of authorial intent?

With regards to behaviour, having relentlessly high expectations of all kids at all times will ensure that distractions are kept to the minimum. Explain what you expect, why you expect it and then give consequences to those who deliberately choose to ignore your requests. Assuming what you have asked is reasonable and following your behaviour policy and it is clear that the student has still chosen to misbehave, you shouldn’t need to engage in any argument, debate or negotiation.  

8. Scripting explanations and preplanning questions

Writing out exactly what you will say when explaining something (particularly when you are new to teaching it) is a really good way of ensuring you are precise and concise; it will also help to prevent the inclusion of unnecessary synonyms and hopefully stop you going off on an unnecessary tangent, both of which could confuse students.

If you teach from booklets, a good way to plan your lesson is by completing the tasks yourself so you know exactly what the students need to understand from the booklet. This will then help direct your annotations and questions. Here’s a step by step approach:

  1. Complete the task yourself so you understand what is required.
  2. Go through your own copy of the booklet, annotating the parts that you will elaborate on and ask students about: these will be focussed on what is needed to complete the questions. Doing this in advance gives you time to think of the most apt, succinct and useful annotation to add: this can be hard if you try to do it live in class for the first time. Also add in questions that you want to ask.
  3. When you teach the lesson, have your annotated booklet next to the blank one you will be using live under the visualiser in class. The prepared one can then act as an aide memoire for the lesson.

The key thing here is knowing your stuff in as greater depth as possible-the better you know the content and what you will focus on, the less likely you will be thrown off track by the myriad unexpected events that may happen during class

9. Don’t play ‘Guess what’s in my head’.

Asking questions is an important part of teaching but if questions are to be useful, we need to think about why we are asking them. Questions can be asked to check understanding, to push students to develop their answer, to consider alternative viewpoints or to help them make links between ideas. Kris Boulton argues that we should never ask a question to which they have not already been told the answer and I broadly agree: most of the time it is far more efficient to teach stuff, then ask them questions about it. Beginning with eliciting questions like ‘Who knows what The Great Chain of Being is?’  or ‘What do you think ‘hubris’ means?’  before teaching them anything is probably not that useful.

The worst example of this is ‘guess what’s in my head’ where a teacher asks a question with a specific answer in mind, hoping to elicit that specific answer from the class. This guessing game can go on for ages and is almost certainly a waste of time. Reeves and Mortimer used to play this game in the final round of Shooting Stars:

Q: Name a hairy dog.

A: St Bernard?’

Q: Nope it was a Golden Retriever.

This list is certainly not exhaustive and I would be interested in any other tips that people have!

Insights from Learning as a Generative Activity part 4: Learning by Mapping

You can find the first three posts in this series here: one, two, three.

Learning by mapping involves students transforming text based information into ‘a spatial arrangement’ and while there are many different types and sub-types of graphic organisers (there is a good poster looking at 12 types here) that can be used, Fiorella and Mayer focus on just three: concept maps, knowledge maps and matrix graphic organisers.

Mapping is seen as a generative learning activity because students engage in all three cognitive processes. Firstly, they need to select which concepts to focus on; secondly, they need to organise the information into a spatial arrangement, paying attention to positioning and the links between ideas; thirdly, students integrate the information with their prior knowledge by transforming it from one mode of representation into another as well as connecting it with logical principles from their long term memory like compare and contrast.

Like summarisation, mapping can be used as a form of structured retrieval practice-very much like Extended Quizzing. Teachers can also help learners by supplementing text based materials with mapped information, helping to simplify complex information and demonstrating relationships, connections, differences and hierarchies. This blog, however, will focus solely on student generated mapping when they have full access to the materials that they are learning from.

General Boundary Conditions for Learning by Mapping

Mapping is most effective with low ability students. Some of the studies into mapping report negligible or even negative effects when this strategy is used with high ability students. But why is this? Perhaps it can be explained through the lens of cognitive load theory. The ‘redundancy effect’ predicts that ‘when multiple sources of information can be understood separately without the need for mental integration’ then this may be ‘detrimental to learning by imposing an extraneous cognitive load’. Presenting information via text as well as a supplementary spatial arrangement of some kind may be unnecessary or even detrimental to learning as one of the mediums may well be superfluous. There is, however, an important distinction to be made here. While the ‘redundancy effect’ looks at how information is presented in learning resources, learning by mapping is a strategy used by students in order to make sense of information. Learning by mapping involves students creating the supplementary spatial arrangement themselves. Despite this difference, it may be that for higher ability students, the creation of a concept map of some kind yields a similar kind of redundancy effect: if they can already make sense of a text without the need for mapping it, then once they have completed their map, could it be that they then feel the need to mentally integrate two representations of the same information, thereby increasing their cognitive load? Perhaps this goes someway to explain the negative effects seen with higher ability students?

For lower ability students, concept maps may be a crucial strategy to help them make sense of complicated texts. With higher ability students however, it may be that creating concept maps is unnecessary. If a student is spending time thinking about creating an unnecessary concept map, they will have less time to think about what they are reading or to devote to crafting a sophisticated written response. Curriculum time is finite and we should ensure that our students use it as efficiently as possible: poor instructional choices result in inefficient learning.

Fiorella and Mayer maintain that as long as students are sufficiently trained in mapping, it can be a really effective learning strategy. The authors suggest that several hours of training should be enough. Like with all instructional choices, one of the concerns with using mapping as a learning strategy is that it can be a time consuming process.

They call for further research into exactly which conditions make mapping most effective, pointing out that it would be useful to be clearer as to how much training is required for students as well as how much of this training then transfers to reading new texts with students.

Concept Maps and Knowledge Maps

Concept maps are visual representations that consist of nodes (shapes that contain a concept or idea) and lines that signify connections and relationships that are often labelled. Here are two examples taken from Learning as a Generative Activity:

Knowledge maps are a subset of concept maps although they are more prescriptive: the relationship between nodes are predetermined and follow common organisational principles like hierarchy and exemplification.

Graphic Organisers

Out of the three types of mapping that are explored, graphic organisers demonstrate the strongest average effect size in the studies that are referenced. While there are lots of different types of graphic organisers that use predetermined spatial structures, the studies referenced in Fiorella and Mayer focus on matrix style organisers that involved a compare and contrast type structure. Here is an example taken from Learning as A Generative Activity:

In a 2014 study involving a historical passage about steamboats, students who filled in a matrix style organiser like the one above performed better on a subsequent comprehension test than those students who merely took notes or simply read the passage. The theoretical explanation for this superior performance is that students who filled in the matrix engaged in the processes of selecting, organising and integrating the information which allowed them to make greater sense of the material.

How can Mapping be used in English?

All three types of mapping are best suited to lower ability students, helping them to make sense of dense or more complex texts. For lower ability students, completing a mapping task can be a useful preparatory stage before writing in response to a text. With higher ability students, I tend to avoid using them as a sense making process, instead asking students to either annotate, discuss or write in response to material that they have read.

Let’s look at an example:

Imagine at the end of a Jekyll and Hyde unit, you are reading a non-fiction article about the conventions of Gothic fiction and you want students to understand how Stevenson uses, adapts or rejects them in The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde so that they can write a response to this question:

‘Jekyll and Hyde is the archetypal Gothic text’ How far would you agree with this statement?

Each student has a copy of the article, the teacher has a visualizer and projector and everyone follows when someone is reading.

With a higher ability class, you could probably just read the text together, stopping whenever a gothic convention is explored in order to help students make the links between gothic element and the novella.

With a class who are struggling, you could do something like this:

  1. Read the non-fiction article, adding annotations (all students do the same on their copy) to explain vocabulary and asking lots of questions to check for understanding.
  2. Ask them to reread the article and underline the conventions of the Gothic that are mentioned
  3. Ask a student for feedback and underline your text under the visualizer, allowing students who did not find the answer to find it on theirs.
  4. Ask lots of questions about the answer to check for understanding and give further annotations and elaborations about what is being underlined.
  5. Ask all students to check that they have the same underlined answer and annotations as you.

At this point, the whole class will have selected the relevant conventions that they will be discussing in their extended writing.

6. The teacher can then draw a matrix graphic organiser like this:

When we teach a literature text, we carefully choose a set of high utility quotations that we want students to use, apply and memorise. You can see our knowledge organiser for Jekyll and Hyde here. By the end of the Jekyll and Hyde unit, through a combination of repeated usage, manipulation and low stakes quizzing, students will already have memorised many of these quotations meaning that this task is asking them to apply what they already know rather than searching for quotations using the book or an extract. Filling in this table should hopefully be about organising the two sources of information-gothic conventions from the article and knowledge of the text itself-into a spatial representation so that connections and links are made more apparent.

7. The teacher should then demonstrate exactly how to fill in the table, perhaps by completing two rows themselves under the camera:

8. Students can then fill in their table, firstly copying the teachers example rows, then continuing individually.

Like most other learning tasks, feedback to the teacher here can be really useful. Because the table asks students to organise information into columns, it can be easier for the teacher to draw inferences about areas of weakness. If students are struggling with ‘uses in the novella’, then perhaps they would benefit from more work on plot. If students cannot fill in the ‘quotation’ column, then it seems likely that they need to do more work on memorising and applying textual evidence. Asking students to break down a complex task into sequential steps like this not only makes it more manageable for students but it also makes it easier for teachers to diagnose problems, gaps or misconceptions.

9. The teacher should then ask students for feedback, filling in their table under the visualiser, asking lots of questions to check for understanding and adding additional ideas, examples and elaborations.

10. Students can now use their matrix graphic organiser to write their answer to the question.

Next Post: Insights from Learning as Generative Activity part 5