Explicit Instruction Wins Every Time!

Reading time: 3


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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What does effective teaching look like, and how does it happen?

Explicit instruction is essential for all of our young people, and it is not boring or demotivating!

The more knowledgeable I became in the classroom, the more I understood being ‘clear and precise‘ mattered most. Over the years, I developed various strategies to help me and other colleagues become more effective at instruction.

In my new adventures as an academic, as I read more widely and understand a little more about effect sizes, research findings and recommendations, the more and more I understand that explicit teacher instruction can make a significant difference to the development of knowledge – the fundamental backbone to unlocking opportunities for all children, especially the most disadvantaged.

How Teaching Happens

In their first book, How Learning Happens (2020), Carl Hendrick and Paul Kirschner both offered a brilliant contribution to the teaching profession. It’s a book that’s been on my teacher desk ever since its publication.

In their new book (left), the authors examine what effective teaching looks like alongside Jim Neal, an educator working in the US. Even before reading this book, I believe this will be another seminal text influencing many teachers (hungry for research) and their teaching practice.

What I love most about a book like this is that it offers something practical for teachers to get to grips with. In terms of academic research, it provides something digestible to read in a short period, with recommendations, key takeaways, and QR codes for further reading.

Burning The Strawman

Accessible as it is, the first section I tackled was chapter 12  as I am very familiar with Barak Rosenshine.

Many teachers active on social media and blogs will be very familiar with the research by Barak Rosenshine. I’ve lost count of how many teaching and learning policies I’ve seen that reference the 10 or 17 principles of effective instruction. This is not a bad thing. It’s important that schools are research-informed, and these principles do you offer schools a hymn sheet for teachers to adopt.

As ever, the danger is that they turn into a checklist for observations and can stifle the creativity of individual teachers, particularly experienced teachers. I’ve yet to meet any teacher who can recall all 17 principles, few have read the original paper. I’ve worked to simplify the 17 principles into a concise and memorable teaching methodology that builds upon the research to unlock effective teaching, whether you are new to the profession or a wise soul.

Explicit instruction is not boring!

In How Teaching Happens, the authors explore a ‘Synthesis of research on explicit teaching’ (Rosenshine, 1986). They highlight why explicit instruction is essential for all of our young people, and that it is not boring or demotivating. Quite the opposite; it can be lively, playful and highly efficient.

The authors summarise the findings of the article into three key points:

  1. Instruction should be clear and precise
  2. Instruction should be carefully sequenced
  3. Instruction should be frequently checked for understanding.

The chapter explores the practical terms and offers some excellent examples of explicit instruction in action. In particular, explaining why explicit instruction should not be confused with didactic teaching.

There is a big difference.

Didactic teaching is where the teacher does all the talking and the students do all the listening. This is not effective instruction. Effective instruction is where the teacher carefully plans and delivers lessons that are clear, precise, sequenced and frequently checked for understanding.

There is a clear distinction between Direct Instruction (Siegreid Engelmann) which uses a very strict approach, compared with Rosenshine who developed his own approach – explicit instruction – summarising what effective teachers do. I won’t repeat all the principles in great depth; a summary is below:

  1. Establish clear goals
  2. Recap on prior knowledge
  3. Explain new material in small steps
  4. Provide clear instructions
  5. Give active practice
  6. Check for understanding
  7. Offer guidance along the way
  8. Give systematic feedback
  9. Provide time for lots of practice.

The authors quite rightly highlight the dangers of the above, becoming a “checklist or algorithm” set of rules to be followed to produce the desired end-state: learning.

Explore the research and go one step further?

Rosenshine summarised all his studies into six teaching functions using his research on what good teachers do.

  1. Review
  2. Presentation
  3. Guided Practice
  4. Corrections and Feedback
  5. Independent Practice and
  6. Weekly and Monthly Reviews.

This is very similar to the four strategies I have adapted to simplify Rosenshine’s work even further.

In the book, the authors elaborate on active participation and how these recommendations can be adapted for different learners, highlighting more review is necessary and the step should be smaller and less is presented. The chapter concludes that Rosenshine offers some very helpful research on teacher effectiveness and instructional procedures, using empirical research (observation and experience) to look at how the mind acquires new information.

My own conclusion stems from reading the original papers myself in this blog post:

Now that we can list the major functions which are necessary for systematic instruction, we can turn to exploring different ways in which these functions can be effectively fulfilled.

How Teaching Happens is an essential book for all teachers.

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