What is explicit instruction and how can teachers use it?
The debate between student-directed and teacher-directed learning is not new to educators. For more than 10 years, many teachers and researchers have become divided as to whether a teacher-centred learning approach creates passive students, void of critical and engaged thinking (Loftin, 2021).
However, in recent years, the benefits of explicit teaching have become more apparent—particularly when paired with other pedagogical approaches.
In this article, we unpack:
- What explicit teaching is,
- Why educators might use this type of high impact teaching strategy,
- And, provide examples of what great explicit teaching could look like in practice.
What is explicit instruction?
Explicit teaching is a teacher-centred method that focuses on showing learners what to do and how to do it, leaving very little for students to construct for themselves. The teacher determines and articulates clear learning objectives and corresponding success criteria in order to demonstrate exactly what is required of learners to succeed (Victorian Government, 2022).
In addition, educators use modelling to work through new content and consistently check for understanding before ending each lesson with a summary, tying together the entire learning experience (Victorian Government, 2022). It is important that teachers plan sequential lessons that build on difficulty allowing students to practice what they have seen and heard in order to gain mastery.
Is it new? No. Educators have been housing their delivery in similar, tightly-defined boundaries forever. But recently, there has been much debate and scholarly work as to the effectiveness of various teaching and learning methodologies including explicit instruction.
Support and criticism of explicit instruction come in many forms—personal appeal (or otherwise) from teachers, or a philosophical stance regarding its merits, as well as a political perspective (Loftin, 2021). While some are for it and others are against it, the growing evidence around explicit teaching benefits deserves our attention.
Benefits of explicit teaching
There would be no surprise by our mention of John Hattie when discussing the benefits of explicit teaching. Hattie’s research reports that this mode of delivery has an effect size of around 0.59 meaning we can see a positive impact on student attainment (2009). What is important to note is that his research suggests these gains were made for both surface and deep learning.
Since this report, research around the benefits of explicitly teaching has only been built upon and in heavily inquiry-based subjects like Science, the results have been especially outstanding. Kruit and peers found that Science students taught using explicit teaching methods outperformed those taught with both implicit and baseline strategies. Not only did their Science skills increase, but their ability to apply content to unfamiliar topics was superior to the other test groups (Kruit et al. 2018).
There is also a strong body of research that supports a systematic, explicit approach, particularly when it involves learning new concepts and operations, and for students who struggle with learning (CESE, 2017). It helps to reduce the cognitive load students face in the classroom, making processing information so much easier.
So with the benefits clear, we now come to the challenge of actually implementing explicit teaching practices.
What successful explicit teaching looks like
It is important to note that explicit teaching is not demonstrated when educators embark on an uninterrupted monologue providing students with little to no opportunities to engage with content or skills (Victorian Government, 2022)—a common misconception.
So we can break down this approach into three sections, commonly known as “I do, we do, you do.”
Firstly students need to have a strong understanding of the learning goals and success criteria. Many teachers like to display this on the board, or learning management system at the beginning of each lesson so students can have it front of mind. In addition, it is always a good idea to try to differentiate these goals to help ensure all students leave feeling successful.
The foundation to effective explicit teaching is ensuring students have a strong understanding of what success looks like. Even better, you can differentiate the learning goals by structuring them as:
- All students will….
- Most students will ….
- Some students will ….
During this time, teachers may need to deliver some content and make careful explanations for students. Some ideas include:
- Playing a short informative video to deliver content,
- Asking students to engage with the material and peer teach,
- Or, performing a practical demonstration.
After this, teachers should work through problems with students to model what success looks like and how to approach different question types. This can be done as a class or in smaller groups. Some ideas include:
- Modelling the thinking and working of particular question types,
- Talking through paragraph structure,
- Discussing marking criteria as a whole class activity,
- Modelling approaches to exam questions,
- Or, completing skills-based tasks in front of the class.
It is important at this point to give students the opportunity to master their new skills and content by allowing enough time for students to practice what they have learned. To do this you could try:
- Providing new and unfamiliar questions for students to complete independently,
- Asking them to engage in group discussions and debates,
- And, providing practice exam questions.
This time also allows time to monitor progress and provide feedback, which are both vital for mastery success.
While time is always against us, it is important to end the lesson with a summary—looping back to the learning intentions and success criteria at the start of the lesson. This helps to reinforce the main learning points as well as ask students to be reflective on their progress. Exit cards are a great way to achieve this—and collect some data on where you might need to spend more time.
You can download Atomi's exit cards here, for free!
By providing students time to learn, practice and master information, teachers can help learners achieve mastery of content before moving on to something new. This explicit approach creates a much deeper connection between students and their learning, evidenced by the increase in attainment.
However, teachers know that using an all-or-nothing approach is difficult to maintain both from an administrative perspective as well as keeping student interest. From experience in the classroom, the best teaching comes from mixing up pedagogical approaches based on the content and student interests.
In addition, leaning on online learning platforms to deliver some of the content and provide practice opportunities can look and feel more interesting for students. Atomi’s videos, for example, are a great adjunct to the teacher in communicating facts or demonstrating procedures. Alternatively, using our interactive assessment features can provide great practice opportunities, which can also be differentiated based on students’ needs—which is always a win.
Regardless of how you choose to incorporate this high impact teaching strategy, know that your efforts will not be in vain, but that a few small changes might make a huge difference to your students' knowledge and confidence.
Keen to implement high impact strategies in your classroom? But not sure where to start?
Discover the ultimate guide to HITS—an exploration of ten high impact teaching strategies, condensed into short chapters and paired with practical tips, tricks and templates to embed into your teaching instruction.
- Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, 2017, Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand, NSW Department of Education
- Hattie, J., 2003, Teachers Make a Difference, What is the research evidence?, ACER
- Hattie, J., 2009, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, Routledge
- Kruit, P.M., Oostdam, R.J., Van den Berg, E., & Schuitema, J.A., 2018, Effects of explicit instruction on the acquisition of students’ science inquiry skills in grades 5 and 6 of primary education, International Journal of Science Education, 40,4, 421-441
- Loftin, K. A., 2021, The Benefits of Explicit Instruction: Rethinking the Student V Teacher-Directed Learning Debate, The Craig School The Department of Education and Training, 2022, High impact teaching strategies (HITS), Victorian Government