Explicit teaching is highly interactive
A seven-year-old argument returns
To be fair, there is no equivalent of the Académie Française governing the correct use of educational terms. People are therefore free to define ‘explicit teaching’ as they wish. Sometimes, it is useful to use the term to refer to a single episode of explanation. However, contemporary advocates of explicit teaching draw on a tradition that originates in the process-product research of the 1960s — a tradition that encompasses Project Follow Through and a wide range of correlational and experimental studies since then. In this sense, explicit teaching is a whole system that moves from initial instruction to independent work in a process of gradual release.
Many people are aware of the evidence for this kind of explicit teaching through the popularisation of Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. However, I also like the description given by Jere Brophy and Thomas Good in a 1984 summary of the process-product research findings. Rather than ‘explicit teaching’ or ‘direct instruction’, they write of ‘active teaching’ and this is their description:
“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.”
It is worth commenting briefly on the nature of the process-product studies. Researchers observed lots of classrooms, recorded teacher behaviours and then sought to correlate these with student gains on assessment tasks. Active teaching, direct instruction, explicit teaching or whatever you want to call it, was associated with higher gains.
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The limit of this type of research is that it cannot demonstrate conclusively that a particular teacher behaviour caused any gains. It may be the case, for example, that curious teachers ask more questions and it is their curiosity that somehow leads to better outcomes than the asking of questions. If so, copying the behaviour of asking questions would not replicate these gains. However, many aspects of the explicit teaching model have been replicated experimentally — e.g. in my own research — and the fact that effective teachers from a wide range of backgrounds tend to converge on similar strategies is highly suggestive. For example, PISA survey evidence from secondary school science also points in the same direction.
There is also an important upside to correlational studies. Many — perhaps too many — experimental studies compare a new and shiny intervention with a tired and worn business-as-usual condition. Clearly, students and teachers know whether they are in the intervention or not — such trials cannot be blinded in the same way that medical trials can make use of a placebo — and so the results will be impacted by teacher and student expectations. This is perhaps even more likely in the event that outcome measures are teacher assigned grades. In contrast, correlational studies compare one business-as-usual condition with another. When we see an effect, we may therefore be more inclined to conclude it is a real one.
Back in 2015, Doug Holton, an educational developer, wrote a blog post about a new trend he had noticed. Bloggers were apparently criticising ‘constructivist’ teaching methods and advocating ‘direct instruction’. I commented on Holton’s post and when he deleted this comment, I published it on my old blog.
After making the strange claim that proponents of explicit teaching had got their views from reading Wikipedia, Holton went on to cite a large number of studies that appeared to show that ‘active learning’ strategies were more effective than traditional lecturing — a business-as-usual control. In my response, I pointed out that advocates of explicit teaching argue for the kind of teaching described by Brophy and Good — teaching that is highly interactive. My current view is that extended lecture may lend itself to some contexts — particularly those where it is possible to tell a story — but it doesn’t lend itself well to teaching maths or how to construct a sentence.
So, Holton’s criticism fitted the evidence he had but not the argument he was attempting to prosecute.
I was under the impression that this was yesterday’s battle, and so it was déjà vu to see it again in 2022:
The authors of a piece in the open access publication Classroom Physics published by the UK’s Institute of Physics argue that:
“In recent years, there has been considerable support for a view that lessons should be dominated by teacher-led activities and that instructional strategies such as Direct Instruction alone provide the answer to more effective teaching. Work from physics education research over the last 20+ years has established a convincing and robust evidence base to challenge this view”
They then go on to cite — you’ve guessed it — a whole lot of studies showing that interactive teaching strategies are more effective than traditional lecturing.
As I wrote above, I want to be fair. The terminology here is needlessly confusing. ‘Direct Instruction’ with a capital ‘D’ and ‘I’ is often used to refer to a specific set of (interactive) courses designed on principles set out by the late Zig Engelmann and colleagues, where as ‘direct instruction’ without the capitals has the same meaning as Brophy and Good’s ‘active teaching’. I am not sure whether my push to call this ‘explicit teaching’ helps or ultimately hinders the quest for clarity.
What is clear, however, is that nobody is arguing a research-informed case for non-interactive lecturing. Those who argue against such lectures are therefore arguing against a position that nobody really holds.