This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2017. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here.
Albert Einstein once said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
And so it is with teaching and learning.
Amid a focus on active learning approaches whereby students take the lead in the classroom and teachers act as mere facilitators, the art of quality teacher explanations – sometimes called “direct instruction” – has been, if not exactly lost, then denigrated and devalued.
But here’s the unfashionable truth, the elephant in the room, the secret hidden in plain sight: the most effective, expedient way for students to learn is for the teacher – that educated, experienced, expert at the front of the room – to tell them, then show them, what they need to know.
Rather than designing convoluted ways of enabling a student to “discover” new knowledge for him or herself, perhaps as a result of engaging in a range of group activities, teachers should take the shortest, simplest path: they should just tell them then show them what they need to know.
In short, we should make effective use of teacher explanations (telling) and modelling (showing).
Be the sage on the stage
Research shows that active and guided instruction is much more effective than unguided, facilitative instruction.
For example, Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) compared guided models of teaching – such as direct instruction – with discovery learning methods – such as problem-based learning, inquiry learning, experiential learning, and constructivist learning.
They found that the latter methods didn’t work as well as the former. It didn’t matter, they argued, if students preferred less guided methods, they still learned less from them (see also Clark, 1989).
In Visible Learning, Professor John Hattie found that the average effect size for teaching strategies which involved the teacher as a “facilitator” was 0.17, whereas the average effect size for strategies where the teacher acted as an “activator” was 0.60. Direct instruction had an effect size of 0.59 compared to problem-based learning with an effect size of just 0.15.
So direct instruction – teacher explanations and modelling, telling and showing – is clearly more effective than discovery learning approaches. But what, exactly, does direct instruction look like in practice?
Passive and authoritarian?
Some academics believe that direct instruction is an undesirable form of teaching. McKeen et al (1972), for example, describe it as “authoritarian”. Borko & Wildman (1986) say it is “regimented”. And Edwards (1981) says it is akin to “fact accumulation at the expense of thinking skill development”.
In short, direct instruction is generally regarded as a passive mode of teaching, the pouring of information from one container (the teacher’s mind) into another (the student’s mind).
Even advocates of the form cannot quite agree on what it looks like in practice. Indeed, the term “direct instruction” has been used for more than a century to refer to any academic instruction that is led by the teacher.
For example, it featured in Joseph Meyer Rice’s 1893 book, The Public School System of the United States, in which Rice complained “in many of the grades the children received direct instruction for no more than two or two-and-a-half of the five hours spent in school, the pupils being engaged in busy-work more than half the time”.
Cornerstones of direct instruction
Whichever definition of direct instruction you settle upon, it is likely to be built using the following cornerstones.
- The teacher will reduce the difficulty of a task during initial practice. Direct instruction is about the teacher presenting new material to students in small “chunks”.
- The teacher will provide scaffolds and support. Direct instruction is about the teacher modelling a new procedure by, among other strategies, thinking aloud, guiding students’ initial practice and providing students with cues.
- The teacher will provide supportive feedback. Direct instruction is also about the teacher providing systematic corrections and feedback, providing students with “fix-up” strategies, and providing expert models of the completed task.
- The teacher will provide opportunities for extensive independent practice. Direct instruction is about affording students with plenty of opportunities to practise new knowledge and skills.
No matter your definition, research evidence suggests direct instruction really works and is certainly more effective than discovery learning.
But direct instruction – like all teaching strategies – only works if it is done well. So what makes direct instruction (teacher explanations) work in practice?
I will now look at five ways of making teacher explanations work: the use of metaphors and analogies; dual coding; pitch; reciprocity; and models.
Metaphors and analogies
First, good teacher explanations need to contextualise information so that abstract ideas or hitherto alien concepts, are made concrete, tangible, and real, and so that they are related to students’ own lives and experiences.
Second, teacher explanations should make use of dual coding. In other words, teachers’ verbal instructions, as well as any text-based explanations displayed on the board or in handouts, should be paired with and complemented by visuals such as diagrams, charts, graphics and moving images.
Third, teacher explanations should be pitched in what Lev Vygotsky calls the “zone of proximal development”. In other words, they should be differentiated so that they are challenging and yet accessible to all students.
Fourth, teacher explanations should be reciprocated, with students explaining concepts back to the teacher as well as to each other. This works on the basis that only once you teach something have you truly learned it. Learning by teaching works because, by teaching, students gain feedback and make better sense of a topic. Learning by teaching also works because it is a form of learning by doing, of practising, and thus addresses the want and the need to learn.
Finally, teacher explanations should make effective and plentiful use of models – exemplars of both good and bad work, as well as exemplars from a range of different contexts – which show students what a final product should look like and what makes such products work. Let’s explore the use of models in more detail…
Examples, examples, examples
Example is not the main thing, it is the only thing: good models demonstrate what works as well as what doesn’t.
It is important to show students what excellence looks like by sharing models of the very best work, giving them something to aspire to and an understanding of how to produce high quality work of their own.
But it is equally important to show students models of ineffective work, work that isn’t quite the best (or perhaps is so very far from being the best) so that students can learn what not to do and how to avoid making the same mistakes themselves.
All the models that are shared should be dissected in front of students, with the teacher demonstrating the dissection process, before students get their hands dirty dissecting another model for themselves and each other.
For example, if a model of a persuasive speech is shown on the board, the teacher should analyse it using text marking, pointing out and then annotating how it works, what makes it effective, breaking it apart to identify and discuss each of its component parts. Then the teacher should reconstruct the speech, explaining how the component parts hang together to create an effective argument, how the whole becomes something much greater than the sum of its parts.
Once students know how to dissect models, they should be afforded the opportunity to do so without the teacher’s guidance, perhaps by teaching other students.
In order to prepare students for this, it is important that the teacher offers encouragement, gives specific instructions, uses thought or sentence stems to provide students with the right language, and – as I say above – directly demonstrates the process first.
The Great British Teach-Off
Teacher explanations and modelling are not only proven strategies in the classroom, they are also strategies that will be very familiar to students as the staples of poplar television talent shows such as the The Great British Bake Off and Masterchef.
In both these shows, the judges – who are professional bakers and chefs – are shown making a dish first: they show us how it’s done. Thus, they provide us with a model, an exemplar on which the television audience can base their later judgements. By so doing, they also prove that they are still the experts, that they can do what they require their students to do, thus establishing their credibility.
In much the same way, it is powerful for teachers to complete any task they ask their students to do and to do so publicly. This shows students that the teacher is an expert and doesn’t expect students to do anything he or she isn’t also willing to do. It also provides the class with an exemplar, a model on which to base judgements of their own work.
For example, if a teacher asks their class to write an essay, they should sit at their desk and write the essay, too. Not only does this provide an exemplar to display on the board at the end which the teacher and then students can dissect (providing an initial model for sharing, thus removing students’ fear of being the first to be critiqued and encouraging them to share their work next), it also forces students to work independently because the teacher cannot help them while he or she is also writing the essay.
Show and tell
In conclusion, direct instruction – the use of teacher explanations (telling) and models (showing) – are highly effective strategies to use in the classroom. What’s more, they are the most expedient means of teaching students what they need to know.
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