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Explicit instruction and teaching

By Sam Di Sano on 12 April 2019NSWstaffroomInnovationStrategy

There are essentially two approaches to teaching. One is explicit or direct — the I do, we do, you do principle. For the other your classroom shifts into discovery mode — more implicit than explicit. I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive or need to be used in isolation, but it is clear that how we deliver is significant for student learning. The mode of delivery can account for as much as a 30% difference in student achievement (Hattie 2003). As Hattie reported, ‘it is what teachers know, do, and care about’ which is very powerful

There is also a strong body of research which supports a systematic, explicit approach, particularly when it involves learning new concepts and operations, and for students who struggle with learning. The most common name for this is explicit instruction or teaching.

What is explicit instruction?

Explicit instruction is this teacher‐centred method that is focused on clear behavioural and cognitive goals and outcomes, made explicit to learners. Fundamentally, it is about providing students clearly defined and specific expectations, both behavioural and cognitive, so that every time they walk into our classroom, they know exactly what we expect of them.

Is it new? No. Educators have been housing their delivery in similar, tightly defined boundaries forever. However, of late, 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, given its cause has been taken up by certain outspoken conservative politicians.

Right now though, with the benefits of a sound evidence base attesting to its success, following a lesson‐by‐lesson approach based on skill acquisition, sequenced in ability groups has gained much traction. This favoured approach to teaching aims to maximise, among other things, time‐on‐task, and positive reinforcement of student behaviours. This is usually followed by assessment tasks and tests aligned with learning goals.

Hattie’s 2009 research into the influence that explicit teaching has on student results showed significant gains in both surface and deep learning for all ages and all abilities. Further longitudinal research confirmed its benefits beyond school with significant leads over discovery modes of teaching and learning.

Using explicit teaching in practice

So in light of that, how should we organise our lessons in order to maximise student achievement? For me, what defines my approach is working backwards from what will deliver the greatest achievement and success. Explicit teaching offers a powerful way to structure lessons with the essential ingredients always remaining the same. These are:

  1. Goal setting - Be clear about what you want your students to know and be able to do by the end of each lesson;
  2. Show and tell - Tell children what they need to know and show them how to do what they need to do;
  3. Practice and revision - Give your students spaced time to practice what they have learnt, both in class and later at home.

Research shows that even just implementing a clear lesson structure with these essential ingredients can have quite a profound impact on student outcomes. The key though is in matching the planning with a delivery that both involves and engages the student. Effective delivery using this simple structure can lead to both an effective and efficient classroom dynamic using instruction that is systematic, direct, engaging, and success oriented.

Key tips

Ashman (2017) refers to the key characteristics of explicit instruction, set out by Rosenshine. From them I have pulled out three for elaboration:

1. Heightened interactivity leading to students asking more questions

When students constantly ask questions, they force us to backtrack, explain and re-explain concepts they have not grasped. It essentially provides real-time feedback on our performance. The more questions, the more we need to reconsider our explanation.

2. Guided practice

Repetition and replication seem to be the mainstays of the ‘I do, we do, you do’ approach to explicit instruction. Teaching explicitly forces us to break things down more than we might initially think. Modelling and guidance followed by scheduled opportunities for practice, both at school and home is a method that seems to work.

3. Mastery before all else

You need to learn to walk before you run, right? Exposing students to complex skills before they have mastered the basics may interrupt or challenge the learning process, so identifying components and learning how to sequence them and exactly where they fit are all essential, before mastering more complex ideas. Students benefit from a carefully planned sequence for teaching that is constructed in a logical order from simple to complex objectives, commencing from the point at which the students are already competent.


In essence, explicit instruction involves directly teaching students the content or skill to be learned, using clear and unambiguous language. Explicit teaching offers a basic but powerful lesson structure that is a core part of evidence-based teaching. It is certainly an effective tool for the classroom. Whether it is the only form of delivery you should use will very much be determined by each teacher’s context.

Here at Atomi, we see real value in a blended environment; teachers mixing it up between traditional forms listed above and technology-rich online learning. We see video as being a wonderful adjunct to the teacher in communicating facts or demonstrating procedures to assist in mastery learning. Using Atomi’s resources, students can view online content as many times as they need to. Our latest interactive real-time assessment features also value-add by promoting active viewing. Students are quizzed on what they need to know, based on their own prior responses.

Below are some resources I used for this piece. If you are an advocate, please let me know your thoughts here.


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