Teaching resource: What is explicit instruction?

The importance of evidence-based practice in education is well-known. As a teacher, how equipped do you feel with the latest evidence to help inform your teaching approach in the classroom?

A new suite of teaching guides has been published by the Australian Educational Research Organisation (AERO). They form a part of the organisation’s Teaching for How Students Learn model and offer a structured approach for teachers to align their teaching strategies with the latest understanding of effective learning methodologies.

Principal Policy Analyst at AERO, Nuella Flynn, tells Teacher: ‘The [guides] are designed to bring together up-to-date evidence drawing from cognitive science, neuroscience, and education psychology research, and bringing that together into relevant and accessible practical guidance.’

There are 5 guides so far: monitoring progress, explaining learning objectives, rules and routines, supporting self-regulated learning, and teaching explicitly. In our most recent annual Teacher reader survey, many of you asked for more content and support in the area of explicit instruction. So, in this article, we delve into the guide on teaching explicitly.

What is explicit instruction?

In the practice guide, AERO says practices of teaching explicitly sit within the Instruction phase of teaching as described in their Teaching for How Students Learn model. It focuses on managing students’ cognitive load as they process and acquire new learning.

‘The key is presenting information explicitly, chunking it into manageable components, modelling those thought processes, providing guidance through our practice, and then following up with opportunities for students to apply the knowledge and the skills they're gaining with greater independence,’ Flynn tells Teacher.

The importance of ‘chunking’ information

Throughout the guide, AERO states the importance of ‘chunking’ information when teaching explicitly, saying the research shows that chunking helps manage students’ cognitive load.

It says there are a range of strategies and techniques educators can use to teach chunks of new information to students. As an example, Flynn shares that when teaching the concept of an atom for the first time to students in a Science class, a teacher could chunk information about the makeup of an atom. ‘… That it's small, but it contains a nucleus with a proton or a neutron, and that it contains an electron. Much more information than that may overwhelm. Once students know and can recall that new vocabulary, it will then take up less space in their working memory and the teacher can then introduce additional chunks of information about, say, the structure of the atom or the characteristics of those components.

‘By breaking down related sets of information into chunks, you prevent overloading students with too much information, and you also build knowledge in their memory in a useful, structured and sequenced way so that new learning can connect with previous learning.’

A classroom example of explicit instruction

We asked Flynn to share a practical classroom example of a teacher using explicit instructional techniques to help illustrate this point further. Here, she describes what could be involved in teaching students how to identify and analyse persuasive writing techniques in an editorial article.

‘You would approach it by first stating the learning goal and the rationale. So, “today we'll learn how to identify and analyse persuasive techniques that writers use to influence readers. This will help you become more critical consumers of persuasive writing”. You might, at that point, also need to check for students’ understanding of key vocabulary related to that learning intention and teach that before moving on.

‘The next step would then be to clearly define and explain those key persuasive techniques. You might step through rhetorical questions, repetition, appeals to emotion, and for each of those, step-by-step, you would use clear examples and non-examples that help to illustrate each of those techniques.

‘Once students understand the techniques, we would then move on to model what the analysis process looks like. And the teacher might use a short excerpt and they would think aloud as they identify persuasive techniques and explain how each one is aiming to persuade the reader. You're modelling that process for students to then guide their own attempts with that process.

‘As a whole class, we might then take another excerpt, guide students through, prompt them to identify and explain what techniques, with support, and we might use whole-class response techniques so that all students are supported in that active thinking and participation. Once they're ready – and again, we're checking for understanding – we might then allow for independent practice; having students apply those skills to analysing yet another piece and identify and explain the techniques being used. And throughout all of those instances of practice, the teacher will be reviewing examples, confirming correct analysis, clarifying misconceptions, and giving constructive feedback to take the learning forward.’

Does teaching explicitly mean I have to follow a script?

A common question on the topic of teaching explicitly is whether or not this means a teacher needs to follow a script.

‘Teaching explicitly doesn't mean that teachers have to follow a script,’ Flynn tells Teacher. What it does mean, she explains, is that you’re using a set of instructional practices such as clearly stating learning goals, chunking information, giving clear explanations, modelling, guiding practice and offering feedback throughout the learning process.

‘Those are essentially the key elements of an explicit instructional approach,’ Flynn says. ‘And while that may sometimes use a script, it doesn't have to use a script.

‘I think some of the reasoning behind that question is also because teachers are wondering about the nature of explicit teaching and whether it is one-directional from teacher to student. But what we know from the research is that effective explicit instruction is a really dynamic and responsive set of practices.’

Read the full practice guide here.

In this article, Nuella Flynn says effective explicit instruction is a dynamic and responsive set of practices. As a teacher, would you describe your own approach to classroom instruction as dynamic and responsive? Or, does it lean more towards being a one-dimensional approach from teacher to student?