Instruction & Curriculum

Covering is Not Teaching: The Case for Explicit Instruction

“I covered that unit.”
“We talked about the vocabulary words.”
“I touched on grammar last week.”
“We went over the test.”
“We did an activity on that.”
“We went through the discussion questions.”
These common phrases by some teachers are, unfortunately, becoming all too common. Our verbiage as educators is powerful and also an interesting area to observe. Typically, these phrases are stated in meetings as justifications when student progress is discussed. When students don’t perform well, some deflect instead of reflecting on their Tier 1 instructional practices. However, I am here to say…

If you’re not explicitly teaching, you’re not teaching.
If you’re not explicitly teaching, you’re not teaching. Click To Tweet
I’m not sure how we veered so far away from the fundamentals of teaching. Maybe it’s the rise in technology and the push for innovation? Maybe it’s the increased knowledge and awareness of the plethora of learning styles in our classrooms? Regardless of the reason, we must be cautious not to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” Learning that is well retained most likely has a trail that leads back to intention and explicit instruction.

Explicit instruction = effective, meaningful teaching

So, why have we abandoned this practice? Because in the midst of the progression of our educational system, we have allowed misconceptions about types of instruction to create gaps.

The Curse of Knowledge
The Curse of Knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual unknowingly assumes that others have the background knowledge to understand. Who might be the biggest culprit of cognitive bias? Teachers. We hold knowledge, lots of it, and often we forget to place ourselves in the position of the learner. There is a stark difference between knowing a concept and teaching a concept. Due to this bias, explicit instruction is abandoned….many times unbeknownst to teachers. Students, no matter the level, benefit from clear, intentional, effective, EXPLICIT, teaching.
Some teachers may dismiss the notion of explicit instruction due to misconceptions about what this type of instruction actually entails, by believing:
Explicit instruction is spoon feeding students.
Explicit instruction is not high level.
Explicit instruction is only for struggling students. 
Explicit instruction is teacher-centered not student-centered.
However, these myths are simply false. Barak Rosenshine, a former professor at the University of Illinois, defined explicit instruction as, “A systematic method of teaching with emphasis on proceeding in small steps, checking for student understanding, and achieving active and successful participation by all students” (1987).

Emphasis…small steps….checking understanding…achieving active, successful participation….by ALL students….

Aren’t these just components of good teaching?
Declining Effort
Rosenshine’s definition of explicit teaching also sheds light on an important factor in our field…EFFORT. Being intentional about putting effort into lesson design and plans is the soil in which instruction grows. While many teachers go above and beyond and take great strides to ensure they are developing meaningful lessons, I believe that some who dismiss the necessity of explicit instruction do so because of a lack of effort. It’s no secret that teaching takes WORK. Not just some of the time but every minute of every day. Even with the best intentions, it can be easy to become overwhelmed with standards, lack of time, and duties as an educator. However, any instructional model will suffer without a strong will and effort to plan successfully. While I know that every teacher may not need to burn the midnight oil to construct lessons, any amount of time given to creating lessons must be used wisely. If we are not considering our student populations, interests, needs, strengths, and areas of growth each and every time we design, we are failing students. Are there many factors beyond our control? Yes. However, we can control what happens in the time that we have students, and all students benefit from the supports and scaffolds provided by explicit instruction.
Appropriate use of explicit instruction is indeed “student-centered,” in that it incorporates what we know about how students learn new material and about the skills they need in order to be successful. Additionally, many students struggle with learning when necessary guidance and support are not provided. (Anita Archer, Charles Hughes, 2011)

Addressing explicit instruction boils down to the HOW. How do teachers ensure they are in fact, teaching explicitly? Not only did Barak Rosenshine define explicit instruction, but he based his findings on actual brain research. Teachers, in particular, should be invested in the effectiveness of their practices and how students best benefit. Effective practices can be placed into three categories: modeling, practicing, and multiple exposures. See it. Do it. Repeat. Although each child is different, most of the ways we internalize and retain information is through repetition, patterns, and visuals. Instructional practices that dwell under these umbrellas of learning should be a top priority when designing instruction (I use the word design as it evokes the importance of action, whereas planning projects a more passive connotation). Rosenshine details 10 principles of instruction that are necessary for effective, explicit teaching:
1. Review the last lesson
2. Present new material
3. Ask a large number of questions
4. Provide models
5. Guide student practice
6. Check for student understanding
7.  Obtain a high success rate (at least 80%)
8. Provide scaffolds
9. Require and monitor independent practice
10. Engage students in a weekly and monthly review
Each of these principles is backed by research on how our brains best learn. “Research-based” is a common buzzword in education and often one that gets left on the back burner. It is common to find practices being utilized in classrooms that are based on teacher preference (sometimes administrative preference) that are not research-based practices. If we want students and their learning to move to the next level we must be driven with intention and proven practices. As we continue to advance and progress in education, it appears that the elements that give us the most “bang for our buck” are often the very pieces we are quick to abandon. One of the most common reasons for not taking the time or intentionality with lesson design/student learning is….lack of time in class. Anita Archer and Charles Hughes must be all too familiar with this reason because they included 8 ways to optimize instructional time in their book, Explicit Instruction: Effective and Efficient Teaching:
Increase the allocated time and time spent teaching in critical content areas.
Ensure an appropriate match between what is being taught and the instructional needs of students.
Start lessons on time and stick to the schedule. (I know, I know, real life happens in the classroom; however, being as consistent as possible is key to sustained learning).
Teach in groups as much as possible.
Be prepared. (EFFORT)
Avoid digressions. Stay on topic and avoid unrelated content.
Decrease transition time when moving from one activity to another.
Use routines.
It is vital that teachers and administrators understand the significance of focusing on these practices. ALL students will benefit from more concise and organized instructional time along with practices that support explicit teaching. Additionally, a grave injustice is done when we abandon such elements as this will affect our most marginalized student populations (Special education, ELL, students of color, etc.). In turn, this can create gaps in learning and cause students’ confidence in their learning to decrease. Explicit teaching is not just for struggling students. Explicit teaching is not just what you do when state testing rears its head. Explicit teaching is TEACHING. It should be a part of our art. Our style. Our practice. Students need every ounce of effective instruction we have to offer and unfortunately, we seem to be trading effective practices for innovative personas. The notion that one cannot be innovative and also explicit is detrimental to our craft.
Teachers, we have the capacity to broaden horizons, change lives, and break barriers. This can only happen if we are serious about the true art and science of teaching. Education should not be a field where only one item is served. Education should be a buffet of best practices, differentiated and designed with our students in mind. We must stop being implicit with our instruction for students and embrace explicitness in all its glory.
The most effective teachers ensured that students efficiently acquired, rehearsed, and connected knowledge. Many went on to hands-on activities, but always after, not before, the basic material was learned.
-Barak Rosenshine

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