April.29.2024

Explicit teaching mandate – a pushback now is critical

By Jill Brown

Today, NSW teachers will spend  their professional learning session focused on explicit teaching, also known as explicit instruction. 

The NSW Education Department Secretary Murat Dizdar told the ABC: “On day one, term two, which is a school development day, right across 2,200 schools, we will be undertaking explicit teaching learning, in every single school in New South Wales.”

Excessive focus on explicit methods will have side effects and could lead to students not meeting curriculum expectations.

A pushback is critical – explicit teaching is not a magic bullet, nor should it be the single pedagogy in any classroom. Definitions of explicit teaching vary, as do its implementations. The approach to explicit teaching and its effectiveness will depend on the discipline and specific focus in question.

 Learning is complex: Multiple pedagogical approaches are needed

We all agree that teaching and learning are critically important but complex. Teachers are focused on improving student learning. However, in Australia the 3 yearly PISA results over the last 2 decades show a decline in 15-year-old students’ ability to apply their reading, scientific and mathematical knowledge and skills to solve real-life problems.  PISA focuses on the capacity of students to analyse, reason and communicate ideas effectively, to continue learning throughout life, and become successful in the workplace.  One of the highest ranked countries in PISA has mathematical problem solving at the centre of their curriculum framework. In Singapore teachers are highly valued 

Those pushing explicit instruction,do not recognise that the literature doesn’t support its use in mathematics education. It’s either commentary or uses literature focused on research outside the field of mathematics education (e.g., literacy in the early years) and is not drawing on other mathematics education research literature. Other research is in very specific situations, such as students with some specific disability, or where the ‘thing’ being learned is very narrow.

The language used to describe various pedagogical approaches from general to specific matters. Advocates of explicit instruction or explicit teaching often state this should be the main (or only) approach used by teachers and often incorrectly infer it is the only evidence-based approach. Definitions of explicit teaching vary, as do its implementations. Importantly, the approach to explicit teaching and its effectiveness will depend on the discipline and specific focus in question. 

Comparing the pair

Explicit teaching is typically described as teacher-centred. A lesson based on this ideology begins with the teacher presenting their understanding of the lesson focus, followed by an explanation of important ideas, and a demonstration of how to do  particular examples. Students then work on similar ‘tasks’ with teacher support reducing over time as students demonstrate they are able to achieve success independently. Such lessons conclude with the teacher highlighting the important ideas from the lesson. 

Alternative approaches, where students investigate or inquire into mathematical and real-world problems  are typically described as student-centred. A lesson based on this ideology typically begins by considering a real-world situation or mathematical context that demands exploration and application of prior mathematical and/or real-world knowledge and problem-solving processes. As is often the case in social settings (including workplaces), students are encouraged to work on the task both independently and in small groups. The skilful teacher then draws on their planning and observations of students’ learning to orchestrate discussion whereby key ideas and thinking strategies are shared and evaluated by the class. This too, is explicit teaching… but the enactment allows for greater student agency and voice. This interactive, cyclical process might be repeated several times as students are supported to solve the problem.

Is it simply a matter of “Teachers, choose your pedagogy!”?

No. Australia is a low-equity education system. This means our classrooms are highly diverse. The idea that there is one best way to teach all students is not evidence-based and warrants scrutiny. Making judgments on how to teach students well relies on professional knowledge of the school, the students, the curriculum, and the real-world contexts that are important for students to learn about. Planning for student learning, and teaching effectively in the moment, are skills that teachers develop through their initial teaching qualification(s) and practice over the course of their careers. A skilful teacher will adopt a balance of teacher and student-centred approaches, depending on what the learning focus for the day calls for. 

Teaching and learning is complex. Thus, there is no one way for teachers to act in every classroom irrespective ot school type (e.g., mainstream, special education), Year level (F-12 and beyond), discipline in focus (e.g., mathematics), time of year, and even time in a lesson sequence or unit of work.

Once ‘something’ is learned it can be challenging to consider how to best teach that ‘something’ to others. This is why teachers have discipline knowledge, pedagogical knowledge (both general and specific to each discipline they teach) and curricula knowledge. We should value teachers and their knowledge of teaching, initially developed in their University degrees, and developed further as they teach and engage in professional learning – especially that specific to the specific subject and year levels in focus.

How are education systems responding to the debate?

In 2017, the Victorian Government published the High Impact Teaching Strategies, commonly referred to as the HITS. These are based on the work of Hattie’s (2009) meta-analysis of over 800 studies, his 2012 book and work from Marzano (2017). A meta-analysis is a synthesis of many different studies across levels of schooling (early childhood, primary, secondary and tertiary), types of schooling (e.g., mainstream schools, special education) and discipline areas (e.g., English, Mathematics). Hattie’s approach thus aggregates findings from many studies together. This ‘averaging’ approach can be criticised but the top ten strategies are unsurprisingly part of every teacher’s set of competencies. 

Explicit teaching (following Hattie, 2009) is one of the 10 high impact teaching  strategies or instructional practices presented. An argument is made that all 10 HITS: Setting goals, structuring lessons, explicit teaching, worked examples, collaborative learning, multiple exposures, questioning, feedback, metacognitive strategies and differentiated teaching should be part of a teacher’s practice. Some of these practices are described using different terminology elsewhere. Importantly, the HITS are seen as being used alongside other effective strategies by teachers. 

However, in different jurisdictions explicit teaching is presented as ‘all encompassing’  or all central to other more specific strategies including questioning, feedback, connections.

Questioning

If we think about questioning – an essential pedagogical approach in every discipline and Year level, and which all teachers would aim and plan to be effective – different questions have different purposes. The importance a teacher gives to the students’ response can vary greatly. Most secondary mathematics pre-service students would read an article such as Questioning our patterns of questioning to develop an understanding of different patterns of interactions (initiation-response-feedback, funnelling or focusing). In planning and in-the-moment in the lesson, a teacher selects the interaction type depending on the specific focus for learning at that point in the lesson: mainly providing feedback (IRF), or funnelling students to use a specific strategy, or helping students’ articulate their current thinking. Teachers ask important planned questions and respond to student input in ways related to the learning focus.

Aiming for methods that make sense

Any discussion about teaching must be specific to what is intended to be learned by students. Otherwise too much is open to interpretation.

We should be aiming for methods that are understood and make sense to students – these won’t be forgotten in the longer term. Teaching needs to focus on learning opportunities that persist beyond the short term.

Those who expect learning to be evident immediately do not understand what it means to learn or to understand. Learning  is an ongoing process.

Two examples from within mathematics education are included here. Anthony and Hunter’s (2009) review of the characteristics of effective teaching of mathematics discussed explicit language instruction and explicit strategies for communicating mathematics (explaining and justifying) but did not report evidence for explicit teaching as effective teaching of mathematics. Discussing research-informed strategies for teaching mathematics,  Sullivan notes that if explicit instruction is taken to be “drill-orientated approaches, with the teacher doing most of the talking” and mathematical thinking, then this is not conducive to student engagement nor motivation to learn. 

If we look at the curriculum teachers are implementing, it is very clear in the Australian curriculum, both recent and current, that explicit instruction alone will not provide opportunities for students to meet the expectations of the general capabilities, cross-curriculum priorities, nor of specific disciplines (especially mathematics).

The first aim

According to the Australian Curriculum V9.0, the first aim of Mathematics is to: “ensure that students become confident, proficient and effective users and communicators of mathematics, who can investigate, represent and interpret situations in their personal and work lives, think critically, and make choices as active, engaged, numerate citizens.”

This cannot be achieved without students engaged in decision-making about their own learning. Equally, the proficiencies and processes that underpin the mathematics  curriculum cannot be learned solely via explicit instruction.

The school classroom, the people ‘doing mathematics’ should be the learners, not the teachers, hence the term ‘student-centred’. Teachers do their mathematics in preparation for class. Mathematics teachers need to use varied pedagogies, both planned and in the moment.

Irrespective of definitions, teachers plan for effective teaching and have specific learning goals in mind. As a lesson unfolds, teachers make decisions – based on their planning – and use a variety of pedagogical strategies to maximise learning opportunities for all students. All teachers have the learning at the centre of their planning. In the classroom, the teacher should be empowered to make decisions about pedagogy based on their teachers education, prior classroom experiences, the curriculum, and professional learning (especially that focused on knowing how students learn particular ideas in a discipline.

Complex and nuanced

Teaching and learning is complex and nuanced. Thus, there is no one way for teachers to act in every classroom irrespective ot school type (e.g., mainstream, special education), Year level (F-12 and beyond), discipline in focus (e.g., mathematics), time of year, and even time in a lesson sequence or unit of work.

Once ‘something’ is learned it can be challenging to consider how to best teach that ‘something’ to others. This is why teachers have discipline knowledge, pedagogical knowledge (both general and specific to each discipline they teach) and curricula knowledge. 

We should value teachers and their knowledge of teaching, initially developed in their University degrees, and developed further as they teach and engage in professional learning – especially that specific to the specific subject and year levels in focus.

Dr Jill Brown is an Associate Professor in Mathematics Education at Deakin University. She has been working in teacher education for two decades with preservice and inservice secondary, primary and early childhood teachers of mathematics.Jill is internationally recognised for her research in the field of mathematics education. She has an impressive list of publications that focus on mathematical modelling, the teaching and learning of functions, and the use of digital technologies by teachers and students.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

10 thoughts on “Explicit teaching mandate – a pushback now is critical

  1. Bernadette Mercieca says:

    Well said, Jill! It is concerning that the explicit teaching agenda is getting such leverage in NSW particularly. This is not how we prepare our pre-service teachers nor should we. As you so rightly say it is mathematical reasoning and problem solving we should be developing in students, not mimicking the teacher.

  2. Tom Worthington says:

    Professionals are required to act in their interests of their clients, and in the public interest. If teachers think explicit teaching is not good for their students, then they must not do it, even at the risk of being sacked. One option is to say you are doing it, but not. That should be enough to keep the administration happy.

  3. Ania Lian says:

    Thank you Jill.
    Explicit to whom? What I see as explicit, the 25 little ones in front of me may see as confusing: the best way to convince kids that they are inadequate, not just academically, but, possibly as a result also socially. I think policies are created to protect the discipline, but like a helicopter parent, they may squash it. I have no issue with kids explaining what they have learned and have discussions, but creating confusing policies may serve no one.

    So, my main issue with method mandates, as informed by my epxeriences in Southeast Asia, is that mandates prevent research that gives scholars confidence to read, learn and ask questions. Mandates make some questions legitimate, and others not. How can scholars know which ones are legitimate? So they do not ask any and reproduce what told. How exactly is this to serve the field? We might find ourselves where physics used to be when Planck noted “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

  4. Peter says:

    Jill, I just don’t know how this is going to be helpful for the young people in our care. I’m not trying to have a go at you – I hope this doesn’t come across badly. We have to look at what is working Jill.

    If you take an honest look at some of the schools that are improving or already achieving great results around Australia (e.g. Bentleigh West PS, Docklands PS, Serpentine PS, Brandon Park PS and others) they have a focus on Explicit Instruction. This is what the facts are. You have to look at what is working. This ‘other’ or ‘balanced approach with other pedagogies isn’t working. It’s the kids that suffer as a result of this.

    I spent quite a few years investing my time in what is called ‘inquiry/student-centred’ teaching within primary mathematics. I delved deep into it. I consider myself to be quite knowledgeable with that style of pedagogy. I had to abandon it when I learnt and read more. Explicit instruction is, as far as I can see, the way we should be teaching at the moment.

    In regards to the HITS you mention that Explicit Teaching is just ‘one’ of the strategies. You then go on to list many others. Setting goals, structuring lessons, worked examples, collaborative learning, multiple exposures, questioning and feedback. All of these are important aspects of Explicit Teaching. The only one I would have trouble with not being in there is meta cognitive strategies. Sure, you could argue against this; but Jill, if you had a thorough and honest look at what explicit instruction is, you would know this to be the case. I’m not deliberately trying to be provocative. I’m saying this because not enough people are. Surely you have read Rosenshine’s principles that explain much of this?

    I have read Sullivan’s book on research informed strategies. I’ve had quite a few Professional Learning sessions with him too. Seems like a real nice guy, and I’m sure he is meaning well. You say the following: ‘Sullivan notes that if explicit instruction is taken to be “drill-orientated approaches, with the teacher doing most of the talking” and mathematical thinking, then this is not conducive to student engagement nor motivation to learn.’

    From my experience in moving from an Inquiry approach to an explicit approach this is just dishonest. Explicit instruction is very engaging for students. It actually does motivate them to learn because they are successful with explicit instruction. Being successful then motivates them to do more. I say this from my experience in teaching on both sides of this debate. I know I am just a single teacher, but surely this must count for something.

    For saying a pushback is now critical is concerning Jill. We need to do what works. Not on what we feel or would like to work. I’m putting this point across for the sake of the young people in our care – not for the sake of disagreeing.

    Happy to discuss further.

  5. Julianna says:

    Well said, Jill,
    As a high school teacher, I feel sorry for those students who have to sit through 6 periods of explicit teaching every day and remain focused and engaged. What a monotonous reality for students, their learning and experience of school.

  6. Daniel Harris says:

    Thanks for this article Jill. I agree completely, and Australia’s participation in PISA – not just literacy and numeracy tests, but now Creative Thinking as well – demonstrates our contradictory current policies and approaches. Further, we have been criticising other nations’ reliance on direct instruction approaches for decades! Thanks for your well-informed article and I’ll keep circulating it until the minister takes notice.

  7. Roger says:

    An interesting article for an interesting topic. The whole debate on explicit instruction vs inquiry learning has generated a lot of heat, with occasional shafts of light, and it’s interesting to read a range of viewpoints from various sources. This article and Peter’s reply are both worth reading.

    Regarding the lead article on “Pushback”:

    This article advocates the need to push back on recent moves to promote (mandate?) explicit instruction. What needs to be kept in mind, however, is that promotion of explicit instruction is itself a pushback against several decades of promotion of “inquiry learning”, “21st century skills”, “student-centred learning” (…) and more recently “engagement” and “agency”, all of which sound good and in measured dosage can play a role. The general approaches and philosophical assumptions underlying the above have dominated teacher education, curriculum and mandated teaching frameworks in Australia and elsewhere. In many schools here, my own included, they have also been crudely pushed by school leaders as being superior to the boring, old “teacher-centred” approach, which is how explicit instruction has been characterised in this article.

    Teaching experience, student outcomes and a range of research in maths education and other fields all call the above approaches and assumptions into very serious question. (see this link for more detailed info re research – https://fillingthepail.substack.com/p/obvious-claims-about-explicit-teaching )

    It is therefore understandable that advocates from that camp may be feeling some disquiet.

    To be fair, the “straw-man” tactic against explicit instruction has also been used widely against inquiry learning. Common sense would provide for incorporation of inquiry, student choice and real-life application and problem-solving in any learning program.

    But it could very strongly be argued that explicit instruction, properly understood and implemented, can and does enhance student capacity for all this. That’s because students acquire and master knowledge that gives them something to apply and enquire, choose and problem-solve with.

    I do, however, appreciate the author’s perspectives and our common motivation to promote student learning and wellbeing. A very salient point is also acknowledged, namely that teaching and learning is indeed complex and nuanced. In public and political discussion, this complexity and nuance is sadly underappreciated and often reduces complex issues, like the ones raised here, to be reduced to either-or propositions.

    I hope that the ongoing pushbacks in either direction may lead more generally to a pulling forward in our shared understandings of teaching and learning.

  8. The emphasis on explicit teaching in professional development is thought-provoking. While explicit instruction has its merits, it’s essential to blend it with other teaching strategies. As someone who has been a student, and also a teacher in less conventional form. The idea that exploring innovative ways to combine explicit teaching with inquiry-based learning, could indeed enhance student engagement and problem-solving skills. I found this article really compelling.

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