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Explicit teaching and instruction

‘Explicitly teaching pupils the knowledge and skills they need to succeed within particular subject areas is beneficial.’

ITT core content framework and Early career framework, DfE, 2019 

Topics on this page:

  • Why use explicit teaching?
  • How to use explicit teaching
  • Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction
  • Applying the Principles of Instruction in geography teaching
  • Observation Activity: Principles of Instruction
  • How to use the Principles of Instruction
  • Reading

Why use explicit teaching?

Explicit teaching is a way to transmit geographical knowledge from teacher to student. As explained in Geography teaching styles, when students are ‘novices’ in a geography topic, it can be the most efficient way to introduce them to new ideas, concepts and skills. Teaching new ideas explicitly means that the teacher carefully explains the new ideas to students. The DfE framework requires that new teachers know the benefits of explicit teaching as shown in the opening quote.

Good explicit teaching and instruction is interactive; it is not just ‘one way’. As the teacher explains the new geographical idea, they involve students through questions and discussion until gradually they pass the responsibility for learning to them. As Coe (2013) says, ‘Learning happens when people have to think hard’, so students must play their part by thinking hard about the new knowledge they are being taught. Only then will the new knowledge become part of their long-term memory and learning can be said to have taken place.

Engagement is a word that is often used in the context of teaching lessons. Students must be active participants in learning. Do not just think about the activities for your lessons, but focus on the learning you want your students to achieve.

When you plan lessons, select an activity (or activities) for the intended geographical learning and the students’ learning needs. Consider the geographical skills that the activity requires and whether students will need to be taught these. Are general skills being developed as well? Is your intention for students to practise an existing skill or apply existing understanding in a different context? Consider carefully how to introduce the activity. What will you expect the students to produce from the activity, and how will you monitor, manage and conclude it?

Considerable enthusiasm has been generated in the UK in recent years to adopt teacher-led explicit teaching, which is sometimes described as ‘direct teaching’. This should not be confused with Direct Instruction (DI), which is a specific teaching programme in the USA that uses prescribed teaching tasks, requires repeated testing and all students are expected to learn skills at the same pace.

How to use explicit teaching

Explicit teaching is usually used to describe whole-class teaching. For a teacher to employ explicit teaching, they need to master three important teaching skills: explaining, modelling and questioning. These three teaching skills go hand in hand to support one another. 

A teacher cannot explain a new geographical concept, or model a process, without asking questions. Nor can a teacher ask questions to check understanding without interrupting their questioning to explain or model something if they realise that it has been misunderstood.

Explicit teaching begins from what students already know and the teacher explains or models the new content they wish students to learn. The teacher’s goal is to develop students’ mental models of the key concepts, knowledge and skills they are teaching, so that students can study a geographical topic successfully. Once students have the basic knowledge, they begin to contribute and build onto their new knowledge. Explicit teaching helps to build geographical knowledge gradually.

Cognitive science research suggests that explicit teaching should begin with initial instruction/explanation. The teacher introduces a small section of content; not too much to cause cognitive overload. They explain the key geographical idea, concept or skill, linking it to prior learning. They may model an example, especially if it is a process or skill they are explaining.

Next, the teacher begins to build students’ mental models through guided practice; this is where teacher and students work on a task or discuss the idea together. Such guided practice helps students to understand and become more proficient with the new idea and any related vocabulary that has been introduced.

The students practise using the new idea while the teacher guides and supports; they use questions and scaffold learning as required. At first, students may require significant support to get to grips with the new material. The teacher may use questions to explore their understanding or they may use an activity to discuss what they have learned with a partner and explain it to them in their own words. The teacher may check for understanding using mini whiteboards.

When a teacher believes students have grasped the new idea, the teacher will usually ask students to apply their new knowledge to another example or a different context. This is generally known as independent practice. Students may work independently or in small collaborative groups or pairs on the task. 

The teacher will target their support on those students that need help. Finally, the teacher reduces their support and students become fluent with the new idea and it becomes part of their long-term memory. However, it might take several lessons for some students to achieve true fluency.

Explicit teaching is seen as particularly important for so-called ‘novice’ learners, i.e. when they are being introduced to new information and ideas, such as at the start of a teaching unit. All learners are novices at some point (even new teachers), so it has its place in your learning too! But explicit teaching is not the whole story.

When learners are so-called ‘expert’ learners, i.e. they have acquired some learning about a topic, they require different teaching approaches if they are to acquire deeper knowledge and further develop their conceptual understanding. In geography, this requires approaches such as geographical enquiry and dialogic teaching, which are discussed elsewhere in these pages.

Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction

Barak Rosenshine (2012) was a history teacher in Chicago who became an educational researcher and devised ten research-based principles of instruction. ‘Instruction’ is a term often used in the USA as a proxy for ‘teaching’, as it is in Rosenshine’s case. However, in general the terms ‘instruction’ and ‘teaching’ are not mutually exclusive. You ‘instruct’ soldiers where there is a requirement to be ‘obeyed’ whereas you ‘teach’ students, which involves thinking. A subtle but important difference.

Alexander (2020) distinguishes between instruction, which is telling students what to do and/or how to do it, and exposition, which is imparting information, explaining ideas/procedures or narrating.

Roberts (2023) pp. 90-1, following the distinction made by Alexander between exposition and instruction, describes instruction as ‘demonstrating and explaining how to do something new or giving instructions about procedure‘.

Rosenshine’s principles provide a clear and comprehensive introduction to the fundamentals of evidence-informed teaching and have been widely adopted in UK schools. His research focused on knowledge-rich teaching and the ideas and suggestions he offers for classroom practice resonate with geography teachers because they are about building students’ knowledge.

The explicit teaching skills of explainingmodelling and questioning are clear strands through his ten principles, supported by ‘reviewing material’ and giving students ‘opportunities to practice’. (NB ‘reviewing material’ is more commonly known in UK education as retrieval practice and Rosenshine’s ‘opportunities to practice’ is better known as independent practice.)

Roberts (2023) p 16 describes the principles as ‘a curious mixture of advocacy of a particular pedagogic ideology, common sense and ideas informed by constructivist theories of learning‘. She points out that they cite references to a narrow range of subjects (mathematics, reading, modern languages and chemistry) with only one reference to their application in social studies. She believes that ‘no framework should become a straitjacket that prescribes and controls exactly what teachers do. In the context in which they are working, teachers should be able to make their own professional decisions about, for example, how to start lessons, how to question or when and how frequently to test students’ questions or when and how frequently to test students, informed by a wide body of research, by their understanding of the purposes of education and schooling and by reflecting on their own classroom experience‘.

Applying the Principles of Instruction in geography teaching

In this section we consider Rosenshine’s ten principles in the context of teaching about weather charts and weather forecasting to a key stage 3 class; this is part of a teaching unit about extreme weather and climate. We also show how the Principles of Instruction relate to the DfE framework for new teachers.

Principle 1 – Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning.

DFE frameworks: prior knowledge plays an important role in how pupils learn; committing some key facts to their long-term memory is likely to help pupils learn more complex ideas.

The teacher must ‘signpost’ for the students their existing knowledge so that the new knowledge can be linked to prior learning. In this example, the teacher is introducing students to weather charts in the context of extreme weather, so they will need to draw on their prior knowledge of defining weather using weather forecasts and making weather observations.

Some prior knowledge will be from their general experience of ‘weather’, but they might have undertaken some weather recordings and weather studies in primary school. As the geography teacher reviews previous learning about weather and helps students to recall useful prior learning, they should decide how much guidance and support the students are likely to need in this lesson and in which areas (see Making connections for geographical learning).

Principle 2 – Present new material in small steps with student practice after each step.

DFE frameworks: Effective teachers introduce new material in steps, explicitly linking new ideas to what has been previously studied and learned and break complex material into smaller steps (e.g. using partially completed examples to focus pupils on the specific steps).

The teacher teaches the students some new information about weather charts and symbols and knows this is best done in ‘chunks’ to avoid overloading working memory. They are also aware they must keep within the capacity of students’ working memory and must limit the number of pieces of new information given at one time. They introduce the content in small steps to make it manageable. They use images of the symbols and charts to help students understand; they are employing dual coding (see Exposition and explaining).

Principle 3 – Ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students.

DFE frameworks: Questioning is an essential tool for teachers; questions can be used for many purposes, including to check pupils’ prior knowledge, assess understanding and break down problems.

As the teacher explains about weather charts, they ask lots of question to check students’ understanding about UK weather and the information represented by different symbols. The teacher seeks to elicit any misconceptions, e.g. can students interpret the correct wind direction shown by a symbol? (see Teacher-led questioning).

Principle 4 – Provide models.

DFE frameworks: Modelling helps pupils understand new processes and ideas; good models make abstract ideas concrete and accessible.

Modelling is an essential teaching approach in geography and in this example the teacher demonstrates to students how to complete a weather diary table, which will be their homework task (see Modelling and demonstration).

Principle 5 – Guide student practice.

DFE frameworks: Practice is an integral part of effective teaching; ensuring pupils have repeated opportunities to practise, with appropriate guidance and support, increases success.

Students only understand geographical ideas and concepts by thinking hard about them. The teacher selects appropriate activities that help students to think about and use the new geographical knowledge. This helps to consolidate the new learning. In this case, the teacher leads a class discussion using a video weather forecast. Together the teacher and class compile a weather record for their area that the teacher records on the whiteboard.

In order to give the students time to practise the new ideas that have been introduced, the teachers asks the students to quiz each other on the meaning of key weather words and symbols. This will help them to process the new knowledge and connect it to previous learning. The teacher monitors their learning, and intervenes to correct errors or provide further explanations or examples, as required. The development of students’ mental models for the new learning is important at this stage of the lesson if the individual practice that follows is to be effective.

Principle 6 – Check for student understanding.

DFE frameworks: Check prior knowledge and understanding during lessons by structuring tasks and questions to enable the identification of knowledge gaps and misconceptions.

The teacher asks students to work in pairs to write about the pattern of weather using the video forecast they looked at earlier and a weather chart. The geography teacher has thought carefully about the specific knowledge, vocabulary, concepts and skills they want students to acquire about the weather and they know what they are going to assess. By asking questions of individuals and observing how students complete the task, which requires them to rehearse the new material and summarise it in their collaborative writing, the teacher can check whether students understand the new learning (see Assessing students’ learning).

Principle 7 – Obtain a high success rate.

DFE frameworks: Designing practice, generation and retrieval tasks that provide just enough support so that pupils experience a high success rate when attempting challenging work.

The teacher checks that students are responding to the task by writing accurately about the weather and do not reveal misconceptions or partial learning. If this is identified, such as misinterpreting a weather symbol, the teacher must intervene to correct the problem.

Principle 8 – Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.

DFE frameworks: Guides, scaffolds and worked examples can help pupils apply new ideas, but should be gradually removed as pupil expertise increases.

Scaffolding can take several forms, but in this case the teacher provides questions to help students to interpret the weather chart. They will gradually reduce this framework as students become more adept at interpreting weather charts (see Scaffolding geographical learning).

Principle 9 – Require and monitor independent practice.

DFE frameworks: Practice is an integral part of effective teaching; ensuring pupils have repeated opportunities to practise, with appropriate guidance and support, increases success.

Independent practice does not always mean solo working. It refers to students working without direct teacher support. The task to write about the pattern of weather using a video forecast and a weather chart was a paired activity, rather than students working separately. This was so they could talk together and work out what to write. In geography, independent practice might often include cooperative activities where groups of students work together to apply a new idea/concept to a different context or place (see Independent practice: learning activities for geography classrooms).

Principle 10 – Engage students in weekly and monthly review.

DFE frameworks: Develop fluency by using retrieval and spaced practice to build automatic recall of key knowledge.

Geography is an information-rich subject and students need to continually rehearse and review their knowledge to develop interconnections between prior learning and new content. In this weather example, the teacher plans to return to the weather terms and vocabulary introduced in this lesson as they move further into the extreme weather topic. Learning something new in geography can take time, and students benefit from multiple exposures to new information spaced out over time (see Retrieval practice).

As you observe different geography teachers, consider each of these ten principles in an appropriate context. Also use these principles when you are reviewing your lessons with your mentor.

Discuss with you mentor examples you have observed where:

  • explicit teaching of knowledge, concepts and skills can help form effective mental models
  • guided practice can help students to learn by asking them to think hard about new material
  • checking for understanding and misunderstandings can stop misconceptions forming.
  • For further examples see Applying Rosenshine to the geography classroom written by Mark Enser for the Charter College Early Career Hub. This also includes follow-up reading for each principle. Please note you need to be a member to access this article. 

How to use the Principles of Instruction

All the principles are illustrated above in relation to one lesson, but do not try to incorporate all ten principles in every lesson! Different lessons will require a different focus and you might have whole lessons of practice to develop geographical thinking. 

When you are teaching students new knowledge and skills, you would expect all elements of the Principles of Instruction to feature in some form over a series of lessons. Instructional teaching must be flexible and responsive, so you will adapt it according the level of understanding that your students achieve.

There is plenty to think about here and, as a new teacher, do not expect to take on all the principles at once. Do not treat it as a checklist. It is not meant to be that. See it as a set of processes that flow through a series of lessons. However, these ten principles are a useful self-evaluation tool to ask yourself: Which of these do I use regularly? Which do I avoid?

Reading

Also available from the ITE section