The main weakness of whole-class, explicit instruction (and how to minimise it)

A few years back, when my priority in lesson observations was to impress whoever was watching, I had a few tricks to ensure that a lesson ran smoothly and to make me look pretty good. The first trick was to teach something that the children hadn’t yet seen that was also conceptually fairly simple; this made it a doddle to ‘show progress’. (I know, I know…yuck!) The second trick was to ensure that my interactive whiteboard slides were extremely detailed, so much so that even if I lost my voice, the slides would give a decent explanation on my behalf. The third and most important trick was to plan a lesson with very little teacher talk or modelling. Why did I feel this necessary? Well, this brings me to the title of this blog-post…

Perhaps the greatest strength of whole-class explicit instruction is that it allows a teacher to break down a new concept into several small steps and to model each one. For example, rounding to the nearest hundred can be broken into five steps:

1. Recognise multiples of 100.

2. Find the next multiple of 100 above a given number.

3. Find the multiple of 100 below a given number.

4. Find the midpoint between two adjacent multiples of 100.

5. Compare a given number to a midpoint.

Explicitly teaching these five steps seems to promote a pretty decent understanding of what rounding means and how to do it (with shortcuts being taught later). It allows a teacher to see, and address, exactly which steps of the process might cause some to struggle. However, this same deconstruction into steps also accentuates the greatest weakness of whole-class explicit instruction, particularly to those observing a one-off lesson: Often when one group of students – let’s call them strugglers – needs further help with a step, there will be other students – let’s call them high-fliers – who already find the same step to be trivially easy. (Remember: these are not fixed labels; these two groups are merely the students who do and don’t struggle with a given step.) This is, of course, a more regular occurrence in a class with a large spread of current attainment. To anyone observing, this could look like the lesson has been pitched incorrectly or that differentiation is lacking. The alternative – typically a lesson with activities differentiated by task to the exact needs of various groups and with minimal teacher talk – certainly looks better in a one-off observation: the kids can all be busy and the highest attainers are demonstrably challenged. However, in the long run it is in the interests of the whole class – even the highest attainers – that the vast bulk of the class master the taught content so that their teacher doesn’t have to focus more and more of her attention on supporting those that have become irrevocably left behind.* A reliance upon frequent task-based differentiation – while it can lead to smooth-looking lessons – accepts and increases the gap between the highest and lowest attainers, and eventually is bad news for both. Whole-class, explicit teaching is a distinctly messier, less predictable affair, but it means that teachers constantly address the gaps between the lowest and highest-attaining students, temporarily privileging the interests of the former in the long-term interests of all, including the latter.

To recap, the greatest potential weakness of whole-class, explicit instruction is that the high-fliers will sometimes need to independently complete tasks that deepen thinking while the teacher’s attention focuses on the strugglers who are grappling with a single step in a new concept. This may seem less than ideal, but only by not moving on until the vast majority have mastered each step will a teacher lay the foundations upon which the learning of the whole class relies.

That said, what can we do to minimise this potential weakness of whole-class explicit instruction?

  1. When planning, consider each step of a new concept, and ask the following question: What task will I set to deepen the thinking of the high-fliers while I help the strugglers? (e.g. In my rounding example above, I could ask children to define a multiple or to write a list of numbers that would and would not be multiples of 100, explaining how they can tell the difference. The best examples require no extra resourcing. They can simply be written on a whiteboard.)
  2. Don’t be afraid to simply give students further examples to practice. A little over-learning is not the end of the world.
  3. Where appropriate (and this requires careful judgment), enlist the high-fliers to guide the understanding of those struggling with a step.
  4. Be flexible: students will surprise you sometimes with what they do and don’t understand. Accept that effective teaching needs to adapt to the current understanding of your students, and that sometimes you won’t see the true level of this understanding until you’re in the lesson.
  5. That said, pre-assessment is your friend. The more you can assess students’ abilities to tackle each step in a process in advance, the better you will anticipate when you will need tasks to deepen thinking.

Every teaching method has potential weaknesses. I advocate whole-class explicit instruction which privileges the needs of those that most need support and which underpins the learning of the whole class in the long run, even if it means I sometimes look less impressive to an observer and have to trust myself more to think on my feet.**


*Naturally, there will be some circumstances, especially in primary school, where frequent differentiation by task will simply have to take place, but it is best considered as a last resort in my view.

**I don’t stick religiously to whole-class explicit instruction. When appropriate, I quite often teach using collaborative activities, open-ended enquiries (once concepts are mastered), etc. However, explicit whole-class teaching is my default choice when I want a class to understand a new concept.

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