How Explicit Instruction Demystifies Complex Learning Behaviors

Common Core Standards are designed to ensure that learning takes place as knowledge, big ideas or concepts, skills and their underlying strategies are integrated across the curriculum. The skills required in the CC Standards place an emphasis on high-level thinking. Many teachers never received training or practice with these skills in their education. Nor have they had professional training in the teaching of the strategies necessary for the use of these skills.

Educational researchers have pointed out time and again thinking strategies must be taught explicitly because learning how to think is not an automatic by-product of studying certain subjects, assimilating the products of someone else’s thinking, or simply being asked to think about a subject or topic. Therefore teaching these skills (and their underlying strategies) explicitly is both necessary and challenging.

Many teachers are not sure what constitutes explicit teaching. There are degrees of explicitness just as there are degrees of strength. Many teachers believe that telling their students the name of the strategy they are asking them to use, is explicit teaching. Some believe that demonstrating the use of the strategy is explicit teaching. Neither of these teaching behaviors provide students with the working knowledge required to select and use a strategy that is challenging or unknown to them.

To be explicit, the teacher begins by using direct instruction to build students’ awareness
of an essential strategy. Working with conscious intent, which she shares with her
students, the teacher follows these steps:

  1. Name the strategy being taught.
  2. Explain the importance of the strategy to the students.
  3. Relate the new strategy and concept to the students’ prior experience.
  4. Model the use of the strategy.
  5. Verbalize the thought processes being used.
  6. Engage the students in reflection and retelling of what they observed.

The first lesson that takes students through the sequence listed above, is most effective when embedded content-free material. Using manipulative materials, representative materials or students’ personal experiences, is as brain theory tells us, the way to make a strategy stick. (e.g., Have an actual treasure hunt to teach the strategy for locating relevant information in a text.)

If, however, instruction ends with this teacher-directed lesson, it would not result in students learning the behaviors necessary for developing expertise. Excellent readers, writers, and thinkers do not use strategies one at a time, nor do they use them simply when under strong instructional control.

Instruction has to be applied to problem-solving. In this interactive phase of mediation the teacher coaches the students as they put the strategy to work. When challenges arise while in the process of reading, writing, and problem solving, the teacher engages the students in dialogue in order to select, clarify and facilitate the use of a new strategy in conjunction with other essential strategies. The curriculum takes on a duel agenda of teaching process and product. In effect the teacher invites the explicit teaching of strategies to the table and makes that spotlight on strategies part of the content of learning.