There are so many implicit assumptions made in this chapter it's difficult to know where to start. Sorry, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to have a rant.
I can't face going through the sixteen elements of explicit instruction. (Sixteen? The author refers to the capacity of working memory being limited to seven plus or minus two bits of information (although s/he doesn't put it like that) but then expects teachers to bear in mind sixteen elements.) So instead I want to rant about the six principles of effective instruction (p.5).
1. Optimize engaged time/time on task. The more time students are actively participating in
instructional activities, the more they learn.
No, they don't. Learning vs time on task follows an inverted U-shape due to habituation and fatigue. Consolidation of new material takes place (fairly obviously) when the brain isn't focused on absorbing new material - ie during 'downtime'. That's why so many writers, scientists etc spend so much time walking, gardening, painting and so on.
2. Promote high levels of success. The more successful (i.e., correct/accurate) students are when
they engage in an academic task, the more they achieve.
There's some evidence for the benefits of error-free learning in some circumstances but the best predictor of persistence on task is actually variable reinforcement - ie a mix of success and failure. Different people respond differently to different reward schedules.
3. Increase content coverage. The more academic content covered effectively and efficiently, the
greater potential for student learning.
The author hasn't defined 'academic' but otherwise this maxim is self-evident.
4. Have students spend more time in instructional groups. The more time students participate
in teacher-led, skill-level groups versus one-to-one teaching or seatwork activities, the more
instruction they receive, and the more they learn.
Doesn't that depend on a) the child and b) the task? One of the things that bothers me about educational 'methods' is that outcomes are often reported at group level. And there appears to be a growing popularity for meta-analysis. A particular method might be shown to be most effective for most
children, and therefore it makes sense to use it in schools; that doesn't mean it is more effective for every
child. There are lots of references in this chapter to children with 'learning disabilities' as if they all have a variant of the same condition - not that their learning difficulties might vary widely and require different approaches.
5. Scaffold instruction. Providing support, structure, and guidance during instruction promotes
academic success, and systematic fading of this support encourages students to become more
I 've commented on scaffolding in more detail below.
6. Address different forms of knowledge. The ability to strategically use academic skills and
knowledge often requires students to know different sorts of information at differing levels: the
declarative level (what something is, factual information), the procedural level (how something is
done or performed), and the conditional level (when and where to use the skill).
This is a rather simplistic typology of knowledge and not one based on how the brain works. Unless you derive your understanding of knowledge types from the way the brain processes information you will come unstuck.
Scaffolding is clearly a key component of explicit instruction but the author doesn't appear to be clear about how or why.
My first introduction to scaffolding came one weekend when my daughter (then 11) had a story to write for homework, but kept saying she couldn't do it and didn't want to talk about why. I was mystified since she spent much of her spare time engaged in creative writing and had written many stories at school. By Sunday afternoon she was distraught and agreed to let me look at what she had to do. I unfolded the paper. The heading said "A plane crash". I immediately saw, in my mind's eye, a tiny silver dot on a vast expanse of sand under a relentless sun. I zoomed in to see three figures huddled in the shade under one crumpled wing of the aircraft. I looked at the first paragraph. It said;
'Here are some words you might find helpful:
mountain blizzard forest avalanche rescue...'
My brain did that thing that brains do when they are expecting coffee and get tea instead; a moment of complete discombobulation as the words provided clashed head-on with my Saharan scenario. I understood why my daughter was so distressed. She also pointed out that she had demonstrated, more times than she could remember, that she could write stories about anything and everything and had always got very good very marks for them. As she put it "They know I can write stories. They know I'll write a good story in the SATs test. Why do I have to keep writing stories? It's a school. I'm supposed to be learning things. Why can't I do something I haven't done hundreds of times before?"
I went to see her teacher. She explained that the useful words were 'scaffolding' and had been shown to be helpful to children who found creative writing challenging. I asked what happened to children who found scaffolding interfered with the creative process. She couldn't tell me.
The author of this chapter explains scaffolding as follows (p.10);
"Scaffolding in an instructional context is analogous to the scaffolding used when
constructing a building. A lot of scaffolding is used as construction begins, but as
the building begins to take shape, the scaffolding is removed in stages until the
building stands on its own. Also, the purpose of scaffolding in both construction
and instruction is the same: to allow individuals to do a task that could not be done
without using it at first. "
This takes today's prize for a hopeless analogy. This person has clearly never built a house. Or even watched one being built. Not carefully, anyway. The first thing a competent housebuilder does is lay foundations. Scaffolding is not required at this point. Indeed it would probably get in the way. Then the lower levels of the house are constructed. Scaffolding is required only when the lower levels reach head height. As the building grows, you need to erect scaffolding so you can reach the upper levels safely. The scaffolding will need to be extended once you start working on the roof. Once the roof is complete, you can start dismantling the scaffolding and once your windows, guttering and external drainage are in place, the scaffolding can be removed completely.
The author of this chapter seems to think that scaffolding is used to support the house whilst it's being constructed. Some houses are indeed erected round a supporting framework, but the framework isn't taken away once the house is complete because if it was, the house would fall down.
I'm aware that the effectiveness of educational scaffolding doesn't depend on a poor analogy, but if the author is ignorant of something as commonplace and important as how people build dwellings, it doesn't inspire confidence (in me at least) that s/he knows what s/he is talking about in other areas.
Why I'm concerned about what I've read about explicit instruction
In order to scientifically test an educational method you do need to test
it. It isn't sufficient to cite supporting evidence only; you also need to look at cases where it doesn't work and figure out why. There might be a method you haven't thought of that works even better.
I'm also concerned that there's little evidence of explicit instruction being derived from a good understanding of the biological and cognitive mechanisms of learning - or why they vary across the school population. It look to me like someone has stumbled across a method that's better than any other method available and that's good enough.
I can quite see why explicit instruction could be effective in respect of some knowledge and skills, but to me this sounds like another educational fad, along the lines of Frederick Taylor's scientific management http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_management
- and look where that got us.