How Explicit Instruction Demystifies Complex Learning Behaviors

Higher-order thinking (HOT) is finally getting its due. Thought leaders and practitioners are emerging from the fog of worksheets and workbooks that has obscured the clear-eyed and brain-based teaching needed for long-term learning and actionable understanding. As researchers have been telling us for decades, higher-order thinking, using original ideas to process information, is needed to activate the growth of neurons and the structures that connect them.

Appreciating and acknowledging how essential HOT is to developing high-functioning 21st century students is a good beginning, however, we’ve also learned that thinking strategies must be taught explicitly. 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. Following, are some pointers that may be valuable additions to your schema for explicit strategy instruction:

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 is sufficient to provide students with the working knowledge required to select and use a strategy when stumped by a challenge.

For students to know what to do when they don’t know, 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 and
  2. Explain the usefulness of the strategy and relate the strategy to the  students’ prior experiences.
  3. Clarify underlying concepts (e.g. organizing) by using manipulative materials, graphics, or stories.
  4. Model the use of the strategy while thinking aloud. (You will first have to unpack the strategy, which you use automatically.)
  5. Engage the students in retelling what they observed. Make a written record of the steps you used.
  6. Begin whole group guided practice using the strategy in the context of content material and continue practice gradually releasing responsibility.

As referred to above, if instruction ends with this teacher-directed lesson, we cannot assume students will initiate the strategy independently. Proficient readers, writers, and problem solvers 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 to select, clarify and facilitate the use of a new behavior in conjunction with other essential strategies. The curriculum takes on a dual agenda of teaching process and product. In effect the teacher invites the explicit teaching of strategies to the table along with the content of learning.