Read this now! – a great post from Ben Newmark on direct teaching.
I would like to begin by clarifying terminology. Put most simply, I will be discussing how to plan extended explanations of substantive content, delivered didactically to a whole class. Bizarrely, for something so simple which, at its essence, is just ‘teaching’ to me, there is no consensus on what this is called. When I first began writing on this I called it Direct Instruction but it has become clear this is misleading. Capitalised, Direct Instruction means something very specific and includes the scripted lessons currently causing much controversy. Greg Ashman wrote a series of blogs on this, which are tremendously helpful to understanding the differences between the various types of didactic delivery. For convenience, I am going to try and stick to the term Explicit Teaching to describe what I mean. Please forgive me if I use other terms and I ask for your patience if I do slip; for the sake of this talk today any other words I use can be treated as synonyms. While I, as will surprise nobody, have opinions on the merits and dangers of Direct Instruction, I am not attempting to get into this today.
The work of influential organisations, individuals and free schools teaching in an unashamedly traditional style has brought explicit teaching in from the pedagogical cold. A decade ago this style of teaching felt distinctly unfashionable. Good teachers were guides on the side and were supposed to facilitate learning, not explain content. Didactic teachers were viewed with deep suspicion and many had a pretty rough time, with a standard ‘target’ from old-style lesson observations being ‘reduce the amount of teacher talk,’ regardless of how good this talk was.
Careers were blighted and, according to some teachers I’ve spoken to, some great practitioners were forced out of the profession altogether.
This presents schools and teachers who wish to plan and deliver great explicit, didactic instruction and explanation with a problem. How can this methodology be developed and improved if the educational system as a whole has been purged of those who know how to do it? Who do we have to teach it, either to ITT students or as CPD to more experienced teachers? A twitter poll I ran a while back, along with my own experiences and other teachers I have spoken with seems to support the severity of this issue, with the great majority of respondents saying they had never, not once in their career received any training on explicit teaching. This is a big problem. Explicit teaching will not improve outcomes if it is done badly and, if teachers are left to plan it with no support it will not, at least in the short term, be done well. This could easily cause schools and teachers initially interested in this powerful pedagogy to misunderstand and dismiss it when it does not yield immediately improved results. There are worrying signs that this is happening already with some dismissing direct instruction as a teacher dryly reading facts to children who are then expected to just memorise and regurgitate them in tests.
While it is a wonderful image, rounding up the old didactic warhorses along with the old civil servants from their allotments and car-boot sales probably is not the most practical solution to this skills gap. Fortunately, I do not think it necessary because, as Mark Enser has pointed out in this great blog, which I will tweet out at the end of today, many of us have been, whether consciously or unconsciously, explicitly teaching for years. To steal Mark’s great phrase, it does seem to be what many of us do when nobody is watching. The problem is that for a long time many of us have been doing it secretly and would never share practice, because we had picked up the belief explicit instruction was somehow cheating; great teaching, for many years, was seen to be facilitating learning experiences with directly telling children things a last resort when more creative methods failed. The highest accolade a teacher could be given by a child was “you don’t feel like you are learning in his lesson”, which created the impression that great teachers never told children things directly, but instead smuggled learning into ‘fun’ activities in the same way my mum used to hide smashed up paracetamol in jam. I remember being clearly told, with great seriousness, that whenever I taught something to a child I was robbing them of the experience of discovering it for themselves.
Teaching explicitly is, of course, the antithesis of this which means until quite recently there was little interest, at least formally, in planning to improve it.
Now, if we are to best take advantage of the opportunity presented by this change in the direction of the wind, we all need to start sharing what works best, so we can plan and deliver great explanations.
Outlining the lessons I have learned is not meant to, in any way, give the impression I have cracked it when of course I have not. I am eager to learn from others about what they do so I can further improve. I am impatient to do so because what little have learned so far took me too long. It is the accumulation of a frustratingly inefficient decade of trial and error, chance conversations in staffrooms, snatched observations of a few teachers who did explicitly instruct and influences outside education altogether. All of this was done stumblingly and secretly because I did not believe teaching this way was really allowed so it never occurred to me to ask for help – to do so would have been to admit defeat as a ‘guide on the side’. Now that the environment has become more conducive my hope is just that some of what I have learned might help others improve faster than I did.
Principle 1: Be sage before you step on stage.
If they are to inspire confidence and attention, anyone speaking about anything has to know what they are on about. Not knowing the material inside out means hesitation, repetition and deviation, which erodes credibility and causes students to switch off. If students have questions we will struggle to convincingly answer them. Children will quickly sense fakery and, quite understandably, stop paying attention. Knowing the textbook is not enough because this is only ever the visible part of the iceberg. For example, a book may include material on Henry VII’s pet monkey but without the context it is just a rather silly and distracting story whereas with strong subject knowledge it assumes meaning and illuminates something rather more profound.
Even in the lower year groups strong subject knowledge is crucial to planning great explanations because it is only by knowing more than we will deliver that we can be sure what we are explaining is of the most importance. It might be helpful to think of this process as a funnel or a sieve; by starting with a greater amount we can be more sure what we choose to deliver is of high value. For my own subject, history, Gustave Flaubert, provides a helpful analogy in saying that the writing of history should be like “drinking an ocean and then pissing a cup”. Planning for great explanations can be seen in the same way.
To teach well explicitly, constantly upgrading our subject specific knowledge must be seen as a professional duty, privilege and perk of our positions. We must accept we can never know enough. We must read widely in our fields, listen to podcasts, and attend museums and lectures. Schools should support this; personally I believe that at least, if not more, time should be devoted to improving subject knowledge as is given to generic pedagogy.
We must be sages before we step on the stage.
Principle 2: What, not how
For many years most ITT and CPD emphasised the procedural at the expense of the substantive. My early planning was almost entirely based around the activities I expected children to do with less thought about the actual material. I confess with some shame that I once spent an entire fortnight facilitating the performance of Ra-Ra Rasputin: The Musical, which involved extensive group work, musical instruments, costumes and got me an ‘outstanding’ in an old style lesson observation. This meant that on the rare occasions I did speak to the class as a whole, my explanations were poor. Feedback from lesson observations advised me to deal with this by reducing the amount of time I spoke to the class, which robbed me of opportunities to practise, dented my confidence and made me worse at it. To avoid this we need to think very carefully about what we are going to teach a class and how we are going to explain it. Strong subject knowledge makes this easier because it means a better understanding of the most significant and important areas of a topic, which can then be better emphasised in the delivery. I find making my own notes leads to better explanations, either through simple bullet points or mind-maps like this one:
The process helps me identify potentially tricky spots, anticipate questions I am likely to be asked, and think up analogies and metaphors that build student understanding and retention of the material. For topics on which I know my own knowledge is still shaky, I will script out what I’m going to say after reading up. I have a physical list of the areas in our curriculum on which I feel I am weak and try to work on these whenever time allows. It should come as no surprise that the more I have learned about the subjects I teach the easier I have found it to explain them to my classes.
All this means my planning looks very different to how it did when I first trained. Whereas formerly, it was focused on the activities in the lessons, now most of my thinking goes on the substantive knowledge and how best to explain this directly instead of trying to find gimmicks on which to tangentially graft learning. I plan in the same way I do my lessons; I start with the objectives and then develop explicit explanation that directly addresses these. This approach is clear in the microteaching YouTube videos I make, in which I write the objectives clearly on the board and refer back to these throughout my delivery to ensure what I am talking about remains anchored to the most important points.
It is also a good idea to share the main thinking points from the explanation with children before beginning. I do this this through writing the questions children will answer on the board and going through them first. These questions, if worded skillfully, can help to keep students listening out for the key points. At the end of an explanation I will usually lead a discussion around them before setting pupils off on independent work.
Principle 3: Teach children to listen:
Of all the untruths in education, saying that children will always behave well if a lesson is well planned is perhaps the most damaging. I am determined not to make this mistake here; even the best planned explicit delivery will be derailed if students misbehave. Early in my career there was a culture in which if you taught this way it was assumed you actually deserved bad behaviour from your classes. Children became unaccustomed to paying close attention while a teacher talked, which made it harder to teach explicitly than it would otherwise have been. Poor learning behaviour is a serious threat to successful explicit instruction because if students are not listening carefully, they will not learn. This makes it impossible for them to then complete tasks based on the teachers’ delivery, which makes further misbehaviour more likely. Worse, disruption, whether we classify it as high or low level, while a teacher is speaking distracts the teacher themselves, affecting the clarity of their instruction and disrupting the learning of the entire group. As the quality of the instruction goes down, so does the credibility of the teacher, which causes other students to switch off too.
If explicit teaching is to be successful teachers and schools must plan to develop and insist on perfect behaviour; children must listen silently, not interrupt and save questions until an appropriate time. Children not used to this must be taught how. While this process can be exhausting to begin with it is necessary. It means stopping and starting again if even one child is fidgeting, staring out of a window, daydreaming or tapping a pen. It means following up these apparently minor misdemeanors with sanctions which are, at least to begin with, likely to make children angry if they are unused to being picked up. But it is necessary and, if the accompanying teaching is good, it will work in the end. It might be helpful to remember, when deep in the fight, that all we are really expecting is that children listen while their teacher talks which should not be controversial.
Sound subject knowledge and perfect learning behaviour are the foundations of planning good explicit explanation but, of course, strong delivery is necessary too.
While, of course, styles of delivery can vary there are, I think, some fundamentals worth sharing.
Principle 4: Vary tone, inflection and cadence.
Using cadence and inflection to stress and add further meaning to parts of an explanation is really effective in helping students understand what they are listening to. Really good subject knowledge makes this much easier but even a little forethought can help. For example, if I am explaining that the percentage of the vote for the Nazis rose I will use a rising inflection whereas if it fell, my tone will reflect that. If something might be considered historically unexpected, I try to sound surprised. Occasionally I will emphasis a particular point differently and more emphatically. In one I punch a fist into my hand while explaining the influence of the SA to underpin the importance of violence to this group. It might be a bit hammy, but used sparingly it is effective.
Principle 5: Use storytelling techniques:
People in general and children specifically find stories easy to remember and storytelling techniques can be effectively harnessed in the classroom. Asking rhetorical questions to foreshadow later events or elements of an explanation help students identify a coherent narrative, which makes material easier to understand and retain. Cliff-hangers are useful in building conceptual bridges between events. For example, in my summary explanation of William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings, I conclude by describing the meeting between the surviving English earls and bishops and asking students to think about why William might have worried about this, which is material we cover in the next timetabled lesson.
I draw heavily on metaphor and analogy in my explanations too. Making conceptual links between different themes and events can be distracting if done unthinkingly but is powerful in driving understanding when done well. This is because by activating prior knowledge and using it to illuminate new material we can free up working memory. It is very important to be careful that metaphors, similes and analogies reinforce learning and do not detract from it. It is very easy to just tell a great story but, if this story is not directly supportive of the most important points it can easily become an albatross, with children remembering the story but not the point it was supposed to illustrate. I was guilty of this in a YouTube video I made on the NHS in which I told a story about my brother meeting a boy in Tanzania who was begging for a mattress on which his elderly grandfather could die. I told this story to try to illustrate why the NHS was so important but while, of course, compelling, it is actually distracting and is the only thing about the video many children remember. It is helpful to keep in mind Willingham’s insightful comment that ‘children learn what they think hard about’ to keep explanations focused on the most important points.
Sometimes metaphors occur to me on the fly while teaching, but mostly they come to mind before the lesson when planning what I will include. One that worked particularly effectively was a comparison between a plate-spinner in a circus and William’s attempts to retain control of England and Normandy, ensure loyalty from his own supporters while defending his new kingdom from both Viking invasion and attacks from Welsh princes.
Principle 6: Repeat and link back: Image of a chain.
Repetition of certain key phrases and terms is something I have stolen from oral traditions and cultures. In such societies stories are the main way in which information is passed from one generation to the next and these can be very lengthy. I saw this first hand when I lived in Ethiopia and spent some time with village communities in which there was no schooling as we would describe it; there, children were taught important information about their society and culture by elders through long stories that they would in turn learn off by heart. To make this easier, elders used various mnemonics and devices, just as the Ancient Greeks did. The Iliad and the Odyssey, while now written, would originally have been learned off by heart. To ensure these stories could be remembered by both the poets and their audiences, repetition of adjectives and certain phrases are used carefully and deliberately. For example, throughout both works, the goddess Athena is repetitively referred to as ‘bright-eyed.’ To a modern reader this can be jarring but this fixes her in long-term memory because it gives her meaning. Willingham, I think, would call this chunking. I try to use this technique in my own explanations by, for example, always referring to Harald Hardrada as ‘ruthless Hardrada’ and to Edgar the Aethling as ‘unsupported Edgar.’ I hope that doing this makes students more likely to remember what was important about both.3
I am also trying to build and strengthen long term memory by, whenever appropriate, referring back to previously covered content. Doing this makes students retrieve past information which then strengthens the memory.
Principle 7: Practise and rehearse:
We will not get better at delivering explanations if we do not include practise as part of the planning process. Giving a well-crafted explanation is best viewed as a short theatrical performance, which means we should rehearse before we go live. One of the most frequent questions I am asked about my YouTube videos is how long they take to make. The answer is hours. Before going live in front of a video camera or a class I practise to myself in a quiet room where I know I will not be disturbed. I inflict myself on family and friends. My wife is particularly long-suffering, patiently allowing me to explain things to her while we are on country walks. I then video myself and watch the recording back. The final videos I post on YouTube, which typically last no longer than five or so minutes, are the end result of hours of reading, thinking, deliberate practise and rehearsal.
Principle 8: Teach from the front:
For years, when explaining things to children for any extended period, I was a pacer. In the early part my career I picked up the impression that good teachers should not teach from the front because this encouraged students to see a division between their space and the space of their teacher, which led to poor behaviour. So, to address this, I aimlessly paced. This meant walking the aisles between the desks, sometimes stumbling over bags and PE kits, while, owl-like, the heads of the children in my class swiveled around and around to track my circuitous meanders. Gradually I worked out this did not work. The main reason for this was it made my explanations worse because my movements meant I was focusing on walking and talking at the same time, which resulted in the deterioration of both.
Secondly, it made it harder for the children in my classes to concentrate on what I was saying because they had to listen while simultaneously tracking my position in the classroom.
So, gradually, I stopped pacing. Now I teach from one position, at the front where everyone can see me, next to the board. I still move but this is now purposeful and linked to my explanation. For example, if I am explaining the attacks on the early Weimar government from the political left and right, I might walk to the left when talking about the Spartacists and over to the right when explaining the Kapp Putsch. The only other time I’ll move will be in direct response to something that’s happened in my classroom; for example, if I suspect a child is on the verge of switching off I may move subtlety towards them to bring their attention back.
The work of my students and their ability to remember what I have said shows this to be much more effective than pacing. Cognitive load theory offers insight as to why. If teaching should avoid overloading the limited working memory of our students, then staying put makes sense because it means children can better focus on what we want them to.
Principle 9: Support with board work:
As quite a few of those who follow my work will know, I am particularly, perhaps annoyingly, proud of my handwriting and board work. This is something I have worked very hard at and the improvements I have made are clear when looking at the difference between earlier videos I made and more recent ones, which are higher quality. Clear, neat illustrations and text reinforce and support explanations because presenting students with information in more than one way strengthens memory. However, any illustrations, whether they are hand-drawn on a whiteboard or displayed on a LCD projector, should be neat, directly related to the content and referred to at the appropriate time. The key, as always, is strong subject knowledge and careful thought about the material being taught, which makes it far easier for a teacher to see which parts of the content would benefit most from visual reinforcement. Crowded boards or too many distracting images overload working memory and undermine the overall clarity of the explanation. Oliver Cavigliol’s outstanding work on dual coding has increased interest in this and his illustrations are increasingly informing my own board-work.
Principle 10: Beware of illusory superiority:
My acquisition of any sort of didactic competence was slow and faltering. Nonetheless I did improve and by the time I had been teaching for five or so years, I was pretty proud of my ability to explain things clearly and concisely. A regular feature of my lessons was “Mr Newmark explains in five minutes”, in which I would deliver didactically what the class then worked on for the remainder of the lesson. These sections seemed especially popular with my GCSE students and, about four years ago, a class suggested I videoed them so they could use them for revision. Flattered, I agreed.
I worked up a board on Vesalius and then got a student to video my explanation. The process took about twenty minutes and, with the student sent off to eat their sandwiches, I plugged my phone in to my computer and watched back the recording on my classroom’s LCD projector.
It was no better than OK. I said ‘um’ a lot. I overused the word ‘right’. I said everything was ‘a really important point’ which made me look desperate and gave the impression nothing I talked about really was. A comment I had thought was funny when I said it made me cringe. Some of my explanations meandered away into dead ends. I stumbled over some words.
Bluntly, it turned out that I was nowhere near as good as I thought I was.
I should not have been surprised. Psychologists Van Yperen and Buunk coined the phrase ‘illusory superiority” in 1991 to describe the common phenomenon whereby individuals overestimate their own abilities in relation to others. Put simply, humans are not good at accurately assessing their own competence. In order to preserve our sense of self-value there is the possibility we are wired to assume we are better than others, when we might be of only the same or worse standard. It has also been suggested that the worse we are at something, the more likely we are to overestimate our performance at it. This is very sobering and, given how pleased I was with my ability to explain well, I am glad I did not know about illusory superiority when I first watched back a video of my teaching for the first time.
Although unaware of why I had overestimated my own performance at teaching didactically I was at least self-aware enough to know I needed to improve. I also knew I would need to get feedback from others because I had proved that my own instincts were not reliable in assessing my performance.
Fortunately that year I had a very gifted and, even more importantly, fearsomely honest Year 11 student who was both willing and able to effectively critique my didactic explanations. The student picked up the same issues I did when asked, and offered more as I made more videos. As a direct response to her feedback I planned my videos more carefully, practised before videoing, varied my vocal tone and inflection, clarified board work, slowed down and stopped labouring and over-explaining. I then showed these videos to whole classes and asked them which they preferred and why. Once students were comfortable they were not going to hurt my feelings, the feedback they gave became quite insightful and the improvements I made can be seen in the improvements between my earlier and later videos.
As I deliberately practised my delivery I found my explanations, even when they were not being videoed, improved. I found myself stopping and starting again when I realised what I’d said was confusing, rather than just ploughing on regardless. This increased my confidence and I began talking for longer and longer in lessons. It was as student outcomes improved that I finally accepted that the length of my explanations had never been a problem in themselves; it had been the variable quality of them which resulted in students disengaging and not learning what they should.
This leads me to the final point I want to stress. It was planning, deliberate practise and responding to feedback that made me better at teaching explicitly. For years I had overestimated my didactic ability, and did not improve until I sought out external feedback. Once I did realise I improved because I worked deliberately on weak areas, which has led to, in my view, better teaching.
And, of course, the process for me is ongoing. I know this because videos I once thought really strong now make me wince. This illustrates how far I have come but also suggests I still have a long way to go. Interestingly, as my position on what good explanation in history is has shifted, so has my opinion on some of my past work.
This might seem to imply that the process of critique and deliberate practice is a depressing one, but to me it is not. It leads me to hope and believe that my explanations are constantly improving. This is a very heartening thought.
If we want to get better at explicit teaching we need to view as it the performance it is and plan for it. We must know our material inside out, rehearse, insist on full attention from our audience, and seek and act upon feedback from others. Only by doing this can we overcome our own cognitive bias and be genuinely sure we are improving. Planning is key to all this because it provides purpose and intentionality.
And, because I am sure everyone has been simply dying to see me practise at least some of what I have preached, here is the video I am proudest of: