I think educators often operate under this myth: Explicit teaching (teach, model, practice, apply) is only for “younger” kids or kids in elementary school.

We couldn’t be more wrong. 

Let me explain…

It’s common to see a more traditional style of lecture or “sit and get” teaching once we hit 4th grade – the teacher stands in the front of the room and teaches the kids the new content while they watch the teacher teach.  There might be some engagement strategies used during the lesson, but ultimately it’s just another form of sitting and getting – very little feedback, very little exchange between what the teacher is teaching and what the kids are able to do because of it, very little academic feedback given to every student. 

It seems like we tend to think (even though I don’t believe we REALLY believe it!) that kids aren’t learning anything radically new when they come to the upper grade levels.  I hear things like, “Oh my goodness, these kids don’t know how to write!”  and “Geesh!  I can’t believe they can’t even do a proper analysis of a piece of text!”

What that tells me is that the teacher believes that kids should COME TO HIM already knowing this information.  While it IS true that kids need to cumulatively build their skill base, the reason why they might not know how to do something in your class or my class is because they need to be taught – that’s why they’re sitting in those chairs after all!  I sometimes joke with teachers and say, “Look!  If your kids came to you having mastered your grade level standards, then you wouldn’t have a job!” 

I mean, it’s kinda true, right?

So, here’s what I propose: We change our thinking about what it really means to teach.

The research both practical and truly scientific continues to show us  (rather IMPLORE us!) to teach with explicitness in mind.  And explicit teaching is not a habit or a mindset or a thought – it is an actual THING.

Here’s what that THING is:

Teach something new.  Like really explain it and break it down in the tiniest pieces without asking kids to explain it – this is where the teacher is setting the base of perfect information and explanation on something new, semi-new or reviewed.

Model something new.  Say to your students, “I want you to watch as I do this process” or “I want you to watch me as I show how to analyze this piece of text” – literally SHOW them.  Don’t tell them what you’d like to see, show them.

Guide them as they practice the something new.  Hand holding is what I call it.  You wouldn’t let a student new to the kitchen in Home Economics start cooking right away – you’d hand hold and gradually release control as they show you they are responsible.  When they slip, grab their hand tighter – they earn the right for independence once they’ve mastered the skill.

Give them feedback on the something new.  Make the feedback clear and very pointed: “Wow – Terrance, you really analyzed the heck out of that piece of text.  Class, did you notice how Terrance gave us the who, what, when, where, why and how before he launched into his analysis?  That’s what I want to see!  Nice, Terrance!”

Give them room.  Provide kids with opportunities to apply the skill in slightly longer blips of time where you are monitoring like crazy.  Feedback needs to continue.  Let them make mistakes – it’s part of the process.  Provide student-to-student models (“Hey Jessica, will you go over and talk with Heather’s group about how you solved that problem – talk them through what you did.”)

You see here’s the real deal: Even if you’re touching on content that has been taught in previous years of kids’ schooling, you should be teaching that same skill at a higher level of complexity.  And that complexity should be taught. 

And we shouldn’t be surprised that kids might struggle a bit as they’re learning to work their previous skill at a different level of complexity.  For example, my student might have had to previously write a summary of a selection of text.  But what I’m teaching them is to take that summary and then extend it to make inferences, which is a whole new level of complexity that needs to be taught, modeled, practiced, feedbacked and applied.

So, the next time you’re thinking, “Geez!  Why don’t these kids KNOW this??????” Ask yourself this:

  • Am I teaching this skill at a higher level of complexity than they’ve previously been taught?
  • What do I need to pre-teach so that they can master the content?
  • What will my “teach” look like, sound like, result in?
  • What will my “model” look like, sound like, result in?
  • What will my “guided practice” look like, sound like, result in?
  • What will my “feedback” look like, sound like, result in?
  • What will independent practice look like, sound like, result in?

Explicit teaching isn’t for certain kids in certain grade levels.  It’s for every kid (and teacher) in every situation where the student is learning something new or learning something at a new level of complexity.  Explicit teaching IS the tool that we use to get kids to mastery.

And it’s never going out of style!