The Power of Explicit Teaching, Direct Instruction, and Choo-Choo Trains

I don’t understand why so many EduTwitter profiles have an assortment of random letters for a header. Don’t get me wrong, I’m buzzing for Mr Kirby that he’s a Learnacy Champion, curriculum phase coordinator, in addition to having an IB, BA, CPD, QTS, HMRC, and DVLA or whatever. The guy teaches Year 4 and here he is giving the spirit of Field Marshal Haig an inferiority complex. IMHO, if you spilled alphabetti spaghetti all over your CV then maybe give Ashman a TL; DR.

Because this one’s for the real teachers. The ones who reply to the question, ‘Where do you see yourself in four years’ time?’ with steam-nose emoji and an ‘in a classroom, honing my craft.’

As Ashman says in the Preface, ‘improvement is the sum of many tiny parts […] And that’s not sexy.’[1] I’ve heard a lot on Twitter lately about SLT being the engine room for ideas. Perhaps these leaders feel better telling themselves that they abandoned the chalkface for the richer veins of the intellectual coal shaft. Or maybe it’s to do with all of the hot air and red faces on Thursday afternoons. My opinion? None of those ideas matter because they’re too large and unwieldy. What really matters is the ‘bottom-up process of education’.[2] And in his work, Ashman discusses how we might go about breaking ‘expert performance down into small components and teaching these first before reintegrating them.’[3] You’ll often hear that tiny parts aren’t sexy … pause … but they are nevertheless what all teachers need to know.

Teacher-led instruction involves ‘attempts to reduce the cognitive demand in lesson so that students can progress easily through the tasks.’[4] But we know a certain level of desirable difficulty is required. Remember, ‘explicit teaching does not simply provide the answer […] it breaks the problem down into its components.’[5] This calls to mind Daniel Willingham’s observation that readers found textual information most interesting when ‘the inferences were of medium difficulty.’[6]

What is unique about Ashman’s work is the diagnostic for inference difficulty. Firstly, it has to do with the intrinsic or extrinsic difficulty of the problem. As Christodoulou puts it, ‘when we have memorised thousands of facts on a specific topic, these facts together form what is known as a schema.’[7] Tasks are extrinsically difficult where pupils lack the functional knowledge base to ‘do the hard work’ for them.[8] In this case, they rely solely on working memory. Then, this degree of difficulty can then be measured through what Ashman calls ‘element interactivity’. The relatively simple problem 4a = 12 can be have as many as eight interacting elements for those with weaker arithmetic. Those who know that 4 x 3 = 12 and that 12 / 3 = 4 will have a much easier run of it.

Ashman is not proposing that we use concepts like element interactivity to test run and debug the curriculum. It is more of a thought experiment to demonstrate how heavily dependent we are on the schema we take for granted. Not only is learning invisible; it is intangible. There is no way to accurately reflect upon what we know and don’t know. Instead, we have only the mental equivalents of funhouse mirrors or the convex, corner-shop kind – good for stealing glances and that’s about it.

Full disclosure: for teachers like me, the book strums through a medley of fan favourites. Differentiation is Bullshit.  Skills versus Drills. And LOs are for Losers. My own book isn’t exactly Anodyne Teacher from Harrogate, so you can understand that I find the direct approach to what’s right and wrong deeply appealing. On Twitter, there’s a lot of ‘mommy, he stomped on my sand castle’ going around at the moment. But we need to move away from personalising the debate. I have my own biases and I’m upfront about those. I think that the discussion of the logical fallacies interweaving the work – burden of proof and ad hominem especially – would allow people to either secure their foundations or allow their worldviews to furtively subside and disintegrate.

I thought a lot about differentiation during my trainee and NQT years. As Ashman says, ‘to an extent, teachers would struggle not to differentiate. Which teacher would refuse to re-explain a concept when asked by a student in the class?’[9] Although teaching is counterintuitive and we cannot rely purely on common sense, my problem with the Teaching Standards is that they subvert common sense precisely where it is most needed. As with the stock ITT phrase to ‘work on your AfL’: it’s like watching a toddler being fed baby food from a pot, his mother accidentally smearing it all over his face, and highlighting the need for the mother to work on her ‘accuracy for digestion’. Why not just feed the kid properly? Next thing you know, Ofsted are clamouring to release their seminal paper, ‘Here Comes the Choo-Choo Train: Implementing Accuracy for Digestion in Early Years Education’. Then, for the next ten years, we have debates in the sector about whether ‘aeroplanes’ or ‘choo-choo trains’ offer the more reliable model for practitioners.

Teachers ask questions. They help struggling pupils. Do we really need a taxonomy of abstraction for this? I can’t help feeling that Redundancy for Learning has had its day.

This isn’t to say I sat nodding away as I read it. In terms of Direct Instruction, I could never imagine scripting my lessons. And having the Head of Department do it for me sounds downright unpleasant. I might find myself wondering why I go off on a tangent about purple pen every 5 minutes – ‘reflection is so important’ – or telling the kids that I ‘live and breathe this’ or want to build a brighter future for them.

But there were also passages that allowed me to discard and revise certain views. I’m thinking mainly of the Worked Example Effect. Novices tend to learn more from studying the answers to worked examples. However, I had neglected the inverse: the finding of Kalyuga et al. 2003 that this effect reverses as novices progress to expert because ‘they already have maps of the solution methods available in long-term memory.’ Since reading Willingham back in 2018, I have been (perhaps unduly) critical of problem-solving tasks. As with much else, there is a time and a place.

VERDICT: some real fuel for the T&L furnace here and bound to be a spanner in the works of SLT engine rooms everywhere. If you CBA for choo-choo trains and Tweet ‘FML’ after every assembly on the Dickensian plight of WBBs, then grab yourself a copy. If you like handing out pens and calling yourself Leader of Learning, however, while also teaching geography under the misconception that a hanging valley is something you’d find in the Gardens of Babylon, then give this one a miss.  

[1] Greg Ashman, The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction, p. xiv

[2] Ashman, Power, p. 43

[3] Ashman, Power, p. 59

[4] Ashman, Power, p. 47

[5] Ashman, Power, p. 59

[6] Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?, p. 66

[7] Daisy Christodoulou, Seven Myths, p. 20

[8] Ashman, Power, p. 108

[9] Ashman, Power, p. 64

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