Book Review: The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direction Instruction

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Perhaps the image that will stick in my brain from Greg Ashman’s delightful book The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction is that of a guilty teacher. This teacher is not guilty of any actual crime or sin but rather one who only feels so. After class, unit, or year of trying and failing to get their students to discover some concept on their own, this teacher finally just explains the darn thing.

 I was this teacher only this last spring. I put desks in circles, handed out poems, read it, provided time for students to annotate and analyze, and finally set about a discussion. Usually, my students are brimming with analysis but, this day, they were silent. After a few stilted attempts at fostering discussion, I finally just analyzed the poem for them and moved on. It feels like a failure when we have to explain the concept. In reality, contends Greg Ashman, explicitly explaining concepts is the best way to teach, and it’s about time we all felt less guilty for doing so.

 Many other books in this knowledge-rich, direct-instruction realm of ed-reform focus solely on accuracy—“we’re right dammit”—Ashman attempts persuasion. He almost casts a vision for what teaching can and ought to be. Where I and many of us learned about project-based and workshop models of instruction, Ashman forthrightly endorses explicit instruction — wherein teachers explain concepts, provide examples, and give students time to practice all within a sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum.

 Relying on various concepts in cognitive psychology to advance his argument, he not only explicates the science and the research to verify its accuracy but also provides examples and analogies to extrapolate what this means in the classroom. For example, he explains that a project-centered classroom results in cognitive overload and then shows how students get lost amid too many moving parts, ideas, and directions. Or how treating our students like experts is akin to asking a piano player to learn piano simply by mimicking a world-class pianist; it sounds authentic and rigorous but in reality robs students of the necessary practice—like running through scales—that anyone needs to become a master. Without it, our students remain novices. Finally, to differentiate all too often means we merely dumb down the content for those students that teachers arbitrarily perceive as “slower” and thereby only worsen the achievement gap.

 Thankfully in the face of such falsehoods, Ashman comes along to play whack a mole as learning myth after learning myth pops up. He has the exact study we need to disprove them. In the end, Ashman leaves the reader with the impression that explicit instruction is not only better for reading and math achievement but also a more humanistic way to run a classroom.

 In place of a teacher standing up front asking questions and leaving the students to grasp and guess at answers, Ashman sets a vision for teaching where our task is not to set up the most contrived little experiences for students to incidentally learn whatever we hope they do but rather we must construct the clearest explanations, conceive of the most useful analogies, craft interesting examples and visualizations, and sequence knowledge and skills into learnable increments for students. Perhaps it’s a very different view of the teachers role from that which Dewey or Rousseau puts forth but it remains one that is more effective for students and equally intellectually challenging for teachers.

 Regarding its structure, a blogger and essayist at heart it seems, Ashman jumps from topic to topic. His treatment of the evidence for explicit teaching is one extended argument but the rest of the book reads more like a collection of essays on the same topic. For me, as I stole moments of reading between rocking a baby to sleep and getting yard work done, the structure worked perfectly—amenable to being put up and placed down on a whim.

 As one other caveat, if anyone is looking for a teaching manual akin to a recipe book, they are best to look elsewhere. Even Ashman would likely be quick to recommend Judith Hochman or Doug Lemov for clear and concise directions on how to teach well over his own. Nonetheless, I still walked away from this book having learned a handful of new concepts and reflecting on ways to improve my own instruction.

 In conclusion, the book left with one question and it isn’t one that Ashman sought to answer: how do so many bad ideas based on so little research—differentiation, learning styles, disregard for direct instruction—become so commonplace in education? Whatever the answer, Ashman’s book comes along to set things right.

Daniel Buck
Daniel Buck is a teacher, editor in chief of the Chalkboard Review, and a senior visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute. His writing can be found at National Review Online, City Journal, and the New York Post.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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