In which I consider the possible limitations of explicit instruction

As she looked at him like that, he suddenly and fiercely clasped her in his arms. He held her like this for a moment, dazed, stupefied, not knowing what to do with her. Then her lips told him, for they met his in an endless kiss.

Henry De Vere Stacpoole’s The Blue Lagoon: A Romance (1908)

My parents gave me The Talk by sitting me down to watch The Blue Lagoon on TV when I was ten years old. As we watched the movie together, they provided odd, half-explanations on anything vaguely pubertal or sexual. “See that blood around Brooke Shields? Women bleed every month out of their vagina. She’s not hurt.” You can imagine how hard it was to concentrate on the Academy-Award-nominated cinematography with that in your ear! I had expected a nice Sunday movie afternoon with Mum and Dad, only to be assailed by the worst possible species of director’s commentary.

On the whole, I wouldn’t rate the experience highly; it was neither good sex education nor satisfying cultural enrichment. (In fact, given my very clear memories of it, it was possibly a formative traumatising experience.) Fortunately, our house also had copies of Where Did I Come From? and Everything a Teenage Boy Should Know, which both filled in some of the educative gaps that Brooke Shields and my uncertain parents had left in their wake. As products of their era, though, these books also left their own silences which would only be “given voice” (much later) through a very specific sort of discovery learning.

I have thought about my parents’ unexpected pedagogical choice in the last few days. My school is gearing up for something of a debate around explicit instruction, I suspect: one side claiming that it is a necessary and sufficient model of instruction, a pedagogy for all seasons; the other claiming that it is definitely necessary, but isn’t the only worthwhile way of teaching. I’m in the second camp, and I’m using this blog post to see if I can weave my thoughts into a defensible position; in the same way that Christopher Atkins wove palm fronds to make the little hut beside the Blue Lagoon.

(There’s been some Twitter traffic around this topic this weekend, another blogger’s post and an unrelated TES article. This post isn’t a response to those.)

A wise owl of my acquaintance, who blogs at,¬†wrote a droll pair of blog posts in August last year. In the first, he wrote a list of learning activities where discovery learning might fail. This list included: Road Safety, Stranger Danger, Driving, Sharp Objects, Hot Objects, Dental Hygiene, Axes, and Archery. Very clever, see! In its companion post, my clever friend mocks an imaginary parent who thinks that pool safety should be learnt only by discovery. Both posts are hilarious, true and well worth reading. These posts make me think of my four-year-old niece Charlotte, who is given constant explicit instruction in pool safety, road safety and much else besides. Charlotte’s parents have taught her, but they have no confidence that their explicit instruction has been at all effective. Charlotte never leaves the front door without an adult, and the front door is always locked to prevent her independent escape. If explicit instruction was sufficient, I ask cheekily, shouldn’t she be allowed to show what she knows about road safety? No parent relies solely on “find out for yourself” any more than they think that “just say it and pray it sticks” is enough.

John Hattie and Gregory Donoghue in “Learning Strategies: A Synthesis and Conceptual Model” (2016) reframed Hattie’s work on effect sizes to what they called the three phases of learning (surface, deep and transfer). What learning strategies are effective, they asked, when you only need to recall facts and procedures? Are there different strategies that are effective when you want students to be able to relate and extend their ideas, or transfer them to new situations? It turns out that the strategies common to explicit instruction (e.g. rehearsal and memorisation, frequent cycles of feedback, deliberate practice, and review) are the “best ways” to consolidate surface learning (facts and procedures). But it also turns out that these strategies are insufficient if you want students digging deeper, thinking in more complex ways, and doing more with their knowledge:

The model does not propose discarding the teaching or learning skills that have been developed to learn surface knowing, but advocates the benefits of a more appropriate balance of surface and deeper strategies and skills that then lead to transfer. The correct balance of surface to deep learning depends on the demands of the task. It is likely that more emphasis on surface strategies is probably needed as students learn new ideas, moving to an emphasis on deeper strategies as they become more proficient.

This hypothesis supports a classic finding on the limitations of explicit instruction, in Penelope L Peterson’s “Direct Instruction: Effective for What and for Whom” (1979):

[W]ith direct or traditional teaching, students tend to do slightly better on achievement tests, but they do slightly worse on tests of abstract thinking, such as creativity and problem solving. Conversely, with open teaching, students do somewhat worse on achievement tests, but they do somewhat better on creativity and problem solving.

This is quoted in Yong Zhao’s “What Works May Hurt: Side Effects in Education” (2017) which broadly posits that medical models of educational research fail to consider the side effects. Explicit instruction may be very effective at raising standardised test scores in the short term, but what is lost in this intervention? What potential harm is being done to students? This paper has some excellent examples on this topic, and is worth reading in its entirety without being savaged by my thick-thumbed quotation.

The horrors of The Blue Lagoon aside, sex education is probably a nice way to wrap up this post, I think. Young people should be told information about their bodies, how they change, and how they are used for reproduction and pleasure. (I would draw the line at using I Do/We Do/You Do as an instructional strategy here.) But bodies are different, the changes are sometimes different, and people’s pleasures are often very different. (Remember the famous gay love scene in The Blue Lagoon? Me either.) Direct instruction might tell part of the story, but students will need to conduct inquiries into their own unique bodies and pleasures, and will most certainly get some value out of discovery learning in time.

There is danger here too. Just telling students about consent, rape and sexual assault is essential but can sometimes have limited impact. Like pool safety and driving, we want young people to thoroughly understand consent and act safely and respectfully. Discovery learning won’t cut it, but research suggests that direct instruction hasn’t had the best success here either. Students might be able to recall accurate definitions of consent or state the relevant laws and punishments, but they don’t always transfer this learning to the situations where they most need it. They have the surface knowledge, but not the deep understanding. “Just say it and pray it sticks” doesn’t work here. There is still teaching to be done.

A parting thought, to lighten the mood:

On the same afternoon that we watched The Blue Lagoon, my parents also talked to me about smoking. A kind of post-coital-education cigarette, I suppose. “You see Mum and Dad smoking all the time. Do you ever think you might want to try it?” I don’t think I had (because cigarettes stink) but I might have said yes to parent-please. My parents promptly gave me a cigarette and lit it up. I took a puff, choked, coughed and cried my eyes out. “Smokes are bad for you, Scott. You shouldn’t ever smoke. Do you understand?” I understood. In fact, to this day I’ve never smoked. You see, my parents had some perverse ideas about how to teach me stuff, but some of it definitely stuck. And I wonder if I’d have learnt the same lesson if they’d just told me.

One comment

  1. Mel

    Have to admit I laughed harder at this story tonight than I did the first time I heard it. This may have had something to do with the company I was in.
    I enjoyed the questioning of using a pedagogical approaches that doesn’t really allow a depth of knowledge to develop. Are we not in the business of working with our students to make them successful citizens ? If so , why do we continue to educate them using methods that do not move them from the ranks of societies faceless masses; those dependent on Big Brother.
    Let the debate begin- I know what side I’m on.

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