The subtle art of slowly losing control

A great deal of evidence points to the superiority of teacher-led instruction in terms of transmitting content memorably and effectively. Here, teacher and PhD candidate Greg Ashman considers what this meant for his own teaching, under what circumstances we might use guided instruction, and when less guidance might actually be useful.

For years I was a guilty teacher. I would stand at the front of the class, explain concepts to students and ask them to take notes and answer questions. I was furtive. I knew I should be organising group work, inquiries and projects, but I could never get these to work very well. For some strange reason, students seemed to do better at answering questions and solving problems if I first explained to them how to answer the questions and solve the problems. I seemed stuck.

It was only later that I learned that the evidence for less-guided forms of teaching, such as inquiry learning, is relatively weak and there is in fact a large body of evidence supporting a more explicit approach.(1) I also realised something else that was equally significant for my own work: I had lost time. Despite teaching explicitly, I had not used the most effective forms of explicit teaching because I did not know what they were.

It is important to understand explicit teaching as a process rather than a single classroom event. The key feature of explicit teaching is that students have concepts fully explained to them in advance of having to apply these concepts. Explicit teaching is not about giving a lecture(2); it is about a plan for the gradual release of control from the teacher to the students. Initially, the teaching is fully guided, but as students gain expertise, the level of guidance is gradually reduced until they are involved in complex problem solving or the creation of a novel product such as an essay or artwork. The teacher who claims their approach to inquiry learning includes a lot of ‘explicit teaching’ is therefore using the term in a different way to me.

As a young teacher, I tended to explain or demonstrate a concept and then ask students to answer questions or solve problems. However, according to teacher effectiveness research,(3) teachers whose students learn the most tend to guide student practice. They follow an ‘I do – we do – you do’ approach, with plenty of time spent in the ‘we do’, whereas my natural teaching style could be characterised more as ‘I do – you do’.

So what does guiding student practice look like? This is one of the key questions that has been driving my work over the last few years and it is a question I would like you to think about.

The first point to raise is that if we want students to do something, we need to model it. Once we have communicated the main ideas, we also need to show students how to demonstrate their understanding. For instance, if we want students to write a paragraph on the role of the nurse in the play Medea by Euripides then it is not enough to simply explain the role of the nurse in Medea and then ask them to write a paragraph. Unless the students are relatively expert writers, we will also need to model the process of constructing the paragraph.

There is an interesting distinction we can make here between providing a model and modelling. One approach could be to simply provide students with a model paragraph to guide them, similar to providing maths students with a worked example to follow. Another approach would be to give an annotated paragraph that explains the choices that were made by the writer. This provides an additional level of guidance. Yet another approach might be for the teacher to (appear to) construct the paragraph in front of the students, explaining the choices he or she makes in the process.

The involvement of the teacher in this way may not include providing any more guidance than the annotated model, but there is reason to suggest it may be even more effective. This evidence comes from the realm of multimedia learning, where software designers try to create packages of text, audio and video that students can learn from. Richard Mayer has completed many studies into what makes these packages more or less effective and has developed 12 principles.(4) One of these is the ‘embodiment principle’ and it suggests students try harder if an on-screen figure draws diagrams and gestures in a human way rather than staying static. Mayer suggests this is because of the social connection that is created between the figure and the students. I would suggest that this is the difference between teaching and handing out a sheet.

Other guidance on what the middle stage of explicit teaching might look like is available from the extensive body of research that supports cognitive load theory.(5) For example, this research has identified a number of effects and one of these is the ‘problem completion effect’. Rather than simply providing worked examples and then asking students to solve similar problems, ‘completion problems’ are worked examples with some of the steps missing. Depending on the level of student expertise, these could be used from the outset or as part of the process of gradually fading guidance and handing control to the students.

In maths, a completion problem may be a standard worked example with a step missing. In English or history, it might be a paragraph with the topic sentence or a quote missing.

In many of the tasks we ask students to complete there are obvious traps they may fall into. To avoid this, it could be helpful to use non-examples or non-models (i.e. examples that demonstrate what not to do). The teacher could display the response from some fictional character who always messes things up and ask the students to spot the errors. Look, Billy Bloggs has not addressed the prompt! Look, the evidence Billy uses does not support his contention! This process gives useful information as to how ready the students are to tackle the task for themselves.

And readiness is something I used to neglect. When I started teaching maths, I use to push students into independent work too soon. After a phase of the lesson that would be teacher led, I would give students a series of questions to answer – pretty much at their own pace – while I monitored them before going through the answers at the end.

I am now clearer about the risks of this approach. If a student has a key misconception then repeating this misconception through a series of activities will reinforce rather than dispel it. The solution is to again pay more attention to the phase in the middle. If you walked into one of my lessons today, you would be likely to see the students completing questions on mini-whiteboards in step with each other. This way, I can address issues as they arise and hopefully prevent students from taking them forward to the next task.

These are just a few suggestions as to how to gradually fade guidance and hand control over to the students where it rightly and ultimately belongs. The middle ground is fertile ground. It is a space for creativity. It is a place where expertise is growing and where we can become more playful. By working on the tasks that occupy the middle ground, we have a chance of developing into more- effective teachers.


References

1. Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J. and Clark, R. E. (2006) ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching’, Educational Psychologist 41 (2) pp. 75–86.
2. For a discussion of different definitions, see Rosenshine, B. (2008) Five meanings of direct instruction. Lincoln, IL: Center on Innovation & Improvement.
3. Rosenshine, B. (2012) ‘Principles of instruction: research-based strategies that all teachers should know’, American Educator 36 (1) pp. 12–19, 39.
4. Mayer, R. E. (2017) ‘Using multimedia for e-learning’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 33 (5) pp. 403–423.
5. Sweller, J., Ayres, P. and Kalyuga, S. (2011) ‘The worked example and problem completion effects’ in Cognitive load theory. New York, NY: Springer, pp. 99–109.