Explicit Instruction to Support Critical Thinking

Beth Melton

Hands-on learning is a worthwhile goal - and for good reason. The specialized knowledge and skills required for 21st Century jobs - skills like communication, collaboration, research, and synthesis and analysis of information - are best developed through learning that requires similar skills. When students engage in this type of work, "Decades of research illustrate the benefits of inquiry-based and cooperative learning to help students develop the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in a rapidly changing world." This is what Dr. Brigid Barron and Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond concluded in their review of the research on "Teaching for Meaningful Learning." Teachers everywhere know that this kind of application is critical in facilitating students' depth of understanding. But, too often, attempts at such learning feel less than successful. Why?

John Hattie's research shows that inquiry-based learning only has an effect size of 0.31 - surprising when you consider the level of engagement that teachers see during such tasks. In this video, Hattie lays out why he thinks the effect size is so low, and he says that it could have a higher effect size if we were to introduce it at the right time - once students have the background knowledge and vocabulary to be successful.

Thus the subject of this blog post - when and how to guide students. In 2012, American Educator published an article by Richard Clark, Paul Kirschner, and John Sweller called "Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction." In this article, Clark, Kirschner, and Sweller cite research demonstrating that for novices (students who have not yet mastered content - virtually all students at some point in the instructional sequence), "direct, explicit instruction is more effective and more efficient than partial guidance." The authors even cite research showing that "minimally guided instruction can increase the achievement gap."

Their critique of constructivism was a bit of a slap in the face for me. I was trained in a constructivist methodology, and the idea of student discovery has always been appealing to me in respecting children and giving them the tools to grow. However, as I read and re-read this part of the article, I was more compelled. This quote was especially striking to me - "Withholding information from students does not facilitate the construction of knowledge."

Recently, in our TLC on inquiry-based learning, we all read an article which discussed the book Making It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel. This book uses what we know about the human brain and how we learn to make the point that "You can't think creatively... unless you have something to think about; you can't think critically unless you have something to critique." This idea really changed my thinking about how we help students to think deeply and develop 21st Century skills. I'd summarize what I've learned this way: Our students need background knowledge - the background knowledge that we have to give them before they are ready to dive into deeper learning on a topic. We waste time when we ask them to "discover" this knowledge. Rather, we should give this knowledge to them in the most efficient way (through direct, explicit instruction) and spend more time giving them opportunities to apply and synthesize this information through tasks that require critical thinking and problem-solving.

I hope you'll review some of these resources and let me know how they did or didn't change your thinking about the role of direct, explicit instruction in supporting critical thinking.



Katie Wheeler's picture
Katie Wheeler
Wow! This is making me rethink how I have been teaching and my instructional practices. I completely understand that the kids need the background knowledge or some kind of background before we can expect them to critically think about a topic. In the article, "Making It Stick" when the author writes about the pilot and the neurosurgeon. I really would like my neurosurgeon if I need one to have a very in depth understanding of the brain and to have memorized which areas control which functions. Thank you so much for putting together this article. I really appreciate that challenge this has given me as an educator.
Amy Coupe's picture
Amy Coupe
This has made me think of how I was taught to teach. It shocks me about the different effect sizes that John Hattie's research shows and makes me wonder what differences I could of taken out of my schooling if my teachers taught me in a different way based on the effect sizes. I am very excited to adjust my teaching and work more on explicit instruction in my whole and small group to boost my students learning.