A book review by Matt Ben David a science teacher from London.
Greg Ashman’s The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction is a 134-page, no-holds-barred, whistle-stop tour of, well, explicit teaching and direct instruction. The book starts by addressing both the importance of, and the main objections to a knowledge-rich curriculum before moving into the difference between Direct Instruction (big D, big I), direct instruction (little d, little i), and explicit teaching. It then applies the latter to education processes, differentiation, and critical thinking, before wrapping it up with a foray into research-based strategies to support explicit teaching, the impact of prior knowledge, the purpose of exams, and finally some advice on how to implement it all when you know you’re going to get push-back. All in all, a solid introduction to explicit teaching that I would happily recommend to any teacher.
Ashman prefaces ‘The Power’ with a short introduction to his “teaching journey”. His story, I think, is a familiar one – encouraged to try discovery/inquiry/enquiry learning and finding that it just doesn’t work the way we perhaps want it to. Reading this as a teacher who very much made a similar journey, I spent a lot of the short preface nodding away in agreement.
The “meat” of the book is broken down into seven chapters, each one starting with a few short bullet points outlining the key aspects that Ashman intends to address in the succeeding pages, and ending with the extensive works referenced (for real, this book is fantastically referenced – everything Ashman argues, he backs up). The chapters themselves do have slightly vague titles that spark a certain level of curiosity, even if I’m not 100% sure what it is I’m curious about – “Halfway up a ladder”? The giant shrugs”? On the first read, this isn’t a problem – I simply read the book cover-to-cover – but in terms of referencing back, or recommending particular sections to colleagues, it is a little tricky remembering which of the snappily-named chapters a particular point was in. Thankfully, there is a solid index which happily alleviates this problem!
The first chapter, On the Shoulders of Giants, discusses why we actually have to teach content, what we need to teach, and the baggage that goes with those decisions. Ashman outlines the importance of a knowledge-rich curriculum, builds up the arguments against such a thing, and then succinctly knocks them down. From there Ashman moves on, diving into a description of Project Follow Through. Ashman’s description is brief but clear, outlining its purpose and some of the more relevant results, as well as highlighting some of the criticisms of it. He then does the same for Direct Instruction, and so on and so forth. This pattern of criticism followed by a thorough dismantling of said criticism is a common theme in ‘The Power’, used not only when discussing Project Follow Through, and DI, but also every other aspect approached in the book – treating students as novices vs as experts, differentiation, critical thinking, and using student prior knowledge. As readers and teachers, we generally want to know what problems we might face when it comes to implementing research – often that which works well in a clinical environment loses some efficacy when attempted in the entropic world of the year 9 classroom. By displaying issues upfront before countering them, Ashman portrays a balanced and practical view of both the research and of the arguments he is making.
This book is not simply a research review – throughout it, Ashman supplements the research findings with arguments as to exactly why these findings are useful to us as teachers, weaving in elements of how his own teaching has benefited from said research. There is a lot of “I” – “I have a routine”, “I now understand” – that almost brings the research into the classroom for you. This is not an author saying “the research says X, you should do X” and yet is afraid to try it for themselves, or perhaps has no actual experience of its implementation in the classroom. This is a teacher saying “this research said X might solve the problems I was having, and I tried it and it does, if you’re having the same problems I had, you should try it too”.
I will say that Ashman’s tone throughout is incredibly no-nonsense. I get the distinct feeling he does not suffer fools gladly and will not tolerate bonkers recommendations for teaching. For me, this makes the book entertaining as well as enlightening – there were a few times I stopped reading and just thought “damn, that’s one way of putting it” – but I can imagine there will be some people who dislike this. This is not really a criticism though, because I’m sure there are many people who dislike my own tone as far too conversational!
All in all, The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction is a good summary of “the research” and how it works in an actual classroom. If you’re new to the world of explicit teaching, it’s a safe starting place. If you’re already well-versed with all things direct and explicit, there might be an element of teaching you to suck eggs, but it’s certainly not an arduous reacquainting with that which you already know.
If you’re interested in the research side of things, may I recommend these two compilations: The Science of Learning by Edward Watson and Bradely Busch, and How Learning Happens by Carl Hendrick and Paul A. Kirschner. If you’re more interested in what explicit teaching and direct instruction looks like from a classroom or teacher’s perspective, I would recommend The ResearchED Guide to Explicit and Direct Instruction edited by Adam Boxer (series editor: Tom Bennett), which features, among chapters by a number of great people, a chapter by Greg Ashman.
As I mentioned above, Ashman’s tone is amazing, and I wanted to pick out a few of my favourite lines. They aren’t necessarily the most informative, they’re just the ones that made me, when I first read the book, stop and reflect for a moment:
- “ All teaching is, by definition child-centred” – p22
- “Throwing novice maths students into complex and challenging problems with the intention of making them more resilient is perhaps a flawed idea” – p55
- “Perhaps explicit teaching is dangerous magic […] Like a knife that may be used to chop onions or to stab another person, explicit teaching has no moral weight in its own right – it is just a tool that may be used for good or evil.” – p103
- “Those who seek to abolish exams often do so on the basis that they should be replaced with a more humane system that recognises the sum of a student’s achievements rather than their performance on a single day. Yet exams exist for a reason.” -p120
- “When a surgeon conducts an operation, they must follow agreed protocols and there are fellow trained professionals in the operating theatre alongside the surgeon. When a teacher closes the classroom door, they are usually on their own and can do pretty much what they like” – p131