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Our experts answer your questions on the key elements of INSIGHT, covering the Science of Learning and Knowledge Rich Curriculum.

Meet the experts

Dr Lorraine Hammond AM

Associate Professor in the School of Education at Edith Cowan University

Reid Smith

Founder and Co-CEO of Ochre Education, and Head of Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction at Ballarat Clarendon College

Ollie Lovell

Teacher, Education Researcher, Podcaster, Author, Philanthropist

Noel Pearson

Founder Good to Great Schools Australia and Cape York Partnership


Cognitive Load Theory

Explicit Instruction

Why Explicit Instruction?
Dr Lorraine Hammond AM answers:

I came to Explicit Instruction because the secondary students I met in my first year of teaching could not read and I didn’t know what to do. I then used programs to teach reading and spelling that I did not understand, but they worked. They were Corrective Reading and Spelling Mastery – but I knew my uni lecturers wouldn’t have approved! I then did more (and more) post grad study and learned about reading and how to teach it along with the importance of pedagogy.  I learned about ‘immersing’ students in learning at uni and asking students lots of questions. My Masters and PhD was all about teaching reading and spelling explicitly and it was harder to find courses/information on Explicit Instruction back then! These days, there is a lot of support available for teachers.

How has Explicit Instruction changed over the years? How are we expected to use this in our modern classrooms?
Dr Lorraine Hammond AM answers:

Assuming that the Explicit Instruction you experienced earlier in your career involved teachers at the front of the room teaching in a direct way, this has remained a feature of the model that emerged in the 1960s. Having students work in silence and maybe do pages and pages of examples has changed, but that’s some of my recollection from school and may not be yours!

Models should adapt, so in more recent times, research on the Information Processing Model has shown the importance of supporting working memory.  The brain is easily overwhelmed by learning something new, so this understanding has emphasised the role of an expert (teacher) who is teaching a novice (student) and guiding their learning rather than just telling them. 

Understanding around biologically primary (born with) and biologically secondary (need to be taught), has also shown that other than talking, walking and some social skills, we have to teach what children come to school to learn, like reading, spelling, writing and maths. They are all cultural inventions. If you are a specialist teacher, of music or physical education, there is a lot that needs to be taught and practiced to be an accomplished musician or athlete in addition to any innate talent students bring to the table. 

In terms of what works most effectively in the classroom, teaching first, then inquiring once students have the surface knowledge is critical. The work of Sweller and colleagues about working memory means reviewing previously learned material at pace and the use of retrieval practice to regularly support learning are new. Further, the importance of engaging with students makes the current model of Explicit Instruction far more interactive in supporting both participation and learning retention.

The use of mini-whiteboards to check for student understanding (formative assessment) while you are teaching is very different to teacher-led models I experienced at school.  Further, teaching explicitly, as I do with my adult university students, who are training to be teachers, involves me guiding their learning, providing worked examples of the assignments, stopping and asking questions, ensuring they are talking throughout the day with a partner or working in a group to consolidate something I have taught or revising concepts each morning I see them. A number of the Masters of Teaching Students have commented that the way I organise the days we spend together has helped them learn more than having to figure things out for themselves.

Why don’t they teach all this at university?
Dr Lorraine Hammond AM answers:

Many Schools of Education have been under pressure to align their practice with current research, and yet another review into tertiary teaching is underway.  In the units that I teach, whether it is how to teach reading, spelling and writing or how to teach in general (pedagogy), I teach the Information Processing Model and how to teach explicitly, but my students tell me about their experiences at other universities and the legacy of older theories remains.  It’s hard to change whether you teach 5-year-olds or adults. When systems like yours change their practice, universities start to produce students who meet schools’ needs, or they don’t get jobs. This has happened in WA, and I can see the change in what schools ask in job adverts, but progress is slow. Ideology is a powerful barrier and should not be basis for educational decision making.

How do you encourage response / engagement and check for understanding in secondary school?
Dr Lorraine Hammond AM answers:

My son is not that keen on maths and when regularly called upon without warning tells me he doesn’t like going to class. However, he’d happily sit and zone out and that ultimately makes things worse: he’s not getting any better at maths.

If you were in my class, I would be teaching first, you would have been practising with a partner before I asked you anything on your own. For example, your students likely have a poor grasp of the surface knowledge of maths: shapes, measurement, terms (perpendicular, area, perimeter etc), formula, tables/number facts that they cannot draw upon for harder concepts like algebra. If that’s the case, I’d spend time 10 mins each lesson providing practice with these concepts to build student background knowledge. I’d teach first, ask questions and get the students talking first. If your students have just revised the difference between area and perimeter, I would ask the students to tell their partner what the difference is, then pull a pop stick. There’s safety in numbers. The short answer is, call on students with very simple tasks first and you know they’ll get right.  Getting something right makes students feel good. I’d capitalise on this first before using the checking for understanding for harder tasks, but if you’ve taught first, they should be okay.  I am teaching Summer School right now and my secondary Masters of Education students looked a bit horrified when I got the pop sticks out, but they are now comfortable (it’s Day 4 of 5 today) so it’s about understanding you are not cold calling (until they have learned something) and if they don’t know, you’ll just tell them the answer.

I also might (depending on the year level) use the pop sticks to allow students to leave the room first, do jobs etc, where there is need to give an answer.

Is there an ideal ratio of explicit teaching to inquiry opportunities?
Dr Lorraine Hammond AM answers:

Yes, it’s called the ‘Sweet Spot”.  Mostly explicit then some inquiry.  The precise number is not stated because you’d need to consider what you are teaching. However, for example when I am teaching Summer School I provide three exposures to a concept taught explicitly, my students then compare it to others they have learned about, because they have the surface level knowledge to do so. Here’s the research.

Students who receive a blend of teacher-directed and inquiry based instruction have the best outcomes.

There are two dominant types of teaching practices. The first is “teacher-directed instruction,” in which the teacher explains and demonstrates ideas, considers questions, and leads classroom discussions. The second is “inquiry-based teaching,” in which students are given a more prominent role in their own learning—for example, by developing their own hypotheses and experiments. 

We analysed the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results to understand the relative impact of each of these practices. In all five regions (Asia – Pacific, Europe, Latin America, Middle East and Northern Africa and North America), when teachers took the lead, scores were generally higher, and the more inquiry-based learning, the lower the scores. That sounds damning for inquiry-based learning at first glance, but by digging deeper into the data, a more interesting story is revealed: what works best is when the two styles work together—specifically, with teacher-directed instruction in most or almost all classes, and inquiry-based learning in some. This “sweet spot” is the same in all five regions, suggesting there is something akin to a universal learning style.”

Exhibit 3

How do students respond to Explicit Teaching?
Dr Lorraine Hammond AM answers:

Some students dislike school in general, often because they underachieve and don’t feel confident or competent in class. When students feel successful, I find they are less concerned about the method the teacher uses.  Done well, Explicit Instruction is highly engaging and fast paced. I don’t do it all the time when I teach, but when I do the number of opportunities for practice leads to student success.  Done badly, like any approach, students may well push back and that is more to do with the teachers’ design and delivery of lessons, rather than the pedagogical approach. And finally, I go out of my way to make anything I teach interesting, and sometimes people think that EI is dull and boring, but it could be the teacher that is not invested and making the content and delivery interesting.


How can smaller schools plan for low variance curriculum and the learning continuum?
Reid Smith answers:

  1. Start with a quick examination of what you currently do.
    Build a map of the topics each teacher does and the knowledge they have in the school at each year level. Are there topics that are unintentionally doubled up? Are you happy as a teacher team to have these topics in each year level? Is there anything missing?

  1. View it as a long-term project.
    We wouldn’t expect schools to get all of this done in a single year. My school has over 100 FTE and we took years. Most schools have started by having each teacher develop a single unit of their own, usually with an elbow partner or two to check thinking and discuss. The change in the curriculum will be incremental in time but radical over time.

  1. Use existing knowledge rich units.
    Where you have units that are a long way from knowledge rich, or you take a unit out because it is not worth the investment of student time, consider using an existing knowledge-rich unit. This would provide the time you would need to develop a more suitable unit. There are a range of knowledge rich units from that you can use. At my school we used a range of Core Knowledge units at different year levels for a number of years while we developed our own units. They won’t be perfect, but they will have resources and a good starting point. It would also mean that there is a lesser planning load when using those lessons that can be redirected to creating new lessons.  

  1. Use units more than once.
    Some schools will use the same unit at multiple year levels. For example, if you have a unit that gets created for Year 3 in Term 2, it could be used in Term 4 of Year 2. This then frees up time for the Year 2 teacher to develop some more lessons as they have that planning already completed. You would have to make some changes for the following year, but the time saved in the current year is worth it.

  1. Share the load between schools.
    Some schools have partnered up with other schools where they agree to teach some of the same units. Agree on some fundamental things (presentation of materials etc). Then each school gets the benefit of the on the unit they are developing, and then get the materials that their critical friend or colleague school produces. The investment of time in meetings really does pay back in saving preparation time.

Differentiation / Streaming

What are the important pedagogical strategies that make a difference for non neuro-typical learners. In particular students with ADHD or dyslexia?
Dr Lorraine Hammond AM answers:

What the research tells us about students with ADHD and other Learning Disabilities like Dyslexia, is that these individuals tend to have vulnerabilities around working memory as well as a combination of phonological awareness, auditory processing and rapid automised naming issues. An explicit and direct approach to teaching lessens the load on working memory which supports all students when learning something new. The engaging nature of explicit instruction (when done well) means that students are less likely to be distracted and receive more practice and attention/feedback than in child-centred approaches. It is often the lack of practice that impacts on students’ capacity to learn letter-sound correspondences, times tables, sentence grammar etc, so the amount of practice is supportive. Further, when the teacher checks for understanding, they can see straight away who has made an error.

Should we be streaming according to ability, level of prior knowledge or skill acquisition?
Dr Lorraine Hammond AM answers:

Generally no, if it’s by whole class, because there is always a range in classrooms and I can cater for that range with an explicit approach because I can differentiate at the point of individual need.  Further, whole class streaming often means students never catch their peers.

However, if students are performing significantly above or below their peers withdrawal for specialist instruction is highly beneficial. If you teach Spelling Mastery you will have to put students in ability groups for 20 mins per day, but you’ll get great results. So, maybe the issue is what are you going to do with students in their streams. If it is to support the low performers to work at the same level as their peers, then streaming is good for the particular knowledge/skills they are weak at. The research on teaching gifted students together is very high.  However, when teaching anyone anything new, Explicit Instruction is the most effective, even the really able students.

Are there opportunities for gifted or highly able students to find challenges with explicit teaching – can they still progress whilst others are being supported?
Dr Lorraine Hammond AM answers:

While gifted students bring a lot of innate ability to the table, if you teach them something new that they do not know (like you and me learning anything new), they learn it more efficiently and effectively when taught explicitly.

However, the research on grouping gifted students together is really positive (Hattie, J. A. (2002). Classroom composition and peer effects. International Journal of Educational Research, 37(5), 449-481., that’s why some states have specialist gifted and talented schools.

If you were to use Spelling Mastery (a scripted program) in a lower primary class, you may have most students placed on lower levels, however some of the schools I work in have year 2 children with year 6 children for spelling lessons and that’s because they are still learning to spell, but at their level of ability.