Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Compelling Case for Explicit Strategy Instruction

Case #1 -What experience has to teach us

 Like many of you I am a teacher who wants to know what good research has to say. I regard statistically significant results the same way I regard the word “Sunkist” on my oranges or the word “prime” on my meat. But be that as it may, I also want to hear the ring of truth in the theories supported by research  and the practices those studies lead to. It is those two criteria, sound research and inner knowing, that has steered my teaching and made explicit strategy instruction, which I found to be essential for developing self-directed learners, the anchor of my work. Experiences like the one I relate in Learning for Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Independent Learners taught me the value of explicit instruction.

Taking my first word-processing course was my Waterloo. It was of no small consequence that I lacked confidence in my ability to tame the computer beast, I was devoid of essential prior knowledge and was unable to comprehend a large percentage of computer terminology – a scenario not at all dissimilar to what inexperienced learners may encounter in our classrooms.
Then there was the manner in which I was being taught. Keys were hit, a mouse was clicked, words were spoken and in the end I was no more able to perform the operations I was trying to learn than before I began. What was wrong with that picture? What did I need from my teacher? What would have served me better? My instructor was modeling the process for me, which was a good thing but the pace was too fast. I could not differentiate the parts of the new procedure; no sooner had one step been taken than the next one was under way.
No attempt was made to check in with me to see how I was processing the demonstration while it was in progress. It was assumed my brief exposure to the way things were done would suffice. I was not given an opportunity to practice what was taught; the instructor stayed in the driver's seat. When the demonstration was over, I had no more clarity or ability than when it began.

As for research, we have decades of research affirming that teaching strategies improves achievement and self-direction, I would like to think that the information in A. Wade Boykin’s and Pedro Noguera’s recently published ASCD book Creating the Opportunity to Learn: Moving From Research to Practice to Close the Achievement Gap will invigorate conversation regarding direct or explicit instruction and self-regulated learning.  My next post will talk about the case that research makes for using direct strategy instruction in any classroom where the teacher is dedicated to the proposition that all children can and should be able to initiate and use the strategies necessary for a high level of reading, writing, and problem solving.

For readers who know of direct or explicit instruction and think it sounds like a good idea but need to know more about its value, conceptual basis and practical application, these blogs are for you. However, the label “direct” as it pertains to teaching means different things to different people. There are degrees of explicitness just as there are degrees of strength. A teacher could, for example:

       (Name the strategy) Teacher to students: “Answer these inference questions.”
       (Talk about the strategy) Teacher to students: “When you can’t find an answer in the text, you may have to infer the answer from what you have read.”
       (Model the strategy) Teacher to students reading and thinking aloud: “I infer the boy is angry at his friend because I read that he refused to speak to him. Our experience teaches us that not speaking to someone you know is evidence of anger. ”

The degree of explicitness that is transformative begins with naming, talking about and modeling strategies but does not end there. The explicit teaching we are talking about is articulated, long-term, planned instruction that ultimately empowers students to respond to obstacles with confidence and self-direction. It is teaching that provides enough practice for important cognitive behaviors to be internalized. It is conceiving of teaching strategies as a long-term developmental process. Here is an abridged, edited and excerpted portion of my book that provides an overview of this kind of explicit instruction. 

To teach strategic behaviors explicitly, the teacher begins by building students’ awareness of a needed strategy. Working with conscious intent, which she shares with her students, the teacher introduces and models the strategy as follows:
  1. Name the strategy.
  2. Explain the importance of the strategy to the students.
  3. Relate the new strategy and concept to the students’ prior knowledge  and experience.
  4. Model the use of the strategy.
  5. Verbalize her thought processes not just the thoughts.
  6. Engage students in reflection and processing of new learning. 
If, however, instruction ends with the teacher-directed strategy lesson it would, most likely, not produce the behaviors that are necessary for developing expertise. Proficient readers and writers do not use strategies one at a time, nor do they use them simply when under strong instructional control.
Teaching continues with a transactional approach once the strategy is named, introduced, and modeled. The teacher moves on to the problem-solving, interactive phase of mediation in which she coaches her students as they put the strategy to work. The selection and use of strategies becomes part of the dialogue surrounding any engaging activity. The curriculum takes on a duel agenda of teaching for process and product. In effect the teacher invites the strategies to the table and makes them part of the content of learning. 

The kind of approach outlined here is not widely practiced. Eminent educational researchers like Michael Pressley, Barak Rosenshine and indeed Boykin and Noguera have noted this and urge that this be rectified.