OPINION: When imagining a teacher at work there’s a good chance you picture someone standing at the front of a classroom, explaining concepts and asking questions. Add to this students independently applying the concepts with some corrective feedback from the teacher and you have a form of teaching known as “explicit instruction”.

What is explicit instruction?

It’s as old as the hills and pretty effective; so much so that the New South Wales government’s Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) recently published a report that stresses explicit teaching as one of its seven evidence-based themes.

You may have heard of the Direct Instruction initiative in Cape York that is being promoted by Noel Pearson. This is a specific form of explicit teaching where lessons are scripted and a clear progression through concepts is mapped out in accordance with the ideas of the American educationalist Siegfried Engelmann. Although it is too early to say how the program is going in Cape York, Engelmann’s ideas have demonstrated great potential in the US, notably through the huge “Follow Through” project of the 1960s and 1970s.

There is a large body of evidence for explicit teaching more generally. Different types of research examining a range of learning goals support the basic principles. But not all explicit instruction is equally effective.

You might therefore imagine that researchers would be working on ways to fine-tune it. What makes a good explanation? How should concepts be sequenced? How can we ensure students are thinking about the key ideas? What’s the right balance between abstract concepts and concrete examples?

Unfortunately, explicit instruction is unfashionable. While accepting that it has a role to play, educationalists often seem ambivalent towards it, sometimes describing explicit approaches using pejorative terms such as “drilling”.

The key principle behind explicit instruction is that the teacher fully explains ideas and concepts. In this sense, its opposite is something that is often called “inquiry learning” where students are asked to pose questions and find out things for themselves. In such programs, teachers are seen as co-learners rather than subject-matter authorities.

There is little evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of inquiry learning for learning new concepts (although it can be effective for those who are more expert in a subject).

When tested in controlled experiments, features characteristic of inquiry learning such as problem-solving are shown to be less effective than features characteristic of explicit instruction such as the use of worked examples. And a number of attempts to introduce programs similar to inquiry learning have met with very little success over the past 50 years.

Why is explicit instruction daggy?

Despite this, inquiry learning is very much in vogue. Teacher education courses run units on it even though you would struggle to find equivalent units on explicit instruction. A recent report from the OECD on “Schools for 21st-Century Learners” has a whole section on inquiry learning while mentioning explicit instruction only in passing.

New science VCE courses in Victoria have focused on incorporating inquiry learning and will require evidence that it has taken place. The physics VCE study design explains that:

In VCE Physics students develop a range of inquiry skills involving practical experimentation and research, analytical skills including critical and creative thinking, and communication skills.

As the OECD report also suggests, the evidence in favour of inquiry learning may be lacking but it is assumed to be superior in preparing students for the 21st century by developing ill-defined skills such as critical thinking or creativity.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that such skills are highly dependent upon knowing a lot about the subject: if you want to think critically about physics, then first learn a lot of physics.

There may also be philosophical reasons that educationalists choose to privilege inquiry methods over explicit instruction. There is a tradition of questioning teacher-led approaches to education that is at least 200 years old.

Philosophers of education such as John Dewey and Paolo Freire have criticised the notion that a teacher’s role is to impart knowledge. Freire called it the “banking model” and found that it did not fit his revolutionary principles. Others believe it to be inimical to the spirit of democracy. How can students grow up to ask questions if we expect them to defer to a teacher’s authority in the classroom?

This argument fails on two counts. Firstly, teachers really should know more than their students, so why pretend otherwise? Secondly, it fails to recognise the compassionate and empathetic ways in which contemporary teachers structure explicit instruction in the classroom, providing plenty of time for students to be heard.

Clearly, there are instances where we might choose to use varied approaches to learning for a wide variety of reasons. I am all in favour of balance. Sometimes, we may be seeking to build motivation. At other times, we may simply wish to mix things up a bit.

However, an unbalanced focus on inquiry learning that sidelines the proven practice of explicit instruction should be a matter of serious concern.

Greg Ashman is a PhD candidate in instructional design at UNSW.

This opinion piece was first published in The Conversation.