Critical ThinkingCross-postEducationPedagogy

Telling Vs. No Telling

So, with that in mind, let’s move on to just one of the dichotomies in education, that of “telling” vs. “no telling,” and I hope the reader will forgive my leaving Clarke’s paper behind. I recommend it to you for its international perspective on what we discuss below.

“Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”

We should start with something that educators know but people outside of education may not: there can be a bit of an incongruity, shall we say, between what teachers want to happen in their classrooms, what they say happens in their classrooms, and what actually happens there. Given how we talk and what we talk about on social media—and even in face-to-face conversations—and the sensationalist tendencies of media reports about education, an outsider could be forgiven, I think, for assuming that teachers have been moving en masse away from the practice of explicit instruction.

There is a large body of research which would suggest that this assumption is almost certainly “greatly exaggerated.”

Graph showing amount of teacher talk vs. student talk.

Typical of this research is a small 2004 study (PDF download) in the U.K. which found that primary classrooms in England remained places full of teacher talk and “low-level” responding by students, despite intentions outlined in the 1998–1999 National Literacy and National Numeracy Strategies. The graph at the right, from the study, shows the categories of discourse observed and a sense of their relative frequencies.

John Goodlad made a similar and more impactful observation in his much larger study of over 1,000 classrooms across the U.S. in the mid-80s (I take this quotation from the 2013 edition of John Hattie’s book Visible Learning, where more of the aforementioned research is cited):

In effect, then, the modal classroom configurations which we observed looked like this: the teacher explaining or lecturing to the total class or a single student, occasionally asking questions requiring factual answers; . . . students listening or appearing to listen to the teacher and occasionally responding to the teacher’s questions; students working individually at their desks on reading or writing assignments.

Thus, despite what more conspiracy-oriented opponents of “no telling” sometimes suggest, the monotonic din of “understanding” and “guide on the side” and “collaboration” we hear today—and have heard for decades—is not the sound of a worldview that has, in practice, taken over education. Rather, it is one of a seemingly quixotic struggle on the part of educators to nudge each other—to open up more space for students to exercise independent and critical thinking. This a finite space, and something has to give way.

Research Overwhelmingly Supports Explicit Instruction

Teacher as
d Teacher as Facilitator d
Teaching students self-verbalization 0.76 Inductive Teaching 0.33
Teacher clarity 0.75 Simulation and gaming 0.32
Reciprocal teaching 0.74 Inquiry-based teaching 0.31
Feedback 0.74 Smaller classes 0.21
Metacognitive strategies 0.67 Individualised instruction 0.22
Direct instruction 0.59 Web-based learning 0.18
Mastery learning 0.57 Problem-based learning 0.15
Providing worked examples 0.57 Discovery method (math) 0.11

On the other hand, it is manifestly clear from the research literature that, when student achievement is the goal, explicit instruction has generally outperformed its less explicit counterpart.

The table at the left, taken from Hattie’s book referenced above, directly compares the effect sizes of various explicit and indirect instructional protocols, gathered and interpreted across a number of different meta-analyses in the literature.

Results like these are not limited to the K–12 space, nor do they involve only the teaching of lower-level skills or teaching in only in well-structured domains, such as mathematics. These are robust results across many studies and over long periods of time.

And while research supporting less explicit instructional techniques is out there (as obviously Hattie’s results also attest), there is much less of it—and certainly far less than one would expect given the sheer volume of rhetoric in support of such strategies. On this point, it is worth quoting Sigmund Tobias at some length, from his summarizing chapter in the 2009 book Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure?:

When the AERA 2007 debate was organized, I described myself as an eclectic with respect to whether constructivist instruction was a success or failure, a position I also took in print earlier (Tobias, 1992). The constructivist approach of immersing students in real problems and having them figure out solutions was intuitively appealing. It seemed reasonable that students would feel more motivated to engage in such activities than in those occurring in traditional classrooms. It was, therefore, disappointing to find so little research documenting increased motivation for constructivist activities.

A personal note may be useful here. My Ph.D. was in clinical psychology at the time when projective diagnostic techniques in general, and the Rorschach in particular, were receiving a good deal of criticism. The logic for these techniques was compelling and it seemed reasonable that people’s personality would have a major impact on their interpretation of ambiguous stimuli. Unfortunately, the empirical evidence in support of the validity of projective techniques was largely negative. They are now a minor element in the training of clinical psychologists, except for a few hamlets here or there that still specialize in teaching about projective techniques.

The example of projective techniques seems similar to the issues raised about constructivist instruction. A careful reading and re-reading of all the chapters in this book, and the related literature, has indicated to me that there is stimulating rhetoric for the constructivist position, but relatively little research supporting it. For example, it is encouraging to see that Schwartz et al. (this volume) are conducting research on their hypothesis that constructivist instruction is better for preparing individuals for future learning. Unfortunately, as they acknowledge, there is too little research documenting that hypothesis. As suggested above, such research requires more complex procedures and is more time consuming, for both the researcher and the participants, than procedures advocated by supporters of explicit instruction. However, without supporting research these remain merely a set of interesting hypotheses.

In comparison to constructivists, advocates for explicit instruction seem to justify their recommendations more by references to research than rhetoric. Constructivist approaches have been advocated vigorously for almost two decades now, and it is surprising to find how little research they have stimulated during that time. If constructivist instruction were evaluated by the same criterion that Hilgard (1964) applied to Gestalt psychology, the paucity of research stimulated by that paradigm should be a cause for concern for supporters of constructivist views.

Both the Problem and the Solution

So, it seems that while a “telling” orientation is better supported by research, it is also identified as a barrier, if not the barrier, to progress. And it seems that a lot of our day-to-day struggle with the issue centers around the negative consequences of continued unsuccessful attempts at resolving this paradox.

Yet perhaps we should see that this is not a paradox at all. Of course it is a problem when students learn to rely heavily on explicit instruction to make up their thinking, and it is perfectly appropriate to find ways of punching holes in teacher talk time to reduce the possibility of this dependency. But we could also research ways of tackling this explicitly—differentiating ways in which explicit instruction can solicit student inquiry or creativity and ways in which it promotes rule following, for example.

It is at least worth considering that some of our problems—particularly in mathematics education—have less to do with explicit instruction and more to do with bad explicit instruction. If dealing with instructional problems head on is more effective (even those that are “high level,” such as creativity and critical thinking), then we should be making the sacrifices necessary to give teachers the resources and training required to meet those challenges, explicitly.

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J.D. Fisher

J.D. Fisher

Josh Fisher is an author and designer for K-12 mathematics curricula, currently in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


  1. April 11, 2015 at 2:09 pm —

    At my uni, the current model is “healthy mixture”. Now, there’s probably just “stands to reason” behind it as well, but the rationale is: it’s boring. If you always use inductive techniques, students already know what is to come, same old stuff. Always use deductive techniques and it’s boring as well.
    I’ve seen wonderful inductive lessons. The students were engaged, they were thinking, they were having fun. I’ve seen inductive lessons that were rather bad because the teacher lost the thread and didn’t really know where to go. I’ve surely taught both types and the same goes for deductive instructions. Some topics lend themselves better to one method or the other, at least in language teaching.

  2. April 20, 2015 at 2:21 pm —

    “It is at least worth considering that some of our problems—particularly in mathematics education—have less to do with explicit instruction and more to do with bad explicit instruction.”

    My experience as a student, parent, and remedial math instructor at the college level is that mathematics is often (maybe even usually) badly taught. It seems to be a combination of teachers who are assigned to teach math not really understanding what they’re teaching (or even having math phobia — especially in the lower grades, where one teacher teaches everything) and the math being taught in such a bizarre way that even I (PhD in math) can’t understand it.

    For extra credit, can anyone tell me what a “math sentence” is? I never heard of it until I tried to help my son with his math homework. None of his teachers could explain it, either.

  3. April 20, 2015 at 2:31 pm —

    Thanks for your comment, amm1. Your son’s teachers couldn’t explain what a “math sentence” is? Good gravy.
    The simplest explanation, I think, is that a math sentence is essentially an equation, whereas an expression is like an incomplete sentence–a phrase. “Number sentence” is also used.

    • April 20, 2015 at 3:41 pm —

      If “number sentence” = “equation”, why not simply teach them “equation”? Since learning either involves about the same amount of work, why are they making up a new, equally opaque term which they’re going to have to unlearn a few years later anyway (because — trust me — _nobody_ who actually does math uses the term “number sentence” or “math sentence”)?

      It really seems like the Education departments creating needless complications to justify their existence. I remember a lot of that when I was in primary & secondary school.

  4. April 22, 2015 at 12:09 am —

    This is a cause, in my mind, for a number of problems. We have large constellations of minor issues like the one you raised, amm1, that seem to benefit immediate clarity over longer term learning. When these prove ineffective, we want to declare that the issue is with explicit instruction. And this turns out to be correct, in a way. When large swathes of people don’t really understand the mathematics they are charged with teaching, and rely on hand-me-down methodologies of “delivery,” what you wind up with is a proceduralized mess of incoherent and mostly unimportant rules for “doing” mathematics.

    The cure for this, unfortunately, has been to change the methodologies without changing the underlying mathematical knowledge of teachers. So what we are working our way toward now, if it hasn’t arrived already, is proceduralized anti-proceduralism–a lot of superficial copy-pasting of anti-telling methodologies, tethered only weakly to mathematical and empirical reality.

    • April 22, 2015 at 9:50 am —

      “that seem to benefit immediate clarity over longer term learning.”

      Except that that “immediate clarity” is an illusion. If you actually understand mathematics enough to know what “equation” means, it’s obvious that “math sentence” is just word salad. But if all of mathematics is word salad to you, which seems to be the case for a lot of people in Education(tm), then it seems to be clearer, because it consists of two words you think you understand instead of one word that you know you don’t understand.

      An awful lot of what passes for pedagogy seems to consist of doing stuff that sort of looks like “teaching,” rather than anything that actually helps children (or adults) learn any faster than they would on their own. My own experience of schooling was that I learned a lot better when I ignored the teacher and looked at problems and examples in the book and tried to figure stuff out on my own.

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