Young children only stand to benefit from explicit instruction

There are two broad philosophical approaches to teaching children in the early years. The first is a play-based approach characterised by a high degree of choice. This approach is student centred and aligns strongly with progressivism. On the other hand, you have the academic-based approach where students are lead by a teacher in more structured activities. This approach is teacher-centred and aligns more with traditionalism. Like all debates in education around philosophical and instructional approaches, no one actually adheres to either approach 100% of the time. The debate is more about which philosophy should be the core of instructional design in the classroom.

Currently, early years provision in England is play-based but that could soon change. OFSTED released a report this week on early years provision in English schools. The report is a case study of successful schools and recommends more direct teaching of important concepts in the early years. It is worth noting that Reception children in England are younger than our Kindergartners. Whereas most children begin Kindergarten when they are 5 and often turn 6 during the year, English children begin their Reception year when they are 4 turning 5. Despite a minor age difference, I think the debate over which approach is best is relevant to the Australian context. This recent report is a good example of current trends towards a more play-based philosophy in the early years. Despite the fact our Kindergartners are generally older than English Reception students, we seem to be going in the opposite direction: England wants more direct instruction; we want more play-based learning.

Which should we prefer? Well, it is clear that explicit teaching is far superior to other forms of instruction. We have known that for a number of years (see here, here and here). Controlling for all other aspects, it is clear that students stand to gain more from being taught explicitly and unambiguously so they can gain mastery of important concepts. If we are to teach concepts implicitly – such as through play – we may not ensure students (particularly those most vulnerable) gain the essential knowledge they need for future success in school.

When the argument for explicit instruction is made, many will call this approach developmentally inappropriate. It is thought that because the students are so young, teaching complex content through such a method is not matched to their current understanding of the world and is therefore not an appropriate approach. This idea can be traced back to Piaget’s stage theory of development. Piaget proposed that students operate in 4 discrete cognitive stages as they grow. It is thought that if students were taught concepts, knowledge or ideas beyond their developmental stage, they would not be able to understand. It is this logic that has been applied to instructional methods: the students are young and therefore not developmentally ready for explicit instruction of more complex concepts. The only problem being that development does not occur in discrete stages rendering the developmental argument inaccurate and therefore invalid. There isn’t any evidence that content is inappropriate for students of any age, and imagining so may do more harm than good.

Many will also argue that this approach is one of ‘drill-and-kill’, which inevitably zaps a love of learning out of young children. This is an emotive argument that does not acknowledge how explicit teaching is best taught in the early years. Explicit instruction best taught is extremely playful and enjoyable for kids. Kids love the playful nature of explicit instruction done well. Anyone who argues that explicit instruction will kill a love of learning does not understand how it is best taught in the early years.

The evidence in favour of explicit instruction is pretty strong; however, this does not discount the value of play. Play is important for understanding the world and is a natural act. It is useful to define different types of knowledge to understand the role play may have in the classroom. David Geary defines two types of knowledge – biologically primary and biologically secondary. Biologically primary knowledge is the knowledge we are innately capable of acquiring, such as the ability to speak and communicate in spoken language and the ability to socialise in a positive manner. This type of knowledge may well best be acquired through the natural act of play. Biologically secondary knowledge is the knowledge we are not innately capable of acquiring. Unlike spoken language, the ability to read and communicate in written form is a biologically secondary act. Further, gaining knowledge of how plants grow and survive is also biologically secondary. These ideas are not easily acquired naturally. For these, play is probably not appropriate; rather, explicit instruction would better help students acquire this knowledge. So although play is crucial for cultivating biologically primary knowledge (knowledge early years children are still gaining), it is probably not the best approach for helping students acquire biologically secondary knowledge. To acquire biologically secondary knowledge, almost all students need explicit instruction.

There are certain things students need to know and be able to do early in their schooling to ensure later success. All students need a good grounding in early reading and writing knowledge, which needs to be taught explicitly. Further, many students suffer from severe disadvantage and therefore do not benefit from the direct instruction more affluent peers are receiving from their parents. Affluent students will know what a reptile is and that trees that lose their leaves are called deciduous trees. Poor students will not know this and need direct instruction to gain this knowledge. There is much our disadvantaged do not know and we need to teach them to make sure they do know it; otherwise, they will really struggle later on. They aren’t going to figure out what characteristics a reptile has or work out what we call a tree that loses it leaves without explicit instruction.

I welcome the report released supporting a more direct approach in the early years. There is no doubt play has its place, but a bit of common sense winning out over romantic feelings is a good thing for all children, especially the disadvantaged. There are certain things students just simply need to know and will not acquire independently. Using explicit instruction to ensure students know this stuff is common sense. No doubt many will stand in opposition to it, perhaps making up lies about how it will crush the joy of learning and marginalise play, but for me, it is very clear that explicit instruction is a winner for kids, and that’s why I support it.




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