What Does Explicit Instruction Look Like in Key Stage 2 Science?

Explicit instruction has a negative reputation in primary science. I often hear or read about explicit instruction described as ‘drill and kill’ or other terms. I’ve heard colleagues say that explicit instruction only teaches facts, not understanding. This isn’t true. So I thought I’d outline what explicit instruction really looks like in a KS2 science classroom.

First – a clarification: I’m using explicit instruction as a synonym for direct instruction. Both are commonly used and for most of us they mean the same thing.

If you are familiar with Rosenshine’s principles of instruction, you will already know most of what I am going to say. Barak Rosenshine, an American educator coined the term ‘direct instruction’ in his 1971 book – his ideas aren’t new. Since then, much further research has confirmed his list of effective classroom strategies. You can read more all over the internet. I like the UNESCO Principles of Instruction.

In this post, I apply them to a typical science lesson to show that it isn’t ‘drill and kill’ but a healthy effective lesson, similar to the style of teaching many of us use in other lessons. I’ll assume a 60 minute lesson.

Time (min)Lesson ActivityComment
0-10Starter questions: perhaps 10 short questions to review the last lesson as well as questions about knowledge from last term and last year.These questions do two jobs – they reactivate the learning from the pervious lesson as well as keeping older learning ‘fresh’ – it would be a shame to let all of that hard learning work fade away. The teacher can check whether the material has been forgotten and use a couple of minutes to remind pupils of the forgotten learning.
10-12Advance organiser – what will you learn in this lesson? Advance organisers are especially welcome for pupils with additional learning needs – but it’s really just good teaching.
12-17Hook – this might be a story or a demonstration of a phenomenon – something, ideally physical for them to experience (e.g. a rubbed balloon lifting hair).This isn’t strictly explicit instruction – you aren’t expecting pupils to discover anything for themselves, but to have a concrete experience to build their learning on. If they have done it before, it reactivates the experience, and if it is new, it establishes the first concept. Keep it short and sweet.
17-25Teaching a new idea. This is where direct instruction has clear guidance: keep any new content short and practise each step thoroughly. When learning something new, you are easily overwhelmed – so take baby steps and support pupils at each step.
25-30Model the taskWe often use ‘I do / we do / you do’ – we make three very similar versions of the same task (e.g. drawing three very similar food chains).
1. The teacher models the first one (I do);
2. The whole class does the second one together supported by the teacher (we do);
3. Pupils do the third one independently (you do).
30-45Guided practiceSet tasks which start very similar, but gradually add complexity. You want pupils to gradually experience the new learning in many different contexts. You might want to practise as a whole class with Q+A, verbally in pairs or independently, but all of the time all the time, provide support. This is an ideal time for assessment for learning – give lots of feedback.
45-50Prepare for an independent taskYou may want the to write a short explanation of the phenomenon, or label a diagram. You might want them to discuss with a partner. Show them how to do it effectively.
50-60Independent taskMonitor pupils as they practice independently.
A breakdown of a lesson using explicit instruction.

The point I am hoping to make is that explicit instruction is much like any other effective teaching. The principles have been tested in classrooms all over the world and in a wide range of lessons. Pupils learn more, can remember more and can use more if they have been taught using the principles outlined by Rosenshine.

One final point I’d like to make: knowledge isn’t just facts (though facts are important). Knowledge includes the following and more:

  • knowing why something is important;
  • knowing other contexts where the knowledge applies;
  • knowing how we know something;
  • knowing how the idea has changed over time;
  • knowing the social context of an idea;
  • knowing how a person might need the idea for a career;
  • knowing how to test the idea is correct;
  • knowing how the idea relates to other ideas;
  • knowing what other people think about the idea;
  • knowing what problems the idea can help them solve….

I hope this is useful. There isn’t anything magic here – it’s just clear, effective teaching – it’s as simple and as hard as that.


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