The downward trend in Australian school student scores in tests such as NAPLAN, PISA and TIMSS has understandably caused concern among Australian educators, policymakers and the media.
The push to remedy this trend is driving interest in pedagogies differing from the currently favoured, inquiry-based, child-centred educational practices. Numerous educational leaders and experts have proposed returning to guided instructional practices, or otherwise known as explicit teaching.
At Australian Christian College – Singleton, a six-year trial of explicit direct instruction (EDI) created a remarkable turnaround in NAPLAN results, enrolments and teacher engagement. Before exploring these aspects in more detail, it’s important to establish some background about EDI.
Explicit Direct Instruction – A Brief History
Explicit Direct Instruction evolved from Direct Instruction (DI), an approach developed in the mid-1960s by Siegfried Engelmann and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana.
Initially shown to deliver far superior results across student total reading, total math, spelling and language when compared to nine other educational models, there is now a comprehensive, decades-long corpus of evidence confirming DI’s effectiveness. For example, Hattie’s 2009 synthesis of 800 meta-analyses found DI to be one of the most effective teaching strategies.
Why DI Works – Cognitive Load Theory
Direct Instruction is predicated on behaviourist assumptions that all children can learn if they are taught well and the learning outcomes result directly from well-developed programs, competently implemented through the pedagogical process.
It is characterised by systematic, explicitly scripted lesson plans and curriculum materials designed to quickly lead students to mastery using sequentially delivered, small goal- and task-based learning components.
The lowercase use of “di” has evolved to denote approaches requiring teachers to develop lesson and resource material, whilst applying effective DI pedagogical practices.
DI’s effectiveness has been linked to the cognitive load theory (CLT) developed by educational psychologist John Sweller in the 1980s. It emphasises reducing the cognitive load upon learners’ limited working memories, and identifying processes that enable transfer of knowledge from short-term to long-term memory to create retrievable blocks of knowledge (known as schemas).
CLT posits that introducing short, scaffolded, simple-to-complex instructional chunks and worked examples facilitates transfer of new skills and concepts to long-term memory. It is best implemented by guided instruction practices, rather than discovery-based, problem-based, inquiry-based pedagogies.
Explicit direct instruction is teacher-led and utilises strategies including:
- Starting lessons with a clear statement describing the learning objective.
- Teaching students the concepts and/or steps or processes used to execute the skills in that objective.
- Working problems with students at the same time while ensuring they execute each step correctly.
- Having students prove they have learned the concepts and skills before they are given independent practice.
Strategies used to achieve these components include: frequently checking for understanding to verify students are learning; teaching by telling: using think-alouds to reveal the strategic thinking required to solve problems; and demonstrating using physical objects to clarify content and support kinaesthetic learning.
EDI in Practice – ACC Singleton’s Transformation
Singleton Christian College, in operation for over 30 years, became part of the Australian Christian College network in 2012. Before this, it had consistently registered literacy and numeracy levels significantly lower than national norms. The School was therefore approached by the Association of Independent Schools (AIS) NSW to participate in the Literacy and Numeracy Action Plan 2012-2016 – an initiative designed to assist schools struggling with poor literacy and numeracy.
After examining evidence on literacy and numeracy improvement, the school implemented EDI in 2015, which proved key to the school’s academic recovery. Supporting EDI’s adoption
Shifting to EDI required a whole-school approach. Strategies used to achieve this included:
- Training and mentoring of school leaders
- Staff training through dedicated EDI modules, school visits to observe effective EDI practice, provision of a key EDI text, and an intentional coaching program
- Professional instruction delivered by expert practitioners
- Purchasing of class resources aligned to the EDI approach.
The Results – a Remarkable Turnaround
These changes resulted in significant positive developments, including improved results on standardised academic tests, increased enrolments, positive parent feedback, enhanced teacher satisfaction, and recognition of teaching excellence from both the AIS and the University of Newcastle’s Education faculty.
Improved academic performance
NAPLAN test data show averaged scores for all domains lifted across all relevant primary year levels from 2013 to 2019:
- Year 3 – from 359 to 433
- Year 5 – from 478 to 493
Similar NAPLAN results improvements have been achieved in the secondary years from 2014 to 2019:
- Year 7 – from 503 to 558
- Year 9 – from 546 to 581
Some domains evidenced standout improvements. For example, Year 3 average scores for reading jumped from 342 to 432, spelling from 357 to 446, and numeracy from 359 to 415.
For Year 5 scores, writing lifted from 412 to 470 and numeracy from 447 to 492. Between 2014 and 2019, Year 7 scores for reading increased from 500 to 549, grammar 525 to 582, and numeracy 496 to 588.
The adoption of a synthetic phonics program for Kindergarten students, taught using an EDI approach, also led to significantly improved Priority Literacy Skills.
In 2018, for example, students in term 1 tested with 33% foundational literacy skills, which by term 4 had increased to 82%. In 2020, students’ Priority Literacy Skills shifted from 52% in term 1 to 92.5% by end of year. These results confirm that the School’s literacy approach is succeeding.
At the beginning of the improvement process, ACC Singleton was a Kindergarten to Year 10 school with 50 students. It now caters for Kindergarten to Year 12 with over 200 students.
The changed teaching approach and resulting academic improvement correlates with a significant upturn in enrolments. Parent feedback surveys confirm the School’s focus on academic outcomes was the most significant enrolment driver.
Enhanced teacher engagement
ACC Singleton has developed a comprehensive and supportive instructional coaching model with two key goals - to drive ongoing improvements in teacher performance and to support the timely and effective onboarding of new teachers.
Staff members expressed satisfaction as they embraced the new pedagogy and worked explicit teaching into their classes. A survey asking what the School’s journey with EDI had been like personally and professionally elicited responses typified by the statement: “It has been a positive journey, well worth all of the hard work.”
One primary teacher expressed her appreciation saying, “I feel like I’ve been born again as a teacher.”
Time for a change
EDI’s merits have been borne out by decades of extensive research and the results of successful implementation in schools such as ACC Singleton. With its clear advantages over student-led, inquiry-based pedagogical approaches, it’s high time education faculties in western universities include this approach in teacher training.