How a Focus on Explicit Instruction is Transforming Teaching at Our High School

"I Do, We Do, You Do."

Take a minute and think about these words and the impact they could make each day in any school in the world. These simple words are part of the foundation and framework for instructional practices across Haslett High School, where I have been Principal for the past 11 years. Our district has been on a journey in recent years to improve the pedagogical practices of all of our teachers. As a high performing district, Haslett faces the challenge of working to close the gaps between high achievers and low achievers, and increase student success for all.

Our school leadership team, (made up of the School Improvement Chair, myself, eight teachers and an intervention specialist) understands that our main goal is for all of our students to achieve and be successful. And we have come to believe that the best way to maximize academic growth is through Explicit Instruction. Explicit Instruction is a structured, systematic, and effective methodology for teaching academic skills, supported by almost 30 years of research. It is a direct approach to teaching that includes both instructional design and delivery procedures.

In her book, Explicit Instruction, Anita Archer writes: “Explicit Instruction is characterized by a series of supports or ‘scaffolds,’ whereby students are guided through the learning process with clear explanations and demonstrations of the instructional target, and supported practice with feedback until independent mastery has been achieved.” Explicit Instruction does not exclude inquiry learning, it is just a matter of when to use it. The guiding principle of Explicit Instruction is that the more novice the learner, the more explicit the instruction should be. In other words, the inquiry process needs to be explicitly modeled so that students have the tools they need to be successful.

Our teachers do not assume 80 percent or more of their students have prior knowledge on a topic or an area to be studied. They begin by quickly assessing where knowledge gaps may be. By doing so, teachers can speed or slow the pace of instruction so students stay engaged with the learning. In addition, research tells us (Kirschner, 2004) that inquiry-based, discovery learning works well only with students with a lot of prior knowledge guiding them through the discovery process. With Explicit Instruction, students are the apprentices being guided by the teacher as they walk and talk through the steps to problem-solve.

The Reading Apprenticeship model is a great example of this technique. The teacher explicitly makes his thinking visible as he reads through a text, making annotations along the way with the intention of clarifying what a successful reader is thinking and doing, and what habits of mind he uses when reading. Given those strategies, students can practice with the teacher, in small group, then on their own. This approach works more effectively for all students. Every student is then walked down a path to success and learning.

Our staff has worked countless hours to develop teacher-led, student-centered classrooms where initial practice is carried out with high levels of teacher involvement, and then is systematically withdrawn as students move toward independent performance. As Hattie writes in his book, Visible Learning, “The model of visible teaching and learning combines, rather than contrasts, teacher-centered teaching and student centered learning and knowing."

Recently I spoke with my intervention specialist who said this: “Explicit instruction works because it includes all students, especially our students with learning challenges.” Explicit instruction clearly leads students to a learning criteria or objective through the "I do" and "we do" stages, and then allows them to explore, inquire, and expand their learning through the "you do" stage. This has given our teachers more instructional time in the "you do" stage as they don't have to wait for all students to "discover" the concept being taught.

One of my commitments as principal is to visit every classroom every day to monitor the progress of my teachers’ instructional practices. I believe, if you Expect It, you have to Inspect It! Teachers respect my (almost) daily walk-throughs, because it creates a visibility that not all building administrators achieve. Also, there is an authenticity to my instructional feedback because I am regularly in their classrooms. My journey as a “Lead-Learner” with our teachers in improving pedagogical practices has dramatically changed my role as principal. Our building culture for students, staff, and administration has improved dramatically too. 

Providing professional development centered around Explicit Instruction practices over the last several years, and having professional conversations around its benefits, has helped our staff grow instructionally. The PD has been especially powerful when provided by the teachers themselves, rather than an outsider who "tells us how to teach." It is a more organic, authentic feel when a colleague can say "This is how I did it and why it worked." Walking through our building today, we see agendas posted, essential questions posed, warm up activities tied to the day's goals initiated, and students problem-solving and collaborating. 

Finally, over the years, we have built a Multi-Tiered System of Supports with the beginning steps focusing on explicit instructional practices across all tiers of instruction. Our teachers have become students of their own teaching practices, and as a result, we have created more targeted, engaging and visible learning environments for all. My major message is clear to our teachers…what teachers do matters!


Great article and Bart explains what a typical day looks like in our classrooms here at Haslett High School. All kids can be successful

I find that the "I do, we do, you do" model gives students such confidence, so it truly helps all to understand and practice the material. It provides the needed guidance to those who may struggle a little more with the material, while giving more confidence to those who may catch on quickly.

This article highlights many effective pedagogical practices including teacher modeling, scaffolding for students, and formative assessment. However, it is important to not create a false dichotomy between inquiry methods and explicit instruction. The Kirschner article cited here definitely makes that mistake (for a response see Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, and Chinn in Educational Psychologist 42(2) 2007). The Kirschner article wrongly equated problem based learning and inquiry methods with “unguided or minimally guided instructional approaches.” Some of claims in this post suggests a similar sentiment. Here I will contrast this view with a perspective from science education since that is my background, but I suspect that many educators in other disciplines would make very similar points.

While Wegenke says, “Explicit Instruction does not exclude inquiry learning, it is just a matter of when to use it,” I would argue that it is more a matter of how to use it (or any other instructional strategy) rather than when. Wegenke’s assertion that “the more novice the learner, the more explicit the instruction should be” seems to imply that only advanced students can benefit from engaging in inquiry. However, in science education engaging students in inquiry is absolutely essential for learning about how scientific knowledge is constructed and has been shown to help students develop deeper content knowledge. Even very young students can be guided in asking scientific questions and collecting data to develop explanations. The Next Generation Science Standards reflects the National Research Council’s call for engaging students in the practices of science (many of which were formerly lumped together as “inquiry”) as supported by numerous research studies. The important thing to remember is that engaging students inquiry does not mean removing teacher modeling and scaffolding, but rather that students are also supported in developing knowledge rather than only presenting them facts and theories to master. Of course, scientists, engineers, and citizens also engage in application (applying existing scientific models to new situations), so science education should not focus exclusively on inquiry but should also emphasize application (which often looks more like “explicit instruction”).

What a wonderful article Bart! You are doing some amazing things. Keep up the good work!

I enjoyed reading about the work your school is doing, Bart. Common expectations help all students access learning that will lead to deeper understanding. Your leadership team is a great model of collaborative commitment to providing the best for all students.