Inquiry Vs. Explicit: Who Wins?

There seems to be a nonstop debate about how to teach. Inquiry or Explicit. The inquiry based instruction groups argue that inquiry instruction is preferable because it enhances creativity, is more natural, creates deeper memories, helps students become lifelong learners and more. The explicit based instruction groups argue that explicit instruction helps students learn to read more efficiently, is in line with scientific research, gives students the tools to become lifelong learners, and more.

I think that this debate has become slightly misplaced. With many in the inquiry camp claiming that explicit instruction means lecture and many in the explicit camp claiming that inquiry instruction means discovery learning. In my lived experience, and even in my twitter experience, both are wrong. This is part 3 in a 3 part series.

  1. Inquiry Instruction 2. Explicit Instruction 3. Inquiry Vs Explicit: Who Wins?

I’ve given brief summaries of Inquiry Instruction and Explicit Instruction in previous blog posts. You can click on the links above to read them if you like.

Before I declare my winner. Let’s push back on the derision that can accompany Inquiry and Explicit instruction based teaching.

A well planned Inquiry based lesson will look slightly chaotic to an outsider, but that does not mean learning is not taking place. The teacher is intentionally crafting the lesson to guide students toward the correct answer, to guide students towards knowledge. The hope is that this leads to a deeper understanding because the student needs to construct this knowledge for themselves, it isn’t given to them by the teacher. Throughout this process the teacher is giving feedback to students in order to guide their learning and assisting them in seeing their errors. The hope is that this helps students to become critical thinkers who are able to spot their own mistakes and fix them.

Explicit instruction is not a dry lecture. There is back and forth between the teacher and students and between students over the course of a lesson. The teacher takes time to carefully plan the lesson and introduce vocabulary and concepts in bitesize chunks that are digestible for students. Then, after students are introduced to the necessary background knowledge (includes vocab, concepts, skills) the teacher demonstrates solving a problem. Then students work together to solve a problem. And, finally, the students can solve the problem on their own. Throughout this process, the teacher is giving students informal feedback (corrective, and affirmative). The constant feedback helps students to learn more quickly and move towards accurate application of their new knowledge.

Now for the winner.

Explicit Instruction!

I believe that explicit instruction wins because it is more structured. I do not mean more planned because a good inquiry lesson is very carefully planned. But the structure matters. I believe that this structure helps students to learn more efficiently than the looser structure provided by inquiry learning. And, as always, the proof is in the pudding (student outcomes for us). What follows is an incredibly brief summary of the research into explicit instruction.

Explicit instruction has been proven to be an effective teaching strategy for “normal students” however, it is especially beneficial for students with various learning challenges (Archer, 2011). Explicit instruction is effective for all students precisely because of its structure.

The structure of and benefits explicit instruction from Hall & Vue, 2004. If you are interesting in more details about the structure and meta-analysis, click on the Hall and Vue link above.

Structure of Explicit Instruction

  • Big Ideas
  • Conspicuous strategies
  • Mediated scaffolding
  • Strategic integration
  • Primed background knowledge

Delivery of Explicit Instruction

  • Frequent Student Responses
  • Appropriate Pacing
  • Adequate Processing Time
  • Monitor Responses

A meta-analysis by Adams, 1996 found that the mean effect size for explicit instruction is .75. This is a very large, positive impact on student learning. Project Follow Through found that students taught with explicit instruction in math, reading, language, and spelling had good levels of achievement, while also having a higher self-esteem than students taught with other methods. This may be because competence in school can lead to higher self-esteem. It was also found that disadvantaged students with diverse needs benefited greatly from explicit reading instruction.

The following quote is from the National Center for Accessible Educational Materials by Hall and Vue.

One of the most visible implementations of direct instruction in public schools is Wesley Elementary in Houston, TX. When the school began implementation of instruction using direct instruction, fifth grade students were almost two years below grade level. After four years of implementation, the third, fourth, and fifth grade students were performing 1 to 1.5 years above grade level. All students scored above the 80th percentile in both reading and mathematics on the district evaluation. Wesley School continues these effective practices school-wide and continues to have exemplary scores on district, state, and national assessments.

For clarity, direct instruction (di) is a form of explicit instruction. I feel the results are clear based on research. We can use explicit instruction in our classrooms to improve the outcomes of all our students, high and low achieving while improving their self-esteem and not damaging their creativity. The evidence is explicit.

A Poem: First Class First Lab First Day Of School

It was the first day of school and all went well

My students were spectacularly swell

I introduced me

And now they can see

I take science seriously

A lab on day one

Was twice as fun

When of behavior problems there were none

I am not entirely sure why

Did they have the first-day jitters

With their hearts all appitter?

Or were they just acting their best?

Whatever the reason

I’ll take advantage of this season

Behavioral precedence has been set

My expectations will be met

I’m looking forward to this year

Today was a good start

I’m grinning from ear to ear

Today was the first day of the year. And I started all my science classes with a lab. Now, this lab was quite simple. We simply reviewed the scientific method (They were taught it last year) and made a hypothesis about how a normal coin and an unevenly weighted coin will land. Then we performed the lab.

I taught this lesson three times today, and I have never had a lab that was so little work. It was incredible because every student was focused and working. I’m not sure if it was simply because today was the first day of school and the students were a bit nervous or because the lab was simple, but I will take it.

The secret might be to take advantage of first day nerves and students wanting to make a good impression. Not simply by laying down the law (should be done clearly, firmly, and kindly) but by taking advantage of their behavior. Allowing better than normal behavior to set a precedent and clarify expectations.

So, what are you waiting for? Start your year off with a bang! Do something and run with it.

Explicit Instruction: What Is It?

There seems to be a nonstop debate about how to teach. Inquiry or Explicit. The inquiry based instruction groups argue that inquiry instruction is preferable because it enhances creativity, is more natural, creates deeper memories, helps students become lifelong learners and more. The explicit based instruction groups argue that explicit instruction helps students learn to read more efficiently, is in line with scientific research, gives students the tools to become lifelong learners, and more.

I think that this debate has become slightly misplaced. With many in the inquiry camp claiming that explicit instruction means lecture and many in the explicit camp claiming that inquiry instruction means discovery learning. In my lived experience, and even in my twitter experience, both are wrong. This is part 2 in a 3 part series.

  1. Inquiry Instruction 2. Explicit Instruction 3. Inquiry Vs Explicit: Who Wins?

What follows is my best case interpretation for explicit instruction and information was largely taken from Anita L. Archer’s Powerpoint presentation, Explicit Instruction: Effective and Efficient Teaching.

Explicit instruction is a highly interactive process that involves a lot of back and forth question and answer from students to teacher. The teacher uses the information gained in this back and forth to informally assess their students and provide affirmative or corrective feedback as necessary. This can be done in a large variety of ways. For more ideas, check out Anita L. Archer’s Powerpoint presentation (Linked above). The entire instructional process is intentionally structured in order to benefit learning.

The skills, strategies, and concepts are sequenced logically.

  • Easier skills are taught before harder skills
  • High frequency skills before low frequency skills
  • Prerequisites first
  • Similar skills are separated

The basic format of a lesson based on explicit instruction involves an opener (gathers student attention, reviews previous material, or previews current material), a body (where the content is taught), and a conclusion (involves reviewing the lesson or previewing the next one). The teachers will also base their lessons around known (to the students) instructional routines. Internalized routines allow for the students to focus on the content because they do not need to use their working memory to think about what to do next. Another benefit is that lessons can move faster because the teacher only needs to cue students to move to “the next stage” instead of explaining what they want the students to do next.

In teaching skills, the teacher demonstrates the skill first. Then, students, as a class, follow the teacher’s lead. Finally the students practice the skill on their own. This model can be simplified as

  • Model I do
  • Prompt We do
  • Check You do

This type of scaffolding reduces complex procedures and concepts into simple, attainable parts. Essentially, this type of modeling reduces the cognitive load of the student.

Explicit instruction places a high value on vocabulary and follows a four step process in introducing new words.

  1. Introduce the word
  2. Provide a student friendly definition
  3. Illustrate the word’s meaning with examples
  4. Check understanding

The goal is to catch misunderstandings early and correct them. This will allow for students to have more practice using correct meaning and move the word into their long-term memory faster. This practice will also be distributed over time. This improves retention and can help students to connect the word/information/concept to other words/informations/concepts, deepening their understanding. Explicit instruction practices also tend to involve cumulative reviews. This is in part because everything students learn is important and it involves recall which helps keep the information in long term memory.

Stay tuned for part 3 where I finally give my two cents.

Inquiry Instruction: What Is It?

There seems to be a nonstop debate about how to teach. Inquiry or Explicit. The inquiry based instruction groups argue that inquiry instruction is preferable because it enhances creativity, is more natural, creates deeper memories, helps students become lifelong learners and more. The explicit based instruction groups argue that explicit instruction helps students learn to read more efficiently, is in line with scientific research, gives students the tools to become lifelong learners, and more.

I think that this debate has become slightly misplaced. With many in the inquiry camp claiming that explicit instruction means lecture and many in the explicit camp claiming that inquiry instruction means discovery learning. In my lived experience, and even in my twitter experience, both are wrong. This is part one in a 3 part series.

1. Inquiry Instruction 2. Explicit Instruction 3. Inquiry Vs Explicit: Who Wins?

What follows is my best case interpretation of inquiry instruction.

Inquiry learning seeks to give students a passion for the subject through carefully guided lessons that allow students to find the facts. This is similar to discovery learning, yet fundamentally different since it is heavily guided. The lesson or topic would typically start by giving students questions/problems/scenarios to solve. The students would then use their background knowledge and do research in order to find a solution.

The teacher works to guide students beyond their natural level of curiosity and leads them to engage in critical thinking through the investigation process. As students investigate the material in search for an answer, they are taking ownership of their learning. It has been hypothesized that being explicitly taught leads students to become externally motivated, ie wanting to please their teacher or parents. Whereas in inquiry based learning, the children can “discover” the answers on their own (from a student’s perspective). This could then lead to a love for learning, ie an intrinsically motivated student (Bruner, 1961).

The goal is for the students to process on four different levels of a continuum (Banchi, 2008). The lower levels involve more guidance from the teacher whereas the higher levels involve less teacher guidance.

Level 1: Confirmation Inquiry

  • Students are provided with the question, procedure, and outcome.
  • This is useful for helping students get used to following procedures and gets them to practice specific skills.

Level 2: Structured Inquiry

  • Students are provided with the question and procedure.
  • This level of inquiry forces students to analyze relationships between the question, procedure, and outcome. For example, if the student is dropping differently weighted balls into sand to imitate a meteorite impact, then the student would need to analyze how the different weights impact the resulting crater.

Level 3: Guided Inquiry

  • Students are provided with the question.
  • Students are responsible for designing their own procedure and analyzing the results. As this level is more involved, students should be experienced with the inquiry process before coming to this level. Another key takeaway, the teachers role in this is far from passive. The teacher will be moving around the class giving students/groups constant feedback on their procedures and research in order to keep all groups on track.

Level 4: Open/True Inquiry

  • Students will provide their own question, procedure, and outcome.
  • The teacher will only let students move to this level after they have demonstrated proficiency in designing and carrying out a procedure while also being able to analyze their results. This being said, there are still requirements that students must meet. The teacher should provide a worksheet/lab report/other similar guiding document for students to use.

As students move through the levels of inquiry, while they are still reliant on the teacher to carefully craft the lessons, they are becoming increasingly independent because they understand the inquiry process and can apply it to novel situations. This, along with students becoming more intrinsically motivated helps them to have self direction to take further control of their own learning.

Stay tuned for part 2, Explicit Instruction.

Knowledge Dynamics and Codification in Education

This is essentially a summary of chapter two of OECD’s “Pedagogical Knowledge and the Changing Nature of the Teaching Profession.” It is incredibly interesting and enlightening. It gives a very readable overview of what is known about teacher knowledge. I recommend checking out the free book from OECD.


  • Knowledge Dynamics: characteristics of knowledge that transform, change and evolve as a result of various processes and influences

Many professions are expected to stay up to date with current research in order to improve their practice. Doctors are a profession where this is expected and it leads to results. For example, doctors are able to treat cancer more effectively by DNA sequencing (a recent technology) to figure out the most effective treatment. However, for teachers, conversations around professional development will often center around Vygotsky or Piaget both of whom did most of their work in the 1st half of the 20th century.

Now, this is not to say that current research has totally invalidated the theories of Vygotsky or Piaget, but that teachers should be aware of more current research that adds to and develops older theories so teachers can incorporate this information into their practice to improve student outcomes (similar to how doctors have incorporated advances in medicine into their practices, improving patient outcomes).

There are many dimensions of knowledge. For teachers, some relevant dimensions are as follows. (From OECD Pedagogical Knowledge, 2017)

  • “general pedagogical knowledge (principles and strategies of classroom management and organisation that are cross-curricular)
  • content knowledge (knowledge of subject matter and its organising structures)  
  • pedagogical content knowledge (knowledge of content and pedagogy)
  • curriculum knowledge (subject and grade-specific knowledge of materials and programs)
  • knowledge of learners and their characteristics
  • knowledge of educational contexts (knowledge of classrooms, governance, and financing of school districts, the culture of the school community)
  • knowledge of educational ends, purposes, values, and their philosophical and historical grounds.”


In general, there are two types of knowledge, tacit and explicit. Tacit knowledge is knowledge someone has but has difficulty explaining. Explicit knowledge has been codified and is, therefore, easier to communicate. Teacher pedagogical knowledge is thought to be largely tacit, and as a result, the teaching profession lacks a scientific knowledge base. Work is currently being done to try and codify teacher knowledge, make it explicit, and improve the education future teachers receive.

There is some debate over what knowledge to codify, and how to do it. Many procedure based processes are not fully codifiable. For example, a 16-year-old cannot fully learn how to drive simply by observation. Classroom management procedures are also not fully codifiable. It takes experience along with knowledge to be able to effectively manage a class. Both drivers and teachers need practice because much of the knowledge involved in these processes are inherently tacit and cannot be fully codified.

However, that is not an argument against codification. It is important to make the classroom portion of drivers ed programs as explicit as possible in order to reduce the risk to the young driver and everyone else. Similarly, it is important to make as much teacher pedagogical knowledge explicit as possible. This will improve the efficacy of teachers and improve the quality of education children receive.

As we are working towards codifying teacher knowledge, we must be aware of codification’s drawbacks. Some codification does not transfer or can transfer negatively. As with anything, context matters. Codification can create barriers when it becomes bogged down with local jargon that does not easily transfer to a new location. The effectiveness of codification seems to be dependent on the receivers tacit knowledge, beliefs, and motivation. When we codify, we should seek to do so in a way that will be clear and applicable for others who teach outside of our context.

Researchers Call Teaching A Semi-Profession

The assumed status of teachers is believed to impact who decides to become a teacher and who decides to stay in the profession. Amongst education researchers, there is some debate as to whether teaching is a profession or a semi-profession.

In a 1985 study, Hoswam et. al identify teaching as a semi-profession because it lacks one of the core components of a true profession; professional expertise. Harsh. But, unfortunately, they do have some evidence to back it up. Many teachers do not base their practice on validated principals and theories. Many teachers also do not “contribute to building a scientific knowledge base through the development of principals, theories, or to validating practices.”

The consequences of this are only negative. Due to the lack of a widely used scientific knowledge base around which to build teaching into a true profession, there are not agreed upon standards for evaluating teachers. Teacher education also suffers because of this.

Another researcher, Hoyles argues that teaching is only a semi-profession because teachers tend to rely on knowledge gained through experience without also relying on a systematized scientific knowledge base.

“although knowledge gained through experience is important, this recipe-type knowledge is insufficient to meet professional demands and the practitioner has to draw on a body of systematic knowledge” -Hoyle

According to the OECD study I am basing this article on, there are three main reasons teaching fits better into the semi-professional category than in the professional category.

  1. A profession-specific systematized and scientific body of knowledge that informs the daily activities of practitioners
    • This has been covered above. Essentially, teachers rely on their experience without reference or regards to research.
  2. a lengthy period of higher education training and induction and continuous professional development
    • While teaching has similar requirements as say nursing or engineering the standards are lax. It is considered to be easy to get into and graduate from an education program. This is compounded by many education programs not being based on a scientific body of knowledge.
  3. autonomy, both in connection with the right to exercise professional judgment and decision-making in practice and in governance over the profession.
    • Various education reform movements and legislation have impacted teacher autonomy both in a negative and positive manner. Teacher autonomy also varies from region to region and from school to school.

Outside of the profession, semi-profession debate there is a debate over the perceived status of education. Salary is considered to play an influential in the public’s perception of a job field. According to the OECD data, in 2016, primary teachers earn an average of 81% of the salary a full-time college graduate would earn, while high school teachers earned an average of 85% of that benchmark. Work conditions also play into the status of teaching. Class size, school resources, teaching hours, high workload, school safety, lack of professional development, and large administrative duties have all been cited as a negative influence of the teachings perceived status.  Teachers do not have many pathways for moving “up” the career ladder if they wish to remain in the classroom. This often leads to teachers feeling as if teaching is not a career unless they wish to move out of the classroom and into administration.

Many researchers have said that in order to both professionalize and improve the public’s perception of teaching, steps should be taken to make teaching an evidenced-based occupation. One way to start this is for researchers to look into teacher knowledge and draw attention to it. Research in the area of teacher pedagogical knowledge is lacking. There are a few studies that suggest teachers with a high level of pedagogical knowledge is associated with competent teaching. However, there is a lack of research looking at teacher pedagogical knowledge and student learning outcomes. This is an incredibly important area to research because of the potential impact to teachers and students.

Guerriero, S. (ed.) (2017), Pedagogical Knowledge and the Changing Nature of the Teaching Profession, Educational Research and Innovation, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Education 1960-1980: The Coleman Report (1965) and EHA (1975)

1966 saw the publication of the report titled Equality of Educational Opportunity, which became known as The Coleman Report (Wikipedia). The report’s purpose was to see if students of different races, religions, and national origins had equal access to educational opportunities. It revolutionized the way schools were evaluated by both the public and the government (Hanushek, 2016). Previously, schools were evaluated based on their inputs: how much money they spent per pupil, books per pupil in the library, breadth/depth of curriculum, etc. The Coleman report focused on outcomes such as how much students learn each year, long-term employment, future earning opportunities, etc.

It found that student background and socioeconomic status dramatically impact student achievement, though it is disputed how accurate these findings were. Some argue that the report valued student/family background too highly and that the analysis was skewed as a result.

The Coleman report also found that black students who attended majority white schools performed better academically. This finding led to “mass bussing” where black students were bussed to “white” schools in order to help desegregate schools and improve outcomes for black students. This intervention proved to be incredibly controversial, and ultimately ineffective. In a later report, Coleman said that the bussing strategy failed, not because the original finding was incorrect, but because the bussing policy led to white flight (Kiviat, 2000).

In measuring academic outcomes, the Coleman Report was able to definitively show how large the achievement gap was. In 1965, in a national test of math, black 12th graders came in at the 13th percentile of the score distribution for white students. This means that the 87% of white students scored better than the average black student (Hanushek, 2016). The results were slightly better, but still depressing for reading. As the achievement gap became public knowledge a push was made to rectify this injustice (injustice is the correct term for a man-made problem of this scale).

Shortly after the report was published, President Johnson was pushing for a federally funded education program that would help equalize the educational opportunities of low-income students by increasing funding schools in low-income neighborhoods. A bit later, in the 1970s there was the Serrano v Priest California Supreme Court Case. The decision stated that all schools in the state of California must spend the same amount per pupil (Hanushek, 2016). The hope was that this would increase educational equity. These went forward even though their basic premise is contradicted by the Coleman Report that increased funding does not impact educational outcomes. Today, further research has shown more clearly that money does matter. How states, schools, and districts spend it matters (Baker, 2017).


In 1975, Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was passed. The core of this law was that all children are entitled to an education. The law required that all public schools receiving money from the federal government needed to provide free, equal access to education and one meal per day for children with physical and or mental disabilities. This law also forced schools to interact with these children’s parents. Schools would work with parents to create an education plan for the child that would provide the least restrictive environment, and therefore imitate the regular curriculum as much as possible.

The ongoing impact of EHA can hardly be overstated as, it the time of its passing, around one million students were excluded from public education because they had a physical or mental disability (Special Ed News, 2018). The impact from this has compounded as every year since 1975 these children have been allowed to be students. This often not only improves the child’s quality of life because they have a greater opportunity to learn, but it probably improved the families quality of life as well (I can’t find sources, but assume it is true). This happened because the family would no longer need to pay for private schooling/daycare and both parents would be able to fulfill their obligations during the day. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are approximately 6.7 million students receiving some form of special education today.

20th Century Education: 1900-1960 A Brief Briefing

The Progressive Era began in the 1890s and continued into the 1930s. The era was characterized by dramatically increasing children’s access to education. John Dewey is perhaps the most famous figure in education from the Progressive Era. He advocated for schools to become more democratic. He also wanted students to be more active in the classroom. This led him towards what has become known as the Constructivist Learning Theory. The core of this theory states that students must individually “construct” their knowledge. In this approach, according to Professor Hein of Lesley College, “Learning is not understanding the “true” nature of things, nor is it (as Plato suggested) remembering dimly perceived perfect ideas, but rather a personal and social construction of meaning.”

Through much of the 1900s, education was segregated. Booker T. Washington played a major role in African American education. He led Tuskegee College and essentially turned an empty lot into a growing university that had over 1,500 students by its 25th anniversary. He advocated for schools that could prepare African Americans for every sphere of life: scientific, industrial, and agricultural. This meant that he was pushing not only for access to secondary education but tertiary education as well. A simple way to measure Booker T. Washington’s impact would be to look up how many places are named after him. According to Wikipedia, there are currently 26 schools and government facilities with his name.

At the beginning of the 20th century, 78% of school-age children were enrolled in school. The average rate of attendance hovered around 70%. During the early 1900s, many students’ education would end with primary or middle school, only 11% of students enrolled in secondary school. Thankfully, throughout the 1900s and into the 2000s we have been able to drastically increase school attendance. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), by 1940 nearly 80% of students who were high school aged (14-17 yrs) were enrolled in school. Wikipedia adds that 50% of adults had earned a high school diploma by this time.

This huge jump happened in spite of the Great Depression of 1929-1939. Many public schools struggled with funding as their tax revenues fell. They struggled so much that many were not able to pay teachers. President Roosevelt instituted the New Deal in 1933 to get people to work and jump-start the economy. The parts of the New Deal applying to education were focused on helping the poor. But it did not use best practices and the new schools the program built were not designed by experts. Educational best practices were largely ignored as well. This led to great angst among the education community and played a substantial role in “deprofessionalizing” teaching.

As the 1900s went on, the population increased its rate of urbanization. This reduced the number of farmers and increased the number of factory workers. The change led many parents to place more of an emphasis on their children’s education. Companies began placing more emphasis on education as well. They wanted more knowledgeable workers who were able to effectively use new technologies and analyze increasing amounts of data. The GI Bill was introduced at WWII’s conclusion. This bill made it possible for many veterans to attend college and played an instrumental role in creating a college-going culture. In the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Great Society programs.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 (part of the Great Society) set up scholarships and low-interest federal loans for college students. It also greatly expanded the number of community colleges. Another act of 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act increased federal funding for compulsory public schools. A combination of the aforementioned demands, a flourishing economy, and government intervention proved to be a boon for universities as their number at least doubled between 1950-1970.

Segregation was still legal in America until 1954. The Brown v Board of Education trial went to the Supreme Court and the justices ruled unanimously: separate but equal was not, in fact, equal, and was unconstitutional. Even though this made the law clear. Many places refused to follow it. Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas illustrates how tense and angry white people were over integration. President Eisenhower took control of the state’s national guard because the governor tried to use them to stop federal integration efforts. School integration has greatly improved but is an ongoing issue in America.



Two Critical: Knowing is Critical for Critical Thinking

It amazes me how so many in education push creativity/critical thinking/skills so hard while often forgetting or ignoring the importance of content knowledge.

“Creativity is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status”

Sir Ken Robinson, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Warwick (Source)

“Facts and figures once held as paramount in classrooms, and knowing facts and figures, is no longer relevant in today’s society”

Kris Willis, School Improvement Director of Canberra, Australia (Source)

Ken Robinson is a professor who became Ted Talk famous. Kris Willis is in charge of leading Australia’s education system. Both of these sources should know better.

It is confusing that people denigrate knowledge and memorization. We can see how important both are if we start with a basic skill, like going to the bathroom. Children who are being potty-trained struggle with this because it is new and they do not know how. They must first memorize many steps before they can apply the skill.

  1. Recognize that they need to go to the bathroom.
  2. Know where the bathroom is.
  3. Be able to open the door.
  4. Pull down their pants.
  5. Sit on the toilet.
  6. Let it out.
  7. Wipe
  8. Flush
  9. Wash hands with soap

And this list is a simplification itself. But I think that there is value in a small thought exercise like this. As adults, we often take this knowledge as self-explanatory, but every child needs to be explicitly taught how to use the bathroom. They do not discover how to do it. This interestingly titled article from Pull-Ups, Help Your Turtle Recognize The Urge To Go To The Bathroom helps show how much knowledge children need to have before they become potty trained.

We can step up the age and see that memorization holds its importance. If you are reading and understanding this, it is simply because you have memorized the alphabet, memorized basic grammar rules, and memorized the rules of phonics. You do not learn to read organically.

You learn to read from…

  1. Knowing how to speak
  2. Being read to
  3. Recognizing both upper and lowercase letters
  4. Memorizing the sounds of individual letters
  5. Know basic phonics
  6. Understand that letters make words
  7. Understand that each word has a specific meaning
  8. Know that books are written left to right and top to bottom

This list is also a simplification, yet it shows how necessary memorization is. If you do not memorize, you cannot read. For a more in-depth look at what it takes to read, check out this Reading Rockets article, How Most Children Learn to Read.

Now, the previous two examples are very simple. I think it is also important to check and see if it holds for advanced subjects. Consider the ability to think critically about complicated issues such as the relationships of countries.

This is an issue of paramount importance. Yet, in order to do it well, you need to know many things such as…

  1. The individual histories and cultures of each country.
  2. The history of interactions between each country.
  3. The current political climate of each country.
  4. External pressures on each country.
  5. Relevant international laws and agreements

There are at least two full university degrees of information included in the above list. Any attempt to apply critical thinking on this without deep subject knowledge will at best apply simplistic rules that lack the depth and nuance of reality. This is because when people think critically without deep background knowledge, they are looking at the subjects surface structure. Daniel Willingham succinctly describes this need for background knowledge in his AFT article Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? In this example, scientific thinking is analogous to critical thinking.

“The idea that scientific thinking must be taught hand in hand with scientific content is further supported by research on scientific problem solving; that is when students calculate an answer to a textbook-like problem, rather than design their own experiment. A meta-analysis 20 of 40 experiments investigating methods for teaching scientific problem-solving showed that effective approaches were those that focused on building complex, integrated knowledge bases as part of problem-solving, for example by including exercises like concept mapping. Ineffective approaches focused exclusively on the strategies to be used in problem-solving while ignoring the knowledge necessary for the solution. What do all these studies boil down to? First, critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context. Second, there are metacognitive strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. Third, the ability to think critically (to actually do what the metacognitive strategies call for) depends on domain knowledge and practice. For teachers, the situation is not hopeless, but no one should underestimate the difficulty of teaching students to think critically.”

(Emphasis is my own)

Dylan William mentions critical thinking in his paper, “How do we prepare students for a world we cannot imagine?

“The idea of “critical thinking” seems important in every single school subject. Indeed it is common to hear teachers discussing with apparent consensus what this means in different subjects. However, this apparent consensus is the result of a failure to explore in depth what critical thinking really means…. Knowing that dividing by zero invalidates an equation, and being aware of ways in which this can be done accidentally, is learned in mathematics classrooms, not in generic lessons on critical thinking. In the same way, knowing enough about the history of the period under study to read an account critically requires subject specific knowledge. Most importantly, developing a capability for critical thinking in history does not make one better at critical thinking in mathematics. For all the apparent similarities, critical thinking in history and critical thinking in mathematics are different, and are developed in different ways.”

Critical thinking is critically important. Educational leaders (and everyone) should promote and celebrate memorization (knowing things) as a way to increase critical thinking. Go on, think about it.

A Day In The Life: 19th-Century Students

The school day would typically start around 8 a.m. Before school started, students would need to finish their chores on the farm, and then walk up to 3 miles to school. Teachers would also commonly assigned morning duties (to be finished before 8 a.m.) to older, stronger students. This included gathering firewood in the winter and collecting water for drinking and washing.

Before academics could begin, schools had a ritualized practice to go through. The students would line up outside in two lines (boys and girls) from youngest to oldest. Then, the girls would enter the school, curtseying/bowing to the teacher as they walked by. The girls would stand at attention and wait for the boys to follow their lead. After all the students entered the school, children would recite the Pledge of Allegiance. This would be followed by either the Lord’s Prayer or a moral lesson typically involving the Bible. Finally, children would be seated, take roll call, and begin the academic portion of the day.

Reading was the first lesson taught. The teacher would assign work for each level, and once students were working, one level would be called to the front to “toe the line”. This meant that they would be required to recite a passage from memory or read aloud from a textbook. When it came time for arithmetic class, the teacher would have the younger children solve problems on the blackboard. After this was finished, the older students would come to the front and practice solving math problems orally. Penmanship came next. Students would write their names, dates, and a moral saying. Penmanship class was accompanied by an oral explanation of the written morals.

Lunch was next. After students ate, they would gather more firewood and water if necessary. Then they could use the remaining time to play.

The first lesson in the afternoon would be grammar and spelling. This would be followed by a history lesson. The last class of the day was geography.

After the teacher assigned chores for the next day, most students would gather their things and head home. The teacher could give after school punishments to students who misbehaved. This commonly involved some sort of cleaning. Thus, you have a day in the life of a 19th-century student.



The Late Nineteenth Century One Room School, by Oak Hill School Teacher’s Resource and Curriculum Guide