Educational researchers and practitioners alike have long debated the characteristics of ‘good teaching’ or the ‘high leverage practices’ that support student learning (Ball and Forzani 2009; McLeskey et al. 2017). Scholars have advocated for various instructional approaches, predicated on different theories of learning (e.g. Boaler 2000; Collins et al. 1991; Kirschner et al. 2006). In this chapter, we describe the theory, history, and potential benefits of one set of high-leverage practices that fall under the umbrella of ‘explicit instruction’. We conceive of explicit instruction as providing students with access to the elaborated thought processes that experts employ when engaging in academic tasks (McLeskey et al. 2017; TeachingWorks n.d.). Teachers can effectively provide students with this type of access to disciplinary thinking and processes across diverse pedagogical approaches in multiple subjects (e.g. Baker et al. 2014; Frye et al. 2013; Graham et al. 2012; Grossman et al. 2014; Kane and Staiger 2012; Kamil et al. 2008; Shanahan et al. 2010; Woodward et al. 2012).

Scholars have articulated a range of distinct conceptions of explicit teaching; these include direct instruction (e.g. Engelmann and Carnine 1982; Rosenshine 1986), active teaching (e.g. Good and Grouws 1979; Good et al. 1983), and cognitive strategy instruction (e.g. Graham 2006; Greeno et al. 1996; van Dijk and Kintsch 1983). For this reason, it is necessary to first clarify our own conception, while recognising that others might define explicitness in divergent ways. We define explicit instruction as a pedagogical approach that makes content and disciplinary processes visible through naming, labelling, and demonstrating the skills and strategies employed by expert practitioners (Collins et al.1989; Hughes et al. 2017; Pearson and Dole 1987). It is focused on how teachers externalise cognitive processes and make what is covert overt for students (Collins et al. 1991). It encompasses the explanations, instructions, and models that teachers use to support students in solving problems, enacting strategies, completing tasks, and classifying concepts and ideas (Cohen 2018; McLeskey et al. 2017; TeachingWorks n.d.).

Explicit instruction includes the ways in which teachers decompose, model, and scaffold concept development, as well as the ways in which they provide students with practice opportunities, and offer feedback (Collins et al. 1991). In other words, we conceptualise explicit instruction as encompassing a range of teaching practices rather than a narrow and prescriptive approach to teaching (Goeke 2009; Hall and Vue 2004; Hughes et al. 2017; Pearson and Dole 1987). Teachers do not move through these practices in lock-step fashion. Rather, drawing on their deep knowledge of student needs and content demands, teachers select from a constellation of practices and make strategic choices regarding the type of structure and the extent of teacher direction needed during instruction (Connor et al. 2011a; Connor et al. 2011b; Doabler et al. 2015; Fisher and Frey 2013; Hughes et al. 2017; McLeskey and Brownell 2015).

With this broad and expansive definition of explicit instruction in mind, we draw on the literature on teaching to examine the importance of explicit instruction for students in the diverse classrooms that are characteristic of contemporary schools. We begin by exploring the foundations of explicit instruction and highlight the valuable contributions of related lines of research to our conception of explicitness. Then we provide an overview of the literature that connects explicit instruction to student achievement gains. Following this, we present two theoretical mechanisms underlying the demonstrated empirical benefits of explicit instruction – cognitive apprenticeship and academic learning time – and highlight how teachers might adjust their enactment of explicit instructional practice in response to student needs. We conclude with a discussion of questions for future research and that might inform policy and practice.