8. Explicit learning

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Helena Moore

A key aim for teachers is to help pupils to remember and use what they learn in the future. We want them to be able to work independently. In order to get there, pupils need to acquire a body of knowledge and skills, which they can use to solve a range of problems. Explicitly teaching knowledge and skills can be beneficial. This doesn’t mean that pupils are passive in the process. Instead it recognizes that pupils need support in order to move from dependence to independence.

Presenter main

Explicit teaching describes a particular approach to instruction and it’s underpinned by what we know about how pupils learn. Explicit teaching means introducing new material in steps, working through that material with pupils to check they understand it, and gradually withdrawing support so that they can work through it on their own. The I, We, You model is one way of thinking about this. I teach you something, we go through it together, and you have a go on your own.

There may be some overlap between stages but the ‘I phase’ broadly matches with teacher exposition. The ‘We phase’ is assessing and responding. And the ‘You phase’ is independent practice. Explicit teaching matches instruction to pupils starting points and gives them the support needed to learn the important knowledge and skills of the subject over time. The academic Barak Rosenshine has written extensively about explicit teaching. He argues that most effective teachers ensure that “pupils acquire, rehearse and connect background knowledge through a great deal of instructional support”.

Teachers can carry out explicit teaching by following the I, We, You model. This involves applying many of the principles of how pupils learn. For example, it’s important during the ‘I’ part to start instruction at the point of current pupil understanding. Teachers also need to consider how to break new material into small manageable steps; concrete examples, partially complete examples (often called worked examples), guides, and scaffolds can be powerful methods of showing pupils new material.

Then there is the ‘We’ phase of the model. At the heart of explicit teaching is questioning, lots and lots of questioning. Teachers can use questions to encourage pupils to share emerging understanding and points of confusion.  Once material has been taught, teachers need to ask themselves, what have pupils understood? Are there any gaps in their understanding? Do I need to explain this bit again? Do they have any misconceptions? They can then use what they find out to adapt their teaching in response. They might need to reteach something provide another example or correct a misconception. The ‘We’ part is a good time for this. Although teachers can of course ask questions and respond during other phases too.

Once pupils have acquired some new knowledge or skills and teachers have checked that it’s secure, pupils need to have lots of opportunities to practise it. The ‘You’ part of the model, where pupils practise on their own, is just as important as the ‘I’ or the ‘We’ phase. Put another way: independent practice is just as important as teacher expositions and assessing and responding.

Teachers need to get the balance right between exposition repetition, practice, and retrieval of critical skills. They also need to accept that this instructional model may extend over more than one lesson. Lessons or periods are arbitrary ways of breaking up learning. It might be completely appropriate to only get through the ‘I’ and ‘We’ phases and get pupils to practise independently at another time.

Explicit teaching is a really effective way of guiding pupil learning. This doesn’t mean pupils should be passive recipients of knowledge. In a subject like English for example, getting pupils to share their personal response to a text is a key skill that we want them to develop. It’s part of the joy of reading, but if the pupil can’t understand the words in the text or is confused by some of the references the text makes, it may be difficult for them to come up with a response.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you’ll see an Ambition Institute coach model a short I, We, You sequence, to take you through the key stages of explicit teaching. As you watch pay particular attention to how the coach does the following:

  • Links what pupils already know to what is being taught
  • Makes the steps in a process memorable and ensures pupils can recall them
  • Encourages pupils to share emerging understanding and points of confusion so that misconceptions can be addressed

Exemplification: Ambition Institute coach

I’m about to take you through a short sequence of learning using the I, We, You model, so that you can see what explicit teaching looks like in practice. Imagine that I’m teaching a year three French lesson. We’ve been studying the French version of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. This is lesson six of eight and pupils are writing sentences about foods that they like.

“So today we’re going to write sentences about the foods that we like.

Yesterday we learned loads of new words for different types of food.

Today, we’re going to practise those new words by using them in sentences.

I model mine. Then we’ll do one together. And then you’ll write your sentences in your exercise books.

So first, I’m going to choose a food that I like. I’m going to choose apples because I like apples.

Second, I’m going to say my sentence in English. I like apples.

Third, I’m going to choose the word for I like, which is j’aime and practise saying my sentence: j’aime les pommes. I like apples. Now I write my sentence in French [teacher writes on white board]: j’aime les pommes. I like apples.

Finally, I need to check that I’ve included the word for the. I need to write les pommes as in French you would say, I like the apples. Pommes would be incorrect.

Now, let’s try one together. Mackenzie, first of all, can you tell me a food that you like from the foods that we identified in the book.

[Pupil answers]

Sweets, let’s say that sentence in English Mackenzie. I like sweets. What’s the word for I like in French? Hannah.

[Pupil answers]

Yes, well done. J’aime means I like. Let’s say that sentence out loud, Adam.

[Pupil answers]

J’aime bonbon. Let’s check. Have we included the word for the? So let’s correct that Adam. J’aime les bonon. Great. Now let’s say that together. “J’aime les bonbon”

Brilliant, now I’ll write it on the board [teacher writes on white board]: J’aime les bonbon.

Let’s do one more check. Which sentence is correct? Is it one: j’aime les bonbon, or is it two: j’aime bonon? Show me with your fingers in three, two, one.

[Pupils hold up fingers to show their answer. Teacher scans whole class]

You’ve all said one, which is correct. It includes the word les.

I want you to write your own sentences in your exercise books. Included the word bank on the board with some of the words in English and the words in French. And you also have a sentence starter in your exercise books from earlier. If you need it.”

This is a short sequence that demonstrates how you can guide pupil learning. To begin with I made sure that I connected what pupils already knew to what was being taught. Pupils were using vocabulary that they had learned in a previous lesson to write sentences.

During the ‘I’ phase, I modelled a good answer to pupils on the board. And made the steps in the process memorable by numbering them and using the same steps in the ‘I’ phase as the ‘We’ phase.

Asking specific pupils to contribute a response to each step in the task helped them to recall them. It also enables me to check that pupils understood the task. I knew what knowledge and skills to draw on.

Finally, I encouraged pupils to share emerging understanding and points of confusion, so that I could check for misconceptions. I asked the whole class the question to see if they had remembered that they need to add the word for the: les. Pupils often forget to add the definite article. By checking what pupils understand I can correct mistakes before they practise on their own.

In this example, the ‘I’ and ‘We’ phases of the sequence helped me to feel confidence that pupils were ready to work independently. They will still have to think hard during independent practice but guiding and checking their thinking beforehand will increase the likelihood of success.

Presenter key ideas

In this video we have explored what the term explicit teaching means and provided a model to help you think about it: I, We, You. Before we finish, read through the key ideas that we have covered. Which ideas do you feel the example illustrated the best?

  • Link what pupils already know to what is being taught
  • Make the steps in a process memorable and ensure pupils can recall them
  • Encourage pupils to share emerging understanding and points of confusion so that misconceptions can be addressed

Presenter summary

Explicit teaching helps our pupils to be supported in their learning. By providing pupils with the right support when they need it. They are more likely to acquire and apply the knowledge and skills that we teach them.


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Teaching challenge

Ms Sims understands that several strategies contribute to effective instruction. But sometimes, when considering how to use these strategies in combination, she notices that she is unsure how they fit together. When does pupil misunderstanding mean she should use more teacher talk? When do pupils need more practice? Is there an overall model of instruction which can help her review her lessons to decide if her instruction is supporting pupils to learn as effectively as they can?

Key idea

Teachers should deploy instructional strategies that provide most teacher support early in the instructional sequence and gradually withdraw this support to ensure pupils successfully gain knowledge and skills.

Evidence summary

Explicit teaching of knowledge and skills is teacher-led

Explicit teaching means teachers provide fully guided instruction to pupils when introducing new knowledge and skills (Sweller, 2016). Ms Sims chooses to pursue explicit teaching because it is the most efficient way to develop her pupils’ mental models – the collection of concepts, knowledge, skills and principles which comprise their understanding of a topic or a subject. To build these mental models, Ms Sims can combine a variety of techniques.

One model which can be helpful when thinking about how to sequence these techniques is the ‘I-We-You’ approach (Lemov, 2015). When pupils begin learning a topic or skill, they benefit from first receiving guided instruction from the teacher, as opposed to discovering key ideas for themselves (Coe et al., 2014).

One reason this approach is effective is because working memory is limited. If pupils have to discover the key ideas themselves, or complete a complicated process with limited guidance, they will find it difficult to do and to remember. However, teachers can make this process easier through an effective ‘I do’, for example linking to pupil prior knowledge, addressing common misconceptions and introducing material in steps through explanations and models. As pupils acquire knowledge and skills, their expertise increases, and Ms Sims can encourage them to work increasingly independently, first with teacher support (‘We do’) and then practising alone (‘You do’) to gain mastery. Such a sequence makes it more likely pupils will be successful (Rosenshine, 2012).

‘I do’ – effective teacher exposition

So how can Ms Sims provide adequate guidance to pupils when introducing new material? During the ‘I do’ section of the lesson, Ms Sims can help her pupils grasp new ideas by introducing new material in steps and crafting careful explanations (Wittwer & Renkl, 2010) using worked and partially worked examples or models (Pashler et al., 2007; Rosenshine, 2012).

However, it would be a mistake for Ms Sims to believe teacher guided instruction means no thinking or input from pupils. During the ‘I do’, reviewing previous learning both helps pupils recall useful prior knowledge and helps her to decide how much guidance pupils need and in which areas (Rosenshine, 2012). She should allow pupils to practise after each new step has been introduced and ask questions to help students process new material from her exposition. This will ensure pupils are thinking hard about new knowledge and skills and connecting them to previous learning (Rosenshine, 2012).

Assessing before moving on

Explaining, modelling and questioning pupils – developing their mental models – before individual practice tends to be most effective (Rosenshine, 2012). However, if Ms Sims wants her pupils to learn efficiently, she must balance the risks of falling into two opposite traps: spending too long explaining ideas to pupils (‘I do’) or moving too quickly to practice (‘We do’ or ‘You do’) without first assessing whether pupils need further guidance.

This can be tricky because we cannot see mental models developing. Just because a pupil looks busy or writes lots, it does not necessarily mean that they have learnt something (Coe, 2013). Learning something can also take time, with pupils typically benefiting more from experiencing multiple exposures to information, ideally spaced out over time (Pashler et al., 2007).

Ms Sims can use diagnostic assessments to inform her decisions about teaching. She can do this by thinking carefully about the specific knowledge and skills she wants her pupils to acquire and using questions to which all or most pupils have to respond. This will enable her to get an impression of whether pupils have acquired the intended knowledge and skills (Christodoulou, 2017), and what to do next with them.

‘We do, You do’ – guided practice, independent practice

When Ms Sims transitions to the ‘We do’ section, she should avoid removing all support immediately. Her key consideration should be that pupils obtain a high success rate, ideally of around 80%: initially, she can provide scaffolds to achieve this and check for understanding (Rosenshine, 2012). For example, Ms Sims could invite students to rehearse new material by rephrasing, elaborating or summarising (Rosenshine, 2012). She can also provide guides and scaffolds for trickier tasks to ensure pupils do not become overwhelmed by trying to practise too much complex material too soon (Rosenshine, 2012).

But the ‘You do’ stage of independent practice is also important for pupil learning. Ms Sims should continue to check for understanding and, when appropriate, remove scaffolds and guidance so that pupils can practise independently (Pashler et al., 2007). A key goal of independent practice is for pupils to gain automaticity so they can effortlessly use their knowledge and skills (Rosenshine, 2012). Ms Sims may tell pupils that they need to ‘practise beyond the point when they get it right, to the point where they can’t get it wrong’.

Nuances and caveats

I-We-You offers valuable guidance for sequencing learning, but it is not a rule: it is not equally appropriate across all subjects and phases. An I-We-You structure supports learning across individual lessons but can also be used in shorter cycles within a lesson, or over several lessons.

The expertise reversal effect (Kalyuga, 2007) means that as pupils gain knowledge and skills, too much support can stop them using what they already know. As a result, it is important that teachers check for understanding to ensure they are not ‘over-scaffolding’ learning, withdrawing support as appropriate.

Key takeaways

Ms Sims can be more confident her instruction is effective if she understands that:

  • Explicit teaching of knowledge and skills can help form effective mental models.
  • Effective instruction is underpinned by what we know about how pupils learn and checking this through effective assessment.
  • Effective instruction often uses the I-We-You model to introduce new material in steps, using concrete examples and worked examples, gradually withdrawing support and promoting independent practice with a high success rate, both within lessons and over time.

Further reading

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–20.


Christodoulou, D. (2017). Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford: OUP.

Coe, R. (2013). Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience. Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring. Durham University, UK.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University.

Kalyuga, S. (2007) Expertise reversal effect and its implications for learner-tailored instruction. Educational Psychology Review19(4), 509-539.

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach Like a Champion 2.0 (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. US Department of Education.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–20.

Sweller, J. (2016). Working Memory, Long-term Memory, and Instructional Design. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(4), 360-367.

Wittwer, J., & Renkl, A. (2010) .How Effective are Instructional Explanations in Example-Based Learning? A Meta-Analytic Review. Educational Psychology Review, 22(4), 393–409.


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reminder of key takeaways

Ms Sims can be more confident her instruction is effective if she understands that:

  • Explicit teaching of knowledge and skills can help form effective mental models.
  • Effective instruction is underpinned by what we know about how pupils learn and checking this through effective assessment.
  • Effective instruction often uses the I-We-You model to introduce new material in steps, using concrete examples and worked examples, gradually withdrawing support and promoting independent practice with a high success rate, both within lessons and over time.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?