What does systematic instruction mean? Dr Kerry Hempenstall, 

Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

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We frequently read in research papers, and increasingly in education policies, that a systematic approach to instruction usually produces superior learning outcomes when compared to unsystematic approaches (Clark, Kirschner, & Sweller, 2012). This seems particularly to be the case when introducing new skills and knowledge to students and for those who tend towards slow progress in their academic learning.

Systematic is sometimes paired with the term explicit. So, how do they differ? Their meanings often overlap, but explicit is usually understood to mean that the teacher takes centre stage and the student learning is controlled by the teacher’s curriculum and teaching behaviour. Implicit is usually reserved for instruction that is student-directed. So, implicit usually refers to a discovery, constructivist, or minimal guidance model. In this implicit model, the teacher plays a lesser, guiding role, sometimes referred to as the guide-on-the-side, while the students take greater responsibility for their own learning from the outset.

So, there’s systematic vs unsystematic curriculum or (better put) a continuum from high to low level of system incorporated within any curriculum. For example, some phonics programs may be highly systematic, and others less so. Of course, being systematic doesn’t guarantee student outcome, but when the curriculum is closely aligned with the consensus of what’s important and when it should be introduced, then such programs have a better empirical track record than those programs lacking in system.

It should be noted that in the USA, explicit has another meaning as it applies to reading instruction. It is often used as a synonym for the term synthetic phonics - the latter is more commonly employed in Great Britain and Australia to refer to a specific model of reading instruction that emphasises the structure of the language - teaching letter-sound relationships and blending as the key entry skills for beginning readers. In this paper, the intended meaning is that conveyed in the previous paragraph.

Apart from curriculum content, there’s also a continuum of degree of system in how the curriculum is delivered. For a given curriculum, teachers may assiduously implement it as written, or they may adapt it according to their own predilections. This is usually called a departure from program fidelity, and is abhorred by those program designers who incorporate a strongly systematic bent. However, some programs are loosely coupled in that they presume teachers will be expert in presenting their curriculum. “They’re teachers, they’re professionals, they would know how to teach my stuff.” Of course, teacher variation is a major problem for our education systems, and we’ve seen research in Australia and elsewhere that few teachers have been trained in explicit instruction generally, or in basic classroom management. Thus, many teachers have too little understanding of what’s important in reading instruction. 

Attempting to reduce these sources of variation, some designers provide a script for whole curriculum, for example Direct instruction, Open Court, and Success For All.

Is it possible to be systematic without being explicit? In some respect, perhaps, in that a teacher might specify a comprehensive curriculum that covers the topic adequately and in a logical sequence; however, the responsibility for managing that curriculum is passed to the student. So, the curriculum could be systematic though the instruction would not be – except for those students adept at designing their own instructional sequences.

Is it possible to be explicit without being systematic? Yes, certainly. Consider a teacher-directed classroom in which the teacher provides the majority of the curriculum, but teaches off the top of his head. There is no particular pre-planning based upon what works, rather the mood of the day drives what he attempts to teach. So, what is taught is taught with clarity, but the jumbled up nature of the curriculum sequence makes it difficult for students to comprehend how a given topic relates to other associated topics in, say, a skill sequence.

In terms or reading instruction, the discrepancy between systematic and unsystematic approaches was most sharply delineated in the debate over the supporters of the whole language approach to reading compared with those who asserted that an early focus on the alphabetic principle was a necessary component of effective beginning reading approaches. A necessary element in the whole language approach was that students should be provided solely with attractive and meaningful story books to enable them to develop their reading prowess. As we shall see, the central tenet of whole language that meaning is paramount, and books must not be skill-based precluded systematic instruction.

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