Two Sides of the Same Coin: Knowledge-Rich Curriculum and Explicit Instruction

Right now, discussion about curriculum in the U.S. is hot, and rightly so. A clear, well-sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum allows a teacher to best use their limited planning time preparing the most impactful part of teaching – lesson delivery.

While a high-quality curriculum is a vital first step, implementation through effective instruction is where the rubber really hits the road. When high-quality curriculum is combined with effective instruction, student learning takes off. It’s a magical combination.

Yet “effective instruction” is contentious territory as it deals with the choices and decisions teachers make inside their classroom. And so, without proper training, professional development, and formative coaching around how exactly to unpack and teach a curriculum effectively, these investments in curriculum will likely just sit partially or totally unused.

A recent report from Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research entitled “Learning by the Book” confirms this.

“Many of the districts and schools surveyed for ‘Learning by the Book’ approached the new curricula as they have curriculum adoptions in the past: They simply swapped out the materials teachers use but left instruction unchanged.”

-Kane and Steiner (2019), Don’t Give Up on Curriculum Reform Just Yet

Unpredictably, the report found that only 25 percent of teachers said they used their curriculum “nearly all the time” for essential instructional activities, and 40 percent reported “watering down” curriculum that was too demanding. It’s difficult to discern the effectiveness of different curricula when teachers barely use it. The study concluded that:

“Overall, we found little evidence of differences in average achievement gains for schools using different math textbooks…the bigger error may be in thinking of curriculum choice and teaching reforms as alternatives. It could be
that in order to gain the benefits of either, districts must do both.”

Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research (2019), Learning by the Book

As a remedy, Kane and Steiner (2019) recommend identifying a “package of supports that teachers need to make full use of new curriculum.” This is a great start, but we need to be far more specific about best practices for unpacking and teaching curricula. The solution will not be as simple as reading a provided instruction manual more closely and watching training videos.

Unpacking Curriculum

It’s not enough to pass out a scope and sequence, assessment calendar, and then hope for the best. Rather, professional development and PLCs should be devoted to systematically unpacking and revising curriculum. This continual process should be grassroots and done by teachers themselves to develop subject-specific content knowledge. It should not devolve into a top-down accountability scheme to check boxes; rather, this process should be seen as a valuable investment of time that will replace countless hours of pdf-hunting on TpT and Pinterest.

Here are some initial steps I’ve found instrumental in unpacking a curriculum.

  • Map out key concepts and vocabulary for each subject using one-page knowledge organizers
  • Identify and design writing prompts/opportunities (Hochman and Wexler’s Writing Revolution is a perfect framework)
  • Identify knowledge gaps and areas in need of supplementing (e.g. short non-fiction articles or different perspectives/genres)
  • Build out instructional booklets from each curriculum that streamline instruction in one central document that can easily be revised and updated (in first years, capture all student-facing material in one chronological file)
  • Develop low-stakes retrieval quizzes for lesson starters and homework aligned with curriculum

Unpacking a curriculum is not skimming the teachers guide the morning or week before, yet this is commonplace. Serious amounts of time and energy should be invested in laying the groundwork of effective curriculum implementation. This process should take place over years, not days.

Once the curricula is unpacked, it is time to train and coach teachers around a set of general, research-informed teaching strategies.

Teaching Curriculum Explicitly

Pervasive myths have dramatically altered the way teachers are trained to teach. Poorly planned group work and minimally-guided discovery have become flashy-sounding crutches for a generation of teachers not trained how to effectively deliver lessons. Thankfully, a consensus of research exists clearly and definitively supporting the effectiveness of teacher-led lessons.

No matter how great and knowledge-rich a curriculum might be, it will not be fully realized and unleashed without an renewed focus on what is considered best practice for instruction. Luckily, the framework of Explicit Instruction/Explicit Direct Instruction (EI/EDI) has been developed using over 100 years of education research.

In their book Explicit Direct Instruction, Ybarra and Hollingsworth (2009) define explicit instruction as “a strategic collection of instructional practices combined together to design and deliver well-crafted lessons that explicitly teach grade-level content to all students.”

Archer and Hughes (2011) characterize explicit instruction as “a structured, systematic, and effective methodology for teaching academic skills…a series of instructional supports or scaffolds.” Most importantly, when designed and delivered properly, these scaffolds allow all students to access grade-level content.

Rosenshine and Stevens (1986) identified six teaching functions characteristic of an explicit teaching approach:

Screenshot 2019-04-28 at 5.21.31 AM.png

You may immediately think – “this is common sense!” Indeed, explicit instruction is not a flashy or revolutionary idea. But Ybarra and Hollingsworth (2009) write that:

“Although most teachers know the words of instructional methodology, such as Modeling, Learning Objective, Guided Practice…there are many different interpretations of what each technique looks like…in addition, we discovered that there are wide variations in levels of implementation of instructional methodology in the classroom.”

So while teachers may have a cursory idea of individual elements of explicit instruction, mastery comes from fine-tuning and aligning many different elements/strategies simultaneously in lessons. Speaking from experience, I have spent at least a month just honing how I teach my lesson objective (students read, write, and tell a partner the objective). There are levels to each element of explicit instruction design and delivery that can be continually improved.

Simply put, we cannot expect a prepackaged, knowledge-rich curriculum to sufficiently cover the basics of effective instruction – e.g. calling on non-volunteers and creating/interspersing frequent check-for-understanding questions. These pedagogical moves will come more naturally as teachers become more versed in fundamentals of explicit instruction.

“We have found that textbooks have some of the components of a well-crafted lesson, but may not have all of them…as teachers become more proficient with EDI, they are able to identity lesson components in their textbooks.”

-Hollingsworth and Ybarra (2009)

Never assume teachers have received sufficient guidance on effective, research-informed instruction in teacher training.  Training and coaching must be done systematically alongside a provided curriculum to ensure students can access and have success with rigorous, grade-level content.


New curriculum offerings are exciting to talk about, but how curriculum is taught is the part no one still wants to go near. Unfortunately, its the how it’s taught part (implementation) that actually matters most for student learning. 

Systematically unpacking and teaching curriculum at a high level can drastically propel student success – it just requires better planning and preparation. We have to treat high-quality curricula and research-informed instruction as two sides of the same coin, and not leave student learning up to the flip of a coin.

“We, and many others, used to see curricula and managing individual differences in teaching as two alternative paths forward. Today, we both recognize that the benefits of strong curricula and better instruction come only from treating them as two sides of a single strategy: enabling the effective teaching of high-quality materials.”

Thomas Kane and David Steiner

The next post will look more closely at the fundamental design and delivery elements of explicit instruction and detail an efficient process for scaffolding existing curricula.

Follow me on Twitter @MrGMPLS



5 thoughts on “Two Sides of the Same Coin: Knowledge-Rich Curriculum and Explicit Instruction

  1. Excellent analysis. One thing I’ve found is that with math textbooks, there is sparse information contained in the students’ textbooks and usually they cram two or more aspects of the topic in the same lesson. For example in one algebra textbook, there is a lesson on exponential growth and exponential decay. In another textbook, they are broken out into separate lessons, which is what I go with. It takes some experience and familiarity with the concepts being taught to make the judgment of what to break out for a separate day’s lesson.

    While no textbook is perfect and is subject to the discretion and judgment of the teachers, I find that textbooks from earlier eras kept the lessons shorter and confined them to one topic per lesson rather than throwing in the kitchen sink each time.


  2. Enjoyed this post, as usual. A couple of items I’d like to push back on a bit (and I’m coming from a MS and HS perspective):

    1) I wonder how many teachers are really giving minimally-guided instruction. For those that are I would question, like you, how effective that truly is. In my experience in several ‘progressive’ (catch-all phrase there) schools, where teachers use inquiry and PBL, there has been still a strong base of scaffolding, modeling, and formative check points to ensure content retention. That base is the jump-off point for deeper inquiry in a conceptual framework. Teachers are simply letting students have a go at it with no supports in place I guess my real issue is with drawing a black-white distinction between schools to teach the ‘right’ way and those who are misguided. It’s very mixed out there, from what I’ve seen.

    2) You make the point that a knowledge-rich curriculum and EDI are two sides of the same coin. I agree with you. But your argument is based on the premise that the most efficient curriculum is ‘knowledge-rich’. That I have a harder time seeing. Don’t get me wrong, I believe knowledge is important and, as a history teacher, I want my students knowing the important details of the past, but I question how paramount that knowledge is in today’s world. I’m not a ‘just Google it’ disciple, because I think that being a good citizen (and interesting person, to be honest) requires a level of knowledge about…well, stuff. But the nature of work today is so different than it has ever been and that change is only accelerating. For my money it’s about problem-solving and critical thinking deeply about less content.

    Anyway, thanks for your posts. I enjoy reading–and being challenged!–by them.


    1. Hi Dan! Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughtful responses.

      1. I agree – there is certainly overlap between explicit instruction and discovery-based learning. However, whenever the class is learning a brand new concept (and all students are novice learners), explicit instruction is a far more efficient and effective method of instruction. As the class gains mastery, more opportunities for discovery can and should be utilized. This video provides a much better explanation:

      That said, it makes far more intuitive sense to initially train teachers with a baseline foundation of skills around explicit instruction. As teachers gain mastery in providing clear explanations and scaffolds, they should be challenged to attempt more discovery-based instruction. At the moment, teachers come out of teacher training (like me) starry-eyed and dreaming of all-discovery-all-the-time. The problem is they don’t know how to teach anything effectively.

      2. “It’s about problem-solving and critical thinking deeply about less content.” I emphatically disagree. Having more knowledge stored in long-term memory makes you far better at critical thinking and problem-solving. Dan Willingham has written extensively about this, and here is a wonderful recent piece that examines the current “trend” of discounting memorization and knowledge.

      Thanks again for reading and for the dialogue.


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