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Ep 10. Maximizing learning through explicit instruction with Zach Groshell

This transcript was created with speech-to-text software.  It was reviewed before posting, but may contain errors. Credit to Jazmin Boisclair.

You can listen to the episode here: Chalk & Talk Podcast.

Ep. 10 Maximizing learning through explicit instruction with Zach Groshell

[00:00:00] Anna Stokke: Welcome to Chalk and Talk, a podcast about education and math. I'm Anna Stokke, a math professor and your host.

You are listening to episode nine of Chalk and Talk. My guest in this episode is Dr. Zach Groshell who is an instructional coach and a passionate advocate for using evidence-informed teaching methods. We cover a lot of ground in this episode. We discuss whether it's possible to expand working memory, the characteristics of a successful explicit instruction lesson, effective approaches for delivering feedback and more. 

We also tackle a great question sent in by a listener who asked whether teaching math through open-ended problems is effective. You won't want to miss that discussion. Zach is enthusiastic and [00:01:00] knowledgeable, and I am very excited to share this conversation with you.

So without further ado, let's get started!

I am thrilled to have Dr. Zach Groshell joining me today, and he is joining me from the Seattle area. Zach has a Ph.D. in education specializing in instructional design. He was a primary school teacher for eight years, and he's now an instructional coach. He helps teachers incorporate cognitive load theory into their teaching.

He regularly contributes presentations for InnerDrive’s Cognitive Science Network. He has written about assessment and feedback for the book Amplifying Instructional Design, and he is currently writing a book about instructional coaching. He is a prolific education blogger, and he blogs at and he is the host of a really great education podcast called Progressively Incorrect, and I encourage you to check that out.[00:02:00]

I'm excited to talk to Zach about teaching today. Welcome, Zach. Welcome to my podcast. It's great to meet you!

[00:02:07] Zach Groshell: Great to meet you too, Anna. I am so happy to be here today.

[00:02:12] Anna Stokke: Thank you. So let's start by talking a bit about your background. I understand that when you were a classroom teacher you taught in some schools where maybe inquiry-based learning was the norm and that you've shifted your teaching practices over the years. Can you tell us a bit about those early years of teaching?

[00:02:31] Zach Groshell: Yes. Well, I started in, you know, teaching in the United States, in, in this area, in Washington state, and actually it was in a Native American school, which had a lot of challenges. And when I look back at it now, I would say they probably encouraged us to be a little bit more on the side of explicit instruction.

But we were, I was sort of in that survival mode as a new teacher, making it up as I go and sort of doing default [00:03:00] first-year teaching, right? Just trying to, just trying to survive, trying to manage behaviour. The behaviour was very challenging. But I got an opportunity to move overseas pretty quickly. And I went to live in Vietnam, Sudan, and China, in that order, working in private international schools.

And it was during this time that I found out that there's a whole world of schools and a whole school of thought that is encouraging teachers to teach primarily from the side to withhold guidance often, to give students sort of more control over what they learn, who they learn with, what learning style they use as they're trying to, as they're trying to figure out the material.

And I taught with that sort of style, a full inquiry-based or project-based learning style for seven years. I basically would go through a cycle that - Kath [00:04:00] Murdoch has a cycle, another book called Dive Into Inquiry has a cycle where you start with asking students what they want to learn about.

They kind of tune into the material and then they sort of develop questions about the material. And finally, they maybe create an action or a project or something through their investigation. And nowhere in that cycle as I just described it, I'm not trying to create a caricature of this type of teaching, nowhere in that cycle was there ever the time where I needed to get a group of kids together and teach them. 

It was very much encouraged to stand off on the side and hopefully that organically, naturally, they would learn math, reading, science and social studies just like that. I slowly became, like you said, disillusioned with this type of teaching.

Mainly because even in these private schools, which have very motivated [00:05:00] and often very intelligent children, even in those contexts, I would see students perhaps with working memory deficiencies, I guess, or challenges perhaps with motivation. Issues with motivation or issues just with a lack of prior knowledge that they would struggle and fail often in these lessons, and they required someone to scaffold and support their learning much more. 

So since then, I've been obsessed with direct instruction and explicit instruction, and that really has led to the podcast Progressively Incorrect, which is about sort of the idea that a lot of these more constructivist, romantic, progressive type of ideas really are kind of harmful to kids in my view.

[00:05:43] Anna Stokke: So those were private schools in different countries. Were the kids able to learn the material that you needed them to?

[00:05:52] Zach Groshell: Well, who knows because often in the same context that we're talking about testing is [00:06:00] looked at as the devil, right? We, we don't test really anything. The idea that students should really create their own portfolios, and that's really the only collection or evidence of learning, allows each student to sort of take their own path to discover things on their own, and then sort of celebrate whatever, whatever is there.

Maybe with some pictures or some videos or different presentations, sort of artifacts. So rigorous testing of whether they were learning, I can't say that necessarily they were, but for my own anecdotal sort of impression was that some of the, some of the higher achievers probably thrived and enjoyed that kind of structure.

The kids were not poorly behaved because of this context. So there was this productive buzz around the room. And if you came in and you'd say they're learning because they're engaged, right? They look like they're doing something. But as we know, activity and engagement are really [00:07:00] poor proxies for actually something changing inside you, you being able to do something new that you weren't able to do before.

So I, I'm pretty confident, otherwise I wouldn't have gone down this path, I'm pretty confident that they needed my support and I wasn't giving it to them. And I'm, I'm a little bit, you know, I'm a little bit ashamed or embarrassed of that in some ways.

[00:07:20] Anna Stokke: So a lot of times when people promote inquiry-based teaching or project-based learning, they also are against testing. And I always kind of wonder, well, testing actually exposes deficiencies, right? If things aren't working, testing will often pick it up.

Maybe that's part of the reason, that's what I think sometimes. I don't know if I'm right or not, but I sometimes wonder about that.

[00:07:46] Zach Groshell: I could say something about that, it's like, I also want to be clear, I don't really think anyone is in support of the, some of the more extreme testing regimes that exist out there where [00:08:00] students are given tons of redundant tests and the tests are never used for anything. We have a few of those here where they, they spend a week of missed instruction taking tests three times a year.


And, and some of them are used and some of them are not. But I think you're, you're absolutely right. How do I know if they know the material unless I give them some sort of objective, as best we can, measure of that learning?

And, and I think it's, and maybe it's a tactic or I don't know, but you're right that in the sort of more progressive or romantic kind of education schemes, a way to not know or way to hide the fact that kids aren't learning maybe is to get rid of the tests. It also just sort of signals to people your values around, around education, I think.

[00:08:47] Anna Stokke: And maybe for the listeners, I probably should just ask you because there's a lot of different words that we hear. There's inquiry-based learning, there's project-based learning, you hear discovery-based learning. Are these [00:09:00] all sort of the same thing?

[00:09:02] Zach Groshell: Well, there was a paper that came out in 2006 by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark that is very popular. It's well-read in, in Twitter spheres. Not sure how much most teachers have read of this paper, but it sort of says in one title, like, “Why minimally guided instruction doesn't work. The failure of inquiry-based, problem-based constructivist-based teaching,” right?

Like all in one, one jumbled sort of title. And it's a fascinating, fascinating read. I think that people do get hung up on these labels, right? They, if I go ahead and say like, “I think that you're not providing enough support,” and I say, but instead of that, I say, “I don't think inquiry-based instruction works,” automatically, people are on the defensive, right? 

They want their label or their package of methodology to, to work. But what, what I think is [00:10:00] more important than that, even than the labels, are the characteristics of the instruction. If you provide certain, certain ingredients, right? You're making sure kids have lots of deliberate practice, retrieval practice, space practice.

If you are modelling upfront when students don't know stuff, and slowly removing scaffolds as students do learn stuff, and if you are providing lots of feedback, right, to students, making sure that they don't stay with the same misconceptions that they change and correct their errors. If you add all these ingredients together, you're going to create some great learning.

And I call that explicit teaching or direct instruction. And the literature tends to call it that. There's a paper called “Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction” that essentially, that's essentially what I'm talking about. On the other hand, if you take away these, these ingredients, you take away the guidance, you take away a lot of [00:11:00] that upfront support.  You don't have a lot of practice; it's sort of student-initiated practice or it's infrequent practice. 

And there's not a lot of time with a teacher giving you feedback or at least a computer-based system giving you feedback. Your, your kids are going to struggle. And I think that that's, I think that that's more important to me.

I call all of those types of teaching, I, in shorthand, I sometimes call them inquiry-based or project-based learning because that's what I see as the types of teaching incorporate - or that withhold a lot of those really important ingredients.

[00:11:36] Anna Stokke: You're right. It is exactly the characteristics of the teaching that matter. It's not the words, and we want to use methods that actually work. So what made you decide to do a Ph.D. in education, and why did you get interested in Cognitive Load Theory?

[00:11:52] Zach Groshell: I wonder sometimes if I, if I got into the Ph.D. because I read something or if during [00:12:00] the Ph.D. I read something and that got me, that got me excited to finish it. I don't actually quite remember. I definitely think the state of being a teacher, whether you're international or in Canada or in the US or wherever, I think being a teacher is really, really hard.

And I felt unfulfilled constantly with the professional development that I was given. I felt like the support I was given was, was minimal. It was, a lot of it was philosophical. And I mean, I started in the Ph.D. because I wanted to read more, and I wanted to learn for its own sake. I had, I had no ambitions to be an administrator or anything like that.

It was during that, that I realized when you're doing your Ph.D., you can go down so many paths. As, as I'm sure you know. You could maybe take a more qualitative sort of route, a more - investigate maybe emotion. You could investigate leadership and you can go and pick a [00:13:00] program that's really about sort of more sociology and about current events and education.

You can go any route you want. I was interested in teaching and instruction, and so I wanted to know basically what's the best way to teach and what's the best way to design instruction. During that time, I realized that cognitive science is a great source of information.

It's a long history of testing predictions. And so I, I, immediately after I got an instructional design, I was like, this is going to be sort of instructional design with a lot of cognitive science embedded in that dissertation. And that, that's kind of what, what kind of got me excited.

[00:13:41] Anna Stokke: So let's get right into it. And we'll talk a bit about Cognitive Load Theory and explicit instruction and all that sort of stuff. So, okay. So let's start with this question. If you were to give a definition of learning, what would it be?

[00:13:56] Zach Groshell: People have argued over this, right? There's so many different mental [00:14:00] models, and there’s different ways of looking at, at learning that 2006 paper by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark it has the shortest, most, you know, sort of minimalist definition and sometimes the simplest definition is the best, right?

And it's just that learning is a change in long-term memory. And if I could kind of elaborate on that, it just means that who you are, the experiences you have, the facts you know, the skills you're able to demonstrate that. So something along those lines has changed. And if I could improve upon that definition a little bit, it would be that this change is persistent.

It's not just short-lived. It's going to be there for a long time. I'd also hope that that change in your long-term memory is a good change, right? You're not just learning a misconception, or if you have Alzheimer's, that's a change in long-term memory, right? You want to have a positive, like you want to add to it in a positive way, right?

And then I guess we [00:15:00] also hope ideally that a lot of this learning, a lot of that change can transfer to multiple situations. That it's not just inert. When I learn math and I see a, a similar problem in the real world, I will leverage that knowledge. So I think a change in long-term memory is the shorthand, but maybe a persistent long-term positive change that can transfer to novel situations is maybe a more complete definition.

[00:15:26] Anna Stokke: The problem is that to get to long-term memory, we have to start in working memory, right? And working memory can't actually hold that much. is it possible to expand working memory?

[00:15:40] Zach Groshell: This is a question that as far as I, because I've investigated this a lot this is a question that is really interesting to cognitive scientists. They want to, everybody wants to be able to expand working memory because it's like, it's like the bottleneck to your long-term memory. It's a gatekeeper.

It's in the front of long-term memory if we [00:16:00] think of it like two different boxes in the mind. And you have to squeeze or regulate or design information in such a way that working memory can grapple with it without thought breaking down and without essentially the student expressing that in many different ways, maybe giving up, maybe feeling frustrated, feeling overwhelmed. 

Researchers have investigated this a lot of times using brain games, like games that are going to try to enhance working memory through a lot of exercise, I suppose. And what they keep finding is that when they give these brain games or these apps full of kind of mind exercises, that the kids that do this, they end up getting really good at the brain games, but then they, it's really hard to see if that working memory change transfers to a different game or a different type of task.

And it doesn't seem to last that long. Maybe one day we'll find out [00:17:00] about this, but it seems like trying to train working memory with a brain game only gets you good at brain games and specifically those brain games you just practiced and no other brain games.

And I think a much better way to train the mind or hone the mind would be really to focus in on the stuff we, we want students to learn, right? Taking them out of math or taking them out of reading with the hopes that a, that a brain game or a training simulation will help expand working memory. 

Even researchers like Susanne Jaeggi, I talked to her on my blog, even she, who's like a big optimist when it comes to “maybe one day we'll discover how to enhance working memory,” even she was like, “it's probably going to be for the people that are not in school.” Because kids should probably be expanding their minds on the material we want them to learn.

[00:17:51] Anna Stokke: So then the idea is that we want students to learn, so we want to be able to transfer things into long-term memory, and we have to [00:18:00] keep these limitations of working memory in mind when we're doing that. So we need to think about the best ways to do that. And so this brings us to explicit instruction.

So would you be able to give me an idea of what a good explicit instruction lesson would look like? So say I'm working with a novice learner. It's the first time they're learning this particular topic. How would I work with that student using explicit instruction?

[00:18:27] Zach Groshell: Explicit instruction is really about minimizing irrelevant information and highlighting, emphasizing the relevant information. And so the first thing I would want to do when I, I work with teachers all the time on improving their learning environment, the first thing I want to think about is, “Is there anything in this environment that is going to distract? Is there anything that's going to pull away from students' attention?”

And we know there's lots of things like that. There's research showing back to the sixties that just having a subway train next to your school is going to hinder your [00:19:00] learning. Music with lyrics playing is going to hinder your learning, right?


They have a, there's a great study about social contagion showing that just having someone nearby who's kind of fidgety or looks distractable, that spreads to the rest of the class, right? So you have to create an environment that minimizes or reduces or gets rid of all this kind of extraneous processing, this like thinking about things that are irrelevant to what you want them to learn about.

And then once you kind of got that out of the way, your class is well behaved, they're all facing towards what they're supposed to learn, there's no noise, the kids are attentive, then you've got explicit instruction really starts with increasing supports when students don't know much about the material.

The material, of course, is, can be simple, and it can be complex. A lot of what we teach is quite complex. You know, we think about math, [00:20:00] we're not just teaching math facts, although they're the building blocks of calculating. What we, what we're really doing is we're giving them lots of problems that have, the elements in the problems refer to each other, and they're, it's really hard to keep track of all the steps and what procedure you need to use.

Explicit instruction really begins with breaking that material down if it's really complex and presenting it in the sort of simplest, the least abstract, the most concrete way that that material can be presented. And this is the part where people kind of go awry, is then right after that we've got, after a small step presentation of what we're teaching, we've got to check for understanding.

You have to see, “Do the students know what I just said? Can they repeat it back to me in some way?" So this way, that whole caricature of explicit instruction of not being interactive is absolutely false. Explicit instruction is the [00:21:00] most interactive system of teaching because with every small step you present, you've got to check to see if they know it, do a turn and talk.

I'm going to do a cold call, I'm going to do a mini whiteboard, I'm going to do finger voting. And as the students gain competence and familiarity with the material, we're, we're seeing that material slowly kind of eek its way into long-term memory, right? And their expertise is growing. Now they're not a total novice.

Now, they might be a relative expert. They're getting kind of closer to being able to do that stuff on their own. That's when we fade, we fade our guidance. We start having students kind of deal with problems that are, maybe have a step you didn't explain to them before, or maybe there's some irrelevant information you sort of inserted in there, but you know that won't overwhelm them because they know how to do everything else.

And finally, towards the end, you're having kids work on that material completely on their own, perhaps [00:22:00] even sprinkled in some extraneous information. And that, to me, is where you enhance transfer, you enhance long-term retention of that material.

[00:22:10] Anna Stokke: That was a really great description. That's really helpful. And I think the listeners will really appreciate that. So lots of scaffolding, breaking things down into small steps, checking for understanding along the way and gradually pulling back the guidance, right?

[00:22:26] Zach Groshell: Exactly.

[00:22:28] Anna Stokke: I heard you say that you've observed teacher lessons, and you observed teacher lessons all the time, and teachers have apologized to you for actually taking the time to explain something to their students.

Can you elaborate on that why would a teacher feel the need to apologize for doing that?

[00:22:46] Zach Groshell: There's a long history in education of speaking badly about teacher talk. I mean, you can hear quotes like, “I don't teach content, I teach students.” [00:23:00] Or “he who does the talking, does the learning,” I mean, we even hear things like, you know, “children have the attention span of a goldfish,” like only 12 seconds or, or whatever number people create, right?

There's a lot of pressure, I think, on new teachers, and I mean, maybe it's too harsh of a word, but a bit of indoctrination, I think in higher education around an idealistic way, which doesn't, in my view, map with human nature, doesn't map with evolutionary psychology, doesn't really map with how our mind works.

And that's that if you let children lead their learning, and if you let them discover most or all of the material that it will be deeper, it will be stronger, they'll learn more, and they won't, they won't forget anything. So teachers apologize to me all the time. I come in during a teacher-led lesson, I see extremely structured notes happening.

I see the teacher breaking it down into small [00:24:00] steps, and the students are all doing that interactive piece where they write something, they say something, the teacher teaches a little bit, the students turn and talk about it. And afterwards, I say, “Great, explicit instruction.” And the teacher goes, “That wasn’t an explicit instruction, right?” 

They're almost ashamed to even use the word, or they, you know, they're ashamed to be sort of, have their teaching be characterized as teacher-led or explicit or direct. It's a shame because I feel like it's the most empathetic thing you can do to a student is to make learning easier for them.

And teachers, I think, feel under pressure to make learning the opposite. They want to make it a little harder. want to make them struggle because that seems cool, I think, from observers and from outsiders.

[00:24:49] Anna Stokke: I teach at the university level, and so if I talked about breaking things down and going in slow steps like that, someone might say, “Oh, but aren't you spoonfeeding [00:25:00] the students? How are you going to have independent learners if you're breaking this down into so many steps?”

What do you think about that argument?

[00:25:07] Zach Groshell: Spoonfeeding, yeah, it's a great, it's a great tactic. I think to use to, you know, it's pejorative, right? But I have a baby right now who is, who's very, very young, is three months old, doesn't know how to do much. I will eventually spoonfeed this child because this child is preparing to be able to eat independently.

And so, it's going to be a combination always of teacher-led guidance and then students actively participating in that material. I think in the higher ed piece, we get it, it’s just, higher college teachers are, are notorious for this. They come in with an unplanned presentation and they talk for 60 minutes.

Very, very few K-12 teachers, in my experience, will ever do that. [00:26:00] Much more likely they're going to air on another on the other side, which is I think posing problems, giving students opportunities to be active and doing, and the students just don't know how to do the material or there's a compromise made. The higher learners know because they do Kumon after school or their parents like to talk to them about math, or maybe they just have a great working memory capacity if we measured it and then we've made a compromise.

And, and it's not in favour of the other learners. The learners who struggle to process the information we teach them, who get overwhelmed when too much too quickly comes at them. And maybe this is a value judgment on my part, but I think we, our compromise needs to go in the direction of the students who find school hard and not necessarily in the, in the direction of students that find learning easy.

[00:26:56] Anna Stokke: And we can always challenge the stronger [00:27:00] students. You can give them problems on the same topic that are a bit more difficult. You're an instructional coach, so how do you work with teachers to help them use Cognitive Load Theory in their lessons?

[00:27:15] Zach Groshell: Instructional coaching is sort of an ill-defined profession. Especially we talk internationally. If we talk to our UK teachers, they have one definition or conception of it. Here, where I'm at, instructional coaching means I'm in-building, in one single building. I'm full-time, I have no teaching load, and I am expected to meet with teachers who I offer my help to. Who, essentially, they opt in, which is another thing altogether, but they opt in to a discussion around their teaching and I observe their lessons, and I critique their lessons and I give them feedback.

Ideally [00:28:00] this would be like the best professional development, you know, ever. But oh my goodness, like there's so many constraints to this job. The teacher's time is so precious and limited and, and they, we don't have substitute teachers here, and they lose their planning all the time.

And, and anyway, it's a big, it's a wonderful job. It's a really tough job. So you mentioned Cognitive Load Theory. That's pretty much the main lens that I think I use when I'm working with, with teachers. Teachers need to really get their behaviour down correctly, and I work on, on behaviour from the start with a lot of new teachers. But once they sort of get to a minimal level with the behaviour, we,  I have to sort of embed through discussion a mental model of the learner that, that teachers can use when making predictions in their classrooms.

And the dominant mental model is that there is no such thing as working memory. That, that basically I can throw lots of things at them, and the [00:29:00] more I throw at them, the more will stick, like throwing things at the wall, right? What I have to do is really start with that principle. Learning is not easy for a lot of students because we have this working memory limitation and it becomes easy when they know something about the material.

If they know their math facts, they can compute 28 times, 36 really quickly, automatically, because they're not bogged down by math facts. Same with reading, right? If they know the phonetic code, then they can focus on comprehension. So I work with teachers to develop that model and really try to encourage them to read the readings I have and try to see some of the insights that I've found.

Another piece of Cognitive Load Theory is that learning is just not a natural occurrence, or at least not the learning we do in schools. I listened to your Greg Ashman podcast, so I definitely think you should check his explanation of what I'm about to say, it’s [00:30:00] much more in-depth.

But basically, we haven't evolved to learn these cultural types of knowledge like math and reading, but we did evolve to be able to speak and to walk upright. And so, I think sometimes the mental model of teachers conflates the two and thinks learning should be or ought to be natural. 

When really we've got to regulate the flow of information and squeeze really interesting, cool stuff into this working memory, have them process it, and it's not guaranteed that it will stick with them unless we really break it down and give them enough time to process it.

[00:30:37] Anna Stokke: Speaking of teachers, my podcast is relatively new, but I have some engaged listeners already, which I'm pretty happy about, and I've received a few emails, and some people like to suggest that I talk about certain things on the podcast. 

And so recently, a teacher wrote to me, and they wrote the following: “My school is heavily [00:31:00] into open-ended problems. Would you consider discussing whether this benefits students learning math?” 

And I know quite a bit about this particular method. It's popular in quite a few schools in Canada, and I've seen presentations on this. And the idea is that instead of giving clear specific questions, you give more vague questions, which have a number of different answers - actually infinitely many answers in most cases. 

So, for example, I could ask the question, “Calculate 36 plus 64,” because I'm trying to teach students how to add two-digit numbers, and I could ask students to do that problem. But if we were to use the open-ended approach, we would instead ask something like, “The answer to my question is 100. What might my question be?”

And so the students could give really any answer that fits that. So they could give that question that I, that I said “36 plus 64”, or they could say, you know, “99 plus one” or a “hundred plus zero” [00:32:00] or “200 over two.” The idea is that the students are all at different levels in the class, and some of them would struggle with the question 36 plus 64.

And if you give these open-ended problems, that the students would then be able to work at their own level, and they can create their own practice problems instead of you giving them worksheets. So the teacher mentioned a few other things that math scores are not improving in the school, that the students are relying heavily on calculators, and they often don't really know where to even start with the problems.

It's causing some anxiety and avoidance and it's really hard for the students who have weaker language skills. So I thought that you might be a good person to ask about this. So what do you, what do you think about this? What do you think about this method?

[00:32:51] Zach Groshell: Well, it's pretty much a description of how I taught math. And my wife will be listening, and she'll be like, no, you didn't, right? But [00:33:00] when I taught math, if I could describe kind of my, the main default way I would introduce a new topic, which it would be to give some sort of problem that was maybe interesting tied to the real world and often the, the component you're talking about specifically is like, there is no right answer, right?

The students can go any way, where they want. I'm actually taking away, I'm taking away one component of a problem, which is that you need to follow a procedure. You, you essentially can maybe generate your own procedure.

We talked about the narrow limits of working memory. It can only hold three to four items at a time, only for about 20 seconds. It's the bottleneck of cognition. And what we're saying there is forget, forget that, you know, very not controversial model of the mind.

And let's throw a lot of things at students and hope that they can learn it themselves and that they can discover or[00:34:00] figure it out. I'm just picturing, you know, not being at that lesson, but I picture it because I've seen lots of lessons like this. I'm picturing a third of the class gets that material and goes, “Ah, hey, I already have a procedure and long-term memory I can use.”

And just starts, just starts rattling out math. And the math looks really great, and the teacher feels really good about it. They're getting good feedback from those learners. I'm picturing another half of class or a third of the class who's sitting there, maybe only has one thing they can contribute to it, but it's just enough to get through that amount of time and not cause too much of a ruckus.

And so they kind of work on that one thing and they're, but both of these two-thirds of the students are right now not learning anything new necessarily. They're practicing things they already know. They're basically taking from long-term memory, and they're not adding too much to long-term memory and changing it.

Then we get the one-third of students who I [00:35:00] think we need to empathize with a little more, and that's who do not have a strategy that can come to mind or some sort of route to tackle this problem. And so what are they going to do? Some of them will sit there blankly staring at this material.

Other students will look over, look over and copy off of the nearest person. They're just, you know, “We don't want rote learning’ is what the inquiry folks say a lot, but this is, this is as rote as it can be. They're just copying, right?


And then we get the students who, especially at a school like I'm at right now, where this is a great opportunity to express some bad behaviour, “This school isn't for me,” “This problem isn't for me’,” “Oh, obviously I should know it. Look at all these other kids working, and I can't do it.” “So, because I don't want to feel stupid, I don't want to show people I'm stupid, I'm going to show people that I'm a clown, that I'm funny, that this is an opportunity to mess around.”

I seriously doubt - when the teacher said that, from my experience, this teacher’s [00:36:00] told you, that “the students are overwhelmed, they're confused,” they just, they need this broken down. Follow that intuition. Follow that because it's true. It's true. If you don't have anything in mind to construct an answer to a problem, what are you going to use?

You can't just start with the roof of a house. You have to build up from the foundation. This is reversing it and flipping it so that students are just almost guaranteed to struggle.

[00:36:28] Anna Stokke: And do you think there's any research backing up this type of method?

[00:36:34] Zach Groshell: There is really good research that's, that's coming out all the time around an area called “preparation for learning” or “productive failure.” At first, productive failure, which is like a design where students work on a problem at the beginning and then they get the explicit instruction.

So very clear that this isn't pure inquiry-based learning [00:37:00] because there's a period of warmup, I suppose. And then a period where they received the direct instruction. At first these, these studies were really weak designs, quasi-experimental. There was no randomization. 

I mean, it was kind of ignored, I suppose, by people that kind of wished that the, the designs were more you know, randomized and better controlled. More has come out, which may suggest that doing certain activities, not necessarily trying to fail through productive failure, but maybe looking at, looking at a problem in advance of explicit instruction through a worked example or doing some productive, struggling at the beginning could, I suppose, warm the student up to the explicit instruction. 

The issue is there, it's just we keep going back and forth. Greg Ashman was on your podcast, and he did a study in which explicit instruction first outpaced the productive [00:38:00] failure model and even the productive failure researchers that originally started this stuff, once they switched over to using randomized controlled trials, which is like the gold standard of research, they started to see that effect disappear. 

Even the most recent paper I read was that all the preparation for learning activities were about the same including giving a worked example at the beginning. Time will tell, I, time will tell, and if you want to interrupt me now and ask me about that, but time will tell. I have my theories about what the future has for this research.

[00:38:34] Anna Stokke: Yeah, I mean, the point is you can't eliminate the explicit instruction, but one of my issues with this is the justification. Okay, so you have a bunch of students in your class that are unable to solve the closed question that you want to give them, 36 plus 64.

So you let them make up their own problem. Okay, if you have a bunch of students who can't solve that problem, shouldn't we actually work towards teaching them to be able to [00:39:00] solve that problem instead of coming up with ways to work around teaching them that? It just doesn't make any sense.

[00:39:07] Zach Groshell: It doesn't and, you know, another piece that this research may never address because it's all, you know, it's in a short timeframe, and it doesn't look at, I think it's not as organic, but in my natural setting around teachers, sometimes teachers will present a problem like this with the intention of giving explicit instruction in the end.

But we have 55-minute periods. And so what happens is they pose this problem, the students are grappling with it, it looks, it looks awful from the outside, but you know, “well, let's hold on. Maybe that explicit instruction will fix this up.” And when they get to that part at the end, time is running out.

The, the students are tired of this exercise, and the explicit instruction isn't given the time that it deserves. And so I almost even wonder if this productive failure model or preparation for learning model [00:40:00] doesn't really even fit within the constraints of, of what it, what most students experience.

You've got to start with, their attention is there at the beginning, they're looking forward to learning something today, right at the beginning. And you teach it to them and then give them a chance to practice it. Not waste a lot of the time, having kids generating and guessing and just randomly messing about with the math.

[00:40:25] Anna Stokke: Yeah, exactly. And I thought that too. And I sort of imagined the situation because, so I teach calculus, and we have a 75-minute lab each week. my students are sitting there, and I'm giving them problems to solve. And I walk around with a TA and I, I check their work to see what they're doing.

And so I've done this sometimes. I've given a problem that I haven't really taught explicitly how to solve that problem. And basically every hand is up, and we're just running around trying to deal with this situation, [00:41:00] and I realized it is actually my fault, though. I needed to teach that properly in order for my students to, figure out how to do it on their own.

[00:41:08] Zach Groshell: You said something with the circulation too. A lot of people will say, “I have lots of explicit instruction in my inquiry-based program,” or whatever. But you, you, you met with one student, and that's 10 minutes or five minutes. You move on, and oftentimes, nine times out of 10, you move to the next hand and they ask the exact same question.

And so you teach that little bit again the same way. You just taught the last one, and you move to the next one. Your 55 minutes is getting eaten up really quickly. It's, it's, it's the justification. You're totally right. Why not teach everybody all at once in 10 minutes? Why do 10, 10, 10 times 30? It just, it's, it's incredibly inefficient.

[00:41:55] Anna Stokke: Incredibly inefficient. You are absolutely right. What about [00:42:00] fun? Can students find these types of lessons you're describing using explicit instruction, can they find those kinds of lessons fun? Or maybe they’re boring. Actually, they have a lot more fun if you gave them a project. What do you think about that?

[00:42:16] Zach Groshell: Well, I sort of reject the idea from the beginning that school, every moment of school has to be fun. I just want to say that straight up. Whether you use inquiry-based learning or explicit instruction, you're going to come to moments where, in the middle of your project even, you cannot figure out what to do next, and it's not fun. 

We both did dissertations. That big old inquiry-based project was not fun quite often. A lot of it wasn't because learning, learning is something that is hard for a lot of people and it's hard to, it's hard to replace what you know with something that's better. It's hard to change, right?

And most people would rather be on their phones. They'd rather be outside. [00:43:00] They'd rather be doing something else. To learn this cultural knowledge, we need to be in an institution that keeps us inside and makes us focus and work hard. But to, to your point about explicit instruction, explicit instruction is a fast-paced system, and it's interactive.

It's back and forth, Anita Archer says perky pace, right? It's quick, the teacher is excited, and they're orchestrating something. And as a student, you're sometimes, you know, you go home, and you're by yourself often. You're now in an explicit instruction lesson. You're part of something else.

It's like being at a summer camp. You're part of a cabin, right? And the teacher is moving everyone along and makes sure nobody falls off the bus. And as a kid who falls off the bus often in some lessons, when you get the explicit instruction teacher, you're like, yes, I get to participate in this. I get to be part of this.

And then you get to see the results in front of you. You get to see [00:44:00] yourself turn from a D student or a C student to a B student or an A student. You get to feel what it's like to do a problem where you don't make stuff up, where you're actually using knowledge that you've mastered to demonstrate your proficiency.

So I think it's an enjoyable and fun and dynamic system. I also think it can be a lot of hard work for kids, and I think at times they're, you know, don't want to say the word struggle because I've said it a bunch of times, but I think at times you're going to face points in which you're being pushed to work.

And so fun is not necessarily the main, most important ingredient of education, but it can, you're going to have fun when you're learning and when you're successful.

[00:44:46] Anna Stokke: And you're not going to have fun if you are struggling and if you feel stupid. So the best thing to do is use a method of instruction that actually helps people learn, that makes them feel successful. And [00:45:00] you're absolutely right about hard work. There's no feeling in the world like that, right? When you've worked really hard at something, and then you master it, it's good to teach students about the value of working hard to accomplish something in this case, learning.

I thought I'd ask you a little bit about feedback and assessment because you talked a, we talked a little bit about it earlier, but we didn't really get into it. So what sort of advice do you give teachers on feedback and assessment?

[00:45:31] Zach Groshell: I wrote, you mentioned I wrote a chapter of a book. Why did I decide to write a chapter during my dissertation? I don't know. But it was, it was my first kind of stab at professional writing. And what I wanted to do was, in that chapter was, figure out what are kind of the main things we know about feedback and assessment.

We know they're related, right? If you assess a student, now you have some knowledge of what to do next. Maybe you give them feedback, right? Or you give [00:46:00] a student feedback and it pushes them forward, and they do better on an assessment, right? So there's sort of these interlinking strategies.


And I guess when I'm working with teachers, I want them to know certain things. One is that learning and performance are separate things. Performance is what the student can do right in front of you in real-time. And learning is more long-term, and it refers more to retention, that you can do something later on that you performed earlier.

So what I want them to learn when it comes to assessment is every check you are having right there, oftentimes those checks are inflated because they're really just measuring performance that, this material's fresh in their mind. You just taught it to them, right? And so I check for understanding, and I get 90% that beautiful 80, 90% threshold. 

Tomorrow, I will guarantee you if you ask that same question cold [00:47:00] that it will not be 80 or 90%. So you always have to, when you're teaching, realize that your assessments are assessing sort of the short-term gains of your lesson. And so we need to space out our assessments and use short-cycle assessments in order to really ascertain, “Is this going to stick for a long time or was, am I, was I just measuring them telling me what I just told them essentially?” 

I'll talk about a couple more things that I talked to teachers about. Lots of people want to know about quality of feedback. They want to know what is good feedback? And it's tough because these feedback reviews and big meta-analyses, they show very wide-ranging results for feedback. They find sometimes that feedback is, you know, the John Hattie stuff, it's the most powerful technique you could, you could ever do. And then they find that sometimes feedback is even negative, it actually, it impaired achievement.

And so what, what can we go off of that? [00:48:00] And so a, a lot of what I'd work with teachers is realizing, number one, if they don't do anything with the feedback, if they don't move themselves forward with the feedback and change something, the feedback is ineffective. 

If you give them feedback, for example, written you know, marking on, on their paper and they go home, and they throw the paper in the bin, that feedback was useless. But if I had them sit in class and read the feedback, turn and talk to their partner about the feedback, make a goal with the feedback, and then actually change maybe the paper or the product that they've made right in front of me, and then reflect about that change, all of those steps can make that feedback actually effective.

So I try to work on, thinking of feedback as not the magical elixir, but more that if you can get the student to do something with it and change as a result of it, that your feedback's going to be effective.

[00:48:54] Anna Stokke: And that's something I've struggled a lot with, with university students. I'll give [00:49:00] a midterm, and the students make some mistakes on the midterm and, and you mark the midterm, you give it back, you give the solutions.

And I could literally ask the same question on the next midterm and no change will have occurred. I think you've hit the nail on the head. It's not just about giving the feedback, it's making sure that the feedback accomplishes something that actually the students learn from the feedback.

[00:49:26] Zach Groshell: And, you know, a tricky thing with that too is if you get the student to change their product, it may be a poor proxy for whether something inside their minds changed. And a good example is when I'm doing, when I'm grading essays and stuff, I can mark a bunch of things on the essay, give it to the student, the student gets out a new sheet of paper and sits there and rewrites the whole thing. As they're rewriting it, what are they doing? 

They're just seeing what corrections I put on, making sure that those corrections are in the paper. They write it all up and they get, turn it back in, and you ask, “Why did you [00:50:00] make that correction?”

Or, you know, “Oh, because you said I should.” Well, what about it? Like, have you done any?


So sometimes, sometimes the teacher really needs to ditch further feedback and really needs to instruct, right? Sometimes the answer to an assessment problem or student, a learning deficit is that you need to teach.

And it's not about giving them feedback necessarily because giving them feedback might just change their next product, but they don't really understand why they're making that change. So I think, yeah. The third one, I'll just end with this third little tidbit for all of you that I work with teachers on. 

It’s that, if we do talk about quality of feedback, the corrective feedback as in yes or no feedback, it's more effective than nothing, but it's some, there's a lot of, some evidence that making your feedback more elaborative, basically actually [00:51:00] explaining why you need to do that, as I just said, and it adding in the how and the why, and not just focusing on the what, like a yes, no or a grade, that kind of continuum is really important. 

So a lot of times, teachers walk around and say, “That's wrong,” “That's right.” Or they just give grades; A, B, C, or D, which is basically, you know, check, check plus, check minus, right? The student doesn't know what to do with it. They don't know what to do next. You've gotta make your feedback a little bit more elaborative, and you've got to, and a little more epistemic around the idea of knowledge construction. The why behind what you need to do next.

[00:51:40] Anna Stokke: We hear a lot about the science of reading. We've heard some about the science of math, and I feel like you know a lot about what's going on out there.

So I'm wondering what your thoughts are. Do you think we'll see a shift towards evidence-based instruction over the next few years?

[00:51:58] Zach Groshell: Well, [00:52:00] I think we are. It’s going to be slow. It's going to, there's going to be pendulum swings. I'm not old enough to, they're, when I talk to teachers who've been in the business for some time and they say, “yeah, it comes back and forth.” And, but for me, in my 12 years since I graduated and got my teaching certificate, there's been a shift in the conversation around reading. 

And that, that conversation recently was sort of enhanced by Emily Hanford, and the podcast Sold a Story where people that are not necessarily even really interested in education are tuning into this and seeing just an irresponsible use of money and resources towards ineffective methods that are not evidence-based.

And we're going to, I think we're going to see a shift both in legislature and both in legislation and both and, and in, just in the, the philosophy and views of teachers that learning is not like reading. Math is not this [00:53:00] natural thing that we all evolve to acquire. That it needs to be broken down, and we need to give students basic skills and competencies that allow them to do more and more complex problems.

Full disclosure, I do moderate the Science of Math Facebook group. So I'm a huge fan of the Science of Math movement. I interviewed Sarah Powell on my podcast, who's maybe the lead person in terms of the Science of Math movement. I think it's a great, it's a great effort to mirror what's happening in reading in math because it's not this whole different thing, right?

We're talking about material that is complex. We're talking about material that you can't possibly have learned by just being alive. That you need someone to pass down to you, and when you pass it down to them, you need to break it down in accordance with working memory.


[00:53:51] Anna Stokke: So what would you recommend for teachers who would like to find out more about Cognitive Load Theory and how to use it in [00:54:00] their classrooms?

[00:54:01] Zach Groshell: There's a lot of free open papers that are, you know, sort of like teachers’ guides. One is by the CESE organization in Australia. Cognitive Load Theory was sort of originated by John Sweller, so it's an Australia-based theory that many Australians have told me even in Australia, a lot of people don't know about it.

But there's a great paper out there about Cognitive Load Theory, sort of practical strategies that teachers can use. How to use worked examples for different subjects, how to fade guidance. I would check that paper out. There's also just a lot of great popular books coming out. Cognitive Load Theory in Action by Ollie Lovell is an amazing book.

The Little Guide for Teachers: Cognitive Load Theory by Greg Ashman is a great book. I'm hoping what I'm writing right now about instructional coaching can give coaches some tips about how to talk to [00:55:00] teachers about Cognitive Load Theory, how to shift their understanding of what's going on in front of them towards some of these lessons that I, we've talked about so far in this show.

[00:55:12] Anna Stokke: I'll put links to those things on a resource page that people can go to. Last thing, can you tell us about your podcast?

[00:55:20] Zach Groshell: Progressively Incorrect was just a fun project between me and my friend, his name's Bradley Arnold, and we started by meeting up once a month or so and just arguing about the same topic we're talking about now. He being someone who's loved sort of project-based learning, and me who taught right alongside him and after we parted ways as colleagues, I went onto this explicit instruction, evil, dark side thing, right? 

And so we were kind of discussing this from the dark side and the light side. And it's a mess. It's a mess of, of our ideas live. And after a season of that, [00:56:00] he went off to do some great writing projects, and I've continued to do kind of like what you're doing with your - your podcast has filled my life with so much enrichment. I am so, so thankful to be on it. 

But basically interviewing people like Paul Kirschner and Dan Willingham, and I hope to have you on the podcast next season, Pamela Snow. Talking to people who,  I think I've moved on from, from necessarily debating every definition of inquiry-based learning and towards how do we actually get this science out there and how do we, what are the new topics that scientists are uncovering every day in the lab, and how can we pass that to teachers?

[00:56:42] Anna Stokke: Yeah, and it's a great podcast, so definitely check that out. I want to thank you so much for coming on today. You have so much energy, and you really helped me to understand quite a few things, and you will help the listeners too. So I really appreciate it, and I really enjoyed meeting you. Thank you.

[00:56:59] Zach Groshell: Thank [00:57:00] you so much. You're invited on, and I hope we can collaborate on things in the future.

[00:57:04] Anna Stokke: Absolutely, 100%. Let's keep in touch.

I hope you enjoyed today's episode of Chalk and Talk. Please go ahead and follow on your favourite podcast app so you can get new episodes delivered as they become available. You can follow me on Twitter for notifications or check out my website for more information. This podcast received funding through a University of Winnipeg Knowledge Mobilization and Community Impact grant funded through the Anthony Swaity Knowledge Impact Fund.

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