Outstanding Lessons – A quick guide to Implicit Instruction – Better Learners Series

Constructivism is a learning theory. It says we construct our own understanding and knowledge  of the world through experiences that we process.  When we come across a new experience we have to reconcile it with what we already know. Analysing the new thoughts against our current belief system, through questioning and exploration, we either reject it, or change our thinking to encompass it. We are hence the creators of our own knowledge.


Implicit instruction is fundamentally about pupil centred discovery. The teacher is a facilitator of learning rather than controlling every step of what happens in the lesson . Students deduce for themselves concepts from a range of (usually real life ) examples given using intuition and inductive reasoning. They construct rather than memorise a set of rules.

An example is looking at Prime numbers, from  Bruner (1973):

“The concept of prime numbers appears to be more readily grasped when the child, through construction, discovers that certain handfuls of beans cannot be laid out in completed rows and columns. Such quantities have either to be laid out in a single file or in an incomplete row-column design in which there is always one extra or one too few to fill the pattern. These patterns, the child learns, happen to be called prime. It is easy for the child to go from this step to the recognition that a multiple table , so called, is a record sheet of quantities in completed multiple rows and columns. Here is factoring, multiplication and primes in a construction that can be visualized.”

Critics of explicit instruction feel that students are too passive and not in control of their own learning. They argue that explicit instruction is great for getting students to follow linear algorithmic instructions (which is perfect for most exams) but that it stifles creativity .

Constructivists say that implicit instruction is superior to long-lasting and deep learning. That problem solving skills become more transferable. It is very difficult to compare Implicit vs Explicit instruction from a lifelong learner perspective as no data is available.

A somewhat blunt viewpoint  is the  guide by the side vs the sage on the stage. A student centred implicit vs teacher centred explicit.  The student as a participant as opposed to a receiver of knowledge.

What’s good about Implicit Instruction?

  • Students often appear to be more highly engaged as the tasks are often real and interesting, but whether real learning is happening may be a different matter
  • Students ask questions, try things and experiment which equips them for life
  • Students encounter failure and can possibly build up their own resilience
  • Curiosity is often sparked and can lead to going well outside the prescribed curriculum developing passion
  • Students may learn how they learn best
  • It is what happens in the real world. Top scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs , authors and sportspeople all have used constructivism to some extent to get where they are.

Whats not to like?

  • If there is not sufficient knowledge to begin with it is unlikely that true understanding will develop from within – like polishing a car that hasn’t been washed or building a skyscraper without foundations.
  • It can be very frustrating to students, with them feeling lost and directionless
  • There isnt the evidence that it actually works if used wholescale – See Sutton Trust Report
  • Misconceptions may not be challenged

Like explicit instruction, implicit instruction is often done very badly. Arguably, more damage will be done from badly thought out implicit instruction as the students will have insufficient grounding in knowledge or basic skills.


A study on implicit learning using amnesiac patients  discovered that they retained procedural knowledge (how to solve problems) even though they had forgotten the declarative knowledge (what they had learned)  If this wasn’t strange enough ..

The argument that implicit learning is really unconscious is sometimes bolstered by the fact that amnesic patients show preserved implicit learning. Of course, amnesics also forget the learning episode as well, confusing implicit learning with implicit memory. In this regard, it is somewhat disconcerting to note that subjects can show significant implicit “learning” even in the absence of any learning experience! That is to say, in some experimental procedures involving classification performance, it is possible for subjects to intuit the structure of the target category from test instances, even when they were denied an opportunity to learn the category during a prior study phase.

The only certainty in any discussion on implicit vs explicit is things are very complex !



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