This post was written by David Fawcett @davidfawcett27.
One of the most fundamental components of being a teacher is transferring knowledge to students. In almost every lesson we teach we are trying to explain ideas and new information to the individuals we work with in an effort to help them understand and learn. The topics we teach vary in complexity and can provide mixed results. At the heart of this is the quality of explanation that we provide. Although not scientifically accurate, it probably goes without saying that the better our explanations, the more likely students are to ‘get it’.
Now the art of an explanation is actually a tricky thing. I’m guessing we’ve all had moments when it hasn’t gone to plan. The times when we know what we want to say but mid-explanation…….realise that nobody else does. The times when you begin explaining that tricky concept and struggle to find the clarity of words to do so. The times when you think you’ve nailed it only for a class full of hands and confused faces to slowly appear. Getting explanations right take practise and experience. It takes thought and prior planning to ensure we effectively get difficult information across to students. Although how we deliver these explanations are dependent on our subject, teaching style, students we work with and so on, there are some practical tips on making them more effective.
Know your topic
There is a well-known quote attributed to Albert Einstein stating that
“if you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough”.
How accurate this quote is I’m not sure. However, it does point to some sensible advice that excellent content knowledge is essential when explaining a topic. Being able to take a complex concept and communicate it with clarity requires in-depth understanding. What are the key things that you must include? What can you omit the first time you explain something (which you will obviously explain at a later date)? Do you clearly understand how the various parts of the topic link together? What parts of the topic must you highlight and pay particular attention to? Can you deal with difficult questions if students pose them? Having a solid grasp on topics is extremely important. Brush up, read up, make notes and make sure you know what to say.
Look at the explanation through students eyes.
John Hattie talks about great teachers being able to see learning through the eyes of a student. Having the same approach with explanations is equally important. When thinking about what you will say, think about how students may interpret it. What parts might students not understand? What language might you need to carefully select to ensure that this particular class understands it? What examples may provide most clarity? Would you understand it if you were in the lesson? What vocabulary, academic language and specific terminology could you challenge students with? What you don’t want to do is pitch an explanation so high that students become confused and form misconceptions. Equally, you don’t want to make an explanation so watered down that they don’t learn anything worthwhile. Practise what you are going to say. Does it sound right? Does it make sense? Would you class understand it? Planning can go a long way in ensuring that what you say is effective.
Old knowledge helps learn new knowledge
Cognitive psychologists and scientists including the likes of Daniel T. Willingham and Robert Bjork have highlighted that learning new concepts is more effective if built upon prior knowledge. It’s therefore essential to draw upon previous learning as much as possible to help build understanding. Referring to an already taught topic like diet in your explanation may make understanding a new topic like somatotypes much easier. If you’ve taught Shakespeare previously then drawing upon this may help students make more sense of Victorian novels. Knowing the particle theory of matter (solids, liquids and gasses) helps understand why materials would be good conductors/insulators of thermal energy. Having this in mind when planning explanations can be extremely helpful. Take time to look back at what has already been taught. Don’t assume that they still remember that information off by heart, but be confident that referring to it may help contextualise new learning and help clarify concepts and topics you are about to teach.
There are various claims of working memory capacity detailed in research literature. The most famous is from the work of George Millar who found that the capacity of the short term memory was around 7 +/- 2 pieces of information. Irrespective of the actual number that an individual can store, the constant message coming through is that short term memory capacity is limited. We therefore need to be very mindful of how long or detailed our explanations are. Indeed, there may be times when a complex concept requires an in depth explanation, but how much of that information will actually be retained? Will that two minute explanation actually be remembered by students? Will they be able to digest all of the information? Could that explanation be broken down into smaller chunks with gaps between them? Could you cleverly repeat key points within that explanation to reinforce and expose students to the core content repeatedly? Could the explanation be stripped back to the basics and built up over time rather than all in one hit?
Thinking about, and being aware of, the level of information you will share beforehand can reduce confusion and help make what you are going to say more meaningful.
Driving questions (or giving the bigger picture)
At times, students fail to understand how a topic that you are explaining fits into a wider context. Some students find it difficult to see the connections between other topics already covered. Some may miss how today’s topic relates to prior learning or specific examples. Trying to provide this clarity when explaining could therefore support your explanation.
Using a driving question is one idea. If you’ve never heard of them, a driving question is a problem posed to the class, based on your current topic that starts the process of linking the lesson together. For example, in a Science and Technology in sport lesson, you could begin the lesson with the question “How has science and technology influenced sports performance? Has it gone too far (or will it)?” Having this projected on screen as students arrive and getting them to think about it helps set the scene. You can then begin to plan your subsequent explanations to tie into the question. How can you use it to explain that the development of full body swimsuits may create an unfair advantage? How can you use it to explain the complex argument why or why not, athletes with prosthetic limbs should/shouldn’t compete with able bodied athletes? How can you use the question to explain how facilities, materials and equipment have all impacted on sports performance? A driving question is good as it helps students build up an idea/image of the topic in question. It calls upon schema which your explanations can link to. Referring back to it repeatedly helps build up understanding and makes acquisition of knowledge via your explanations easier.
Using stories and concrete examples
“Research from the last 30 years shows that stories are indeed special. Stories are easy to comprehend and easy to remember, and that’s true not just because people pay close attention to stories; there is something inherent in the story format that makes them easy to understand and remember. Teachers can consider using the basic elements of story structure to organize lessons and introduce complicated material, even if they don’t plan to tell a story in class.”
“Psychologist have referred to stories as being “psychologically privileged”. Our mind seems to treat them differently and we see to understand and remember. Teachers can consider using the basic elements of story structure to organize lessons and introduce complicated material, even if they don’t plan to tell a story in class.” Daniel T. Willingham.
Using stories in explanations is one of the most effective way of sharing information. Some of the best explanations that I can remember have been shared via a story or an anecdote. Stories are great because they allow the person explaining to grab interest and use an example to provide clarity. As a teacher, using stories can be excellent and explaining difficult concepts. Using the story of how Michael Jordan rose through the ranks of Basketball is great at explaining the concept of sponsorship. It makes it easy for the listener to see how ‘a’ relates to ‘b’. With this obvious positive effect, do we regularly use stories to explain difficult concepts?
The use of stories in your explanations can come in two forms. Firstly you could use a story to contextualise what it is that you are explaining. You could tell a story during your explanation to help students understand a concept. Selecting a relevant story to get your message across can be powerful. For instance, using British Cycling’s ‘Secret Squirrel Club’ is a brilliant way to help explain the concept of scientific and technological developments in sport. Telling the story of how this element of cycling came about and the research and development they undertook can provide real life examples to support your facts. Stories become memorable, provide clarity and definitely enhance your explanations.
If you can’t find a suitable story, a second way is to use the format and structure of a story in your explanation. Great stories contain specific elements. Daniel T. Willingham highlights that these elements include causality, conflict, complication and character. With this in mind, can you plan your explanation which shows how one event leads to another, or how an obstacle is being overcome, or even how barriers were put in place? The structure of stories can help you evolve your explanation and make it easier to understand and remember.
Linked to Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory (1988), using worked examples with an explanation improves learning. It does this as it reduces the cognitive load during knowledge acquisition. It provides clarity and scaffolds what it is that you are trying to explain.
Worked examples can come in a number of ways ranging from a maths problem annotated by the teacher, or a live essay answer written via a visualiser in front of the class. The process simply allows the teacher to support the verbal explanation with a visual demonstration.
A great way for using worked examples is the ‘I do – We do – You do’ teaching strategy. As a teacher, when explaining a new theory, process, concept or topic, the teacher works through an example and models it to the class. As they work through the answer, they explain their thought process and explain any concepts that are needed. The teacher can repeat this to show the class exactly what is required.
The teacher then moves to the ‘We do’ section and collaboratively answers another worked example with the class. The teacher still explains the process but begins to transfer ownership to the students. It becomes an excellent opportunity to check understanding (and assess the quality of your explanation).
Finally, the student now take on the ‘I do’ section and complete a question themselves. The process of teacher led explanation/modelling and collaborative explanation/modelling, helps students understand the topic being worked through better.
Thank you to David Didau and Shaun Allison for subject specific examples.