What Explanation is and why it is important:

Explanation concerns transforming complicated and abstract ideas and concepts into clear and meaningful words.

According to recent research, teacher-led instruction is more effective than asking students to discover new knowledge and skills for themselves (2006 – Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, 2009 – Hattie).

Explanations should follow 3 main rules:

  1. Explanations should be linked to knowledge that students already have. We learn in the context of what we already know.
  2. The human memory can only hold a few new ideas at once. Therefore new ideas should be short and manageable so that they are more easily remembered.
  3. Explanations should transform abstract ideas into concrete ones without sacrificing the complexity.

The idea of ‘Stickability’.

Chip and Dan Heath believe that there are six ‘sticky’ principles that will help teaching stick: SUCCES – Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and Story.

Simple = Choose the core concepts that need to be understood and communicate these – anchor them to what students already know

Unexpected = Generate curiosity by highlighting and opening up gaps in their knowledge

Concrete = Provide the opportunities for students to do something that makes the concept real and meaningful

Credible = Provide the opportunities for students to see or experience something that will make them believe the concept

Emotional = Make students ‘feel’ something as a result of your teaching e.g. empathy, sympathy, aspiration

Story = Tell a story round the concept – especially if it has a human/personal element to it

Tom Sherrington says that: ‘As teachers, for high quality explanations to be habitual, we need to know our subjects, taking time to develop our own capacity to explain the key concepts simply.  I think departmental CPD time would be well spent with colleagues rehearsing the ways they explain the more difficult material.  Too often we assume we can do this but, over the years, I’ve found this is a key area for improvement and experimentation, for me personally and for others.’

Literature to read

  • Why Don’t Students Like School? – Daniel Willingham – is an outstanding book that grounds effective explanations in scientific evidence.
  • Making Every Lesson Count – Chapter 2 – ‘explanation’ – Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby
  • Teach Now! English: Becoming a Great English Teacher – Chapter on explanation and teacher talk – Alex Quigley
  • The Confident Teacher – Chapter 11 ‘Exemplary explanations’ – Alex Quigley

Blog posts to read:

Strategies to try:

Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

Briefness and repetition are central to explanation. Your core message should be continually returned to throughout the lesson. When introducing new content, keep your sentences grammatically short and simple. Front load your sentences with the key learning point. Once students become more secure in these concepts, begin to model and promote more complex academic language as you move from surface to deep learning. Start explanations in a concise and concrete manner and build up the complexity as you go.

Explain First

When introducing a new topic or fact, begin with the explanation and involve the students later, especially when introducing new vocabulary.

Open the Gap

Research shows that allowing students to struggle with problems before receiving guidance aids long-term memory retention. However, don’t rely upon students to find the solution with this strategy, but fill the knowledge gap later, once students have had a go on their own. E.g.:

  1. Ask students to make predictions and estimations at the start of the lesson by utilising the knowledge they already have on a topic.
  2. Base your lesson or explanation on a story or mystery that will give the topic a human or emotional impact.
  3. Create a mystery out of ordinary topics.

Find the ‘Sweet Spot’

Assess your class’s prior knowledge. This will help students to form concrete links between new content and their existing knowledge and stop you re-teaching them what they already know. Strategies that you can use to find this ‘Sweet Spot’:

  1. Short quizzes. The answers will allow you to go over anything that has been forgotten or misunderstood and bridge the gap to the new lesson or topic.
    1. Students formulate their own questions on the areas they are struggling with or do not understand. You can then address these with the whole class.
    1. Nominate one or two designated ‘questioners’ in every class. Choose a confident student who is not afraid to voice their concerns or uncertainty. They may well express the concerns of the group and provide you with the ‘Sweet Spot’.

Becoming a Storyteller

Narrative is naturally easier to remember than most other forms of information input, so use this to the full. For example:

  1. Tell stories about your past students.
  2. Tell Personal Anecdotes.
  3. Turn Misconceptions Into Stories.

Tap Into the Power of Analogy

Analogy is an important tool for explanation. By comparing a new concept to an idea already securely fastened in your students’ knowledge, there is a good chance they will comprehend it quickly. However, to use this effectively, you need to have a strong understanding of students’ prior knowledge. If they don’t understand the analogy, then they will struggle with the concept. However, analogies do not always give the whole picture. There are often fundamental differences between the analogy and the target idea. The solution is to introduce the analogy to allow the students to construct the rough idea, but then use further explanation to dismantle the analogy and identify the differences from the target knowledge. The best analogies should be shared widely.

Explain with Support

The worst explanations are often accompanied by over-detailed slide-shows. These can often inhibit learning rather than driving it. Five ways to use props and supports effectively:

  1. Keep slides mainly for instructions, visual supports, models and scaffolds to be used during Practice. Use very few words on the slides. Keep them simple and if you do need to write a lot on them, give students a chance to read it before talking over the top.
  2. Slides can provide useful speaking cues during extended explanations. A good idea is to use animation features so that you can reveal cues one by one as you need them. In this way, your listeners do not read ahead or become swamped by lots of sentences.
  3. Teach a few lessons every week without a slide show so that you can practise natural explanations and modelling. Use the board as much as possible – your notes are a step-by-step guide to your thinking and model your thinking processes, allowing students to look back if they forget something or lose attention for a moment.
  4. Bring in props and perform practical demonstrations whenever you can.
  5. Use pictures, images and diagrams to supplement your explanations.

A quick guide to explaining

  • Tell a story
  • Use models
  • Use pictures
  • Develop analogies
  • Take the learner’s perspective

Give Multiple Examples

Not all students will understand your first explanation. Or your second. Or even your third. Keep going until you find an explanation that works! And don’t be afraid to ask another student to try 😊

Know Your Misconceptions

As you identify the main misconceptions in your subject area, you can use avoidance strategies:

  1. Lead students Into The Trap. Draw students into making mistakes, and then correct them through questioning and explanation.
  2. Do the Work Yourself. If you have done it yourself, this will also allow you to have a better understanding of the aspects that require careful modelling and explanation.
  3. Keep a Record of Common Misconceptions. This will allow you to return to them the following year and incorporate them into your teaching before they create problems for the class. These can also be shared with new, inexperienced staff to help prevent them from making the same mistakes as their colleagues.
  4. Tell Stories. When introducing a new topic, tell stories of previous students and classes and the avoidable mistakes they have made.

Involve Them

Students do learn through passive learning, but they must be listening and paying attention. To ensure this, make explanations interactive. ‘Open the Gap’ and ‘Bring the Room to Life’ are two strategies that fall into this category. Here are three more:

  1. Communicate with Your Body Language. Where you position yourself, how you position yourself and your use of gesture are important, as is eye contact! Accentuate your key points through hand gestures.
  2. Feel Your Words. Completely passionless speech is dull. You must give the impression that everything you say is of the greatest importance and use emotion. Teach everything as if it matters and your students are more likely to believe so too.
  3. Repeat My Words. Ask students to repeat the main message of your explanation in their own words. Target those with a track record of ‘zoning out’. Put those who tend to switch off on the spot regularly and get them to tell you the first step they are going to take.

Use Razor-Sharp Instructions

Instructions inform students what to do. Here are simple tips for making your instruction clear and concise:

  1. Ensure that there is complete silence in the room, eyes are on you and all equipment is down before beginning. Be stubborn. Do not start until this is the case.
  2. Remind them that they are not to start working until you have finished speaking.
  3. Cut procedural instructions down into short, simple sequences. If you have any more than three or four points, consider breaking up the instructions into chunks so that they complete the first three before beginning on the next three.
  4. Start sentences with imperative verbs and use a firm tone: ‘Start by…’, ‘Think about…’, ‘Make sure you…’
  5. If possible, ensure that instructions are also projected or written on the board
  6. Field any questions
  7. Ask a student or two to repeat the instructions again
  8. Once started, alert the class to one or two who are following the instructions quickly and accurately with simple, “Thank you, Paul. Thank you, Laura”

Bring the Room to Life

You could begin by making links with your immediate environment. For example:

  1. Features of the Physical Environment. Help the students to visualise ideas by making analogies with the physical world of the classroom.
  2. Link People to Concepts. Statistics, numbers and percentages tend to be quite difficult to picture. Use students as physical representations.
  3. Tableaux and Physical Re-enactments. Using students as physical representations can be great fun.
  4. Hypothetical Scenarios.