2. Explanation

Resources, ideas and prompts for discussion related to Explanation

So that…pupils acquire new knowledge and skills through delivery.

What is Explanation and why is it important?

In some literature it has been suggested that explanation as a pedagogical skill has become less fashionable (than say questioning and feedback) and even frowned upon due to the apparent criticism of ‘teacher-talk’ being dull and didactic. Others argue (including in ‘Making Every Lesson Count’), and rightfully so, that high quality teacher-talk and explanation can be one of the first steps in facilitating an ethos of excellence and promoting the conditions for learners to progress.

An interesting, and growing body of evidence, supports the claim that teacher-led instruction is more effective than asking students to discover new knowledge and skills for themselves (see study by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, 2006, ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work’). This is reinforced by the findings of John Hattie in ‘Visible Learning’, through a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses, that along with feedback the classroom strategies linked to affording teacher explanation a central role have a higher impact on learning than many others.

In general the best explanations can often be defined as:

  • Being tethered or linked to something the learners already know about.
  • Being introduced in short, manageable increments – enabling the limited capacity of working memory to hold on to the new ideas.
  • Aiming to transform an abstract idea in a more concrete one – that craft of taking the complex and making it simple (without losing any necessary difficulty!).

How can we make what we teach, ‘stick’?

Allison and Tharby draw on the work of Chip and Dan Heath (authors of ‘Made to Stick’) who claim to have blueprinted a ‘stick-ability’ plan from analysing all sorts of endeavours, from all sorts of walks of life. They looked at what was it that made some ideas/initiatives leave a lasting impression and remain with you, finding a way into your longer term memory. They suggest the recipe for success can be applied to a variety of contexts and teaching is one of them, in terms of trying to impart knowledge through explanation and it being remembered:

‘Made to Stick’ traitWhat it means for explanations
SimpleChoose the core concepts that need to be best understood, communicate these. Link them to what students already know.
UnexpectedGenerate student curiosity by highlighting and opening up the gaps in their knowledge during the explanation.
ConcreteProvide an opportunity for students to do or experience something that makes the concept more meaningful and real.
CredibleProvide an opportunity for students to see of experience something that makes the concept believable.
EmotionalMake students react to an explanation; with empathy, sympathy, or aspiration for example.
StoryProvide a story linked to the concept – especially if the concept has a human/personal element.
Chip and Dan Heath’s S.U.C.C.E.S model of getting ideas to ‘stick’.

A good explanation will rarely, if ever, include all of the above, but will often include a selection of them. The pages in this section include ideas and strategies that draw from the S.U.C.C.E.S points.

Translating our expertise is the key

Underpinning it all is the quality of a teacher’s subject knowledge but we sometimes have to take care to not allow our expertise to run away with us or we lose the clarity, the simplicity of the message and make assumptions about the knowledge our classes do/do not possess to be able to understand what we are talking about. A great example of this in Chapter 2 of ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ is the explanation from Biology about water potential:

Water will diffuse from a region of high water potential to a region of lower water potential, and the steeper the water potential gradient the greater the tendency for water to diffuse in this direction. We can practically define water potential as the capacity of a system to lose water.

Example of teacher expertise – imagine this is all that is shared and we left it at that.

So what is the issue? It sounds impressive. It is technically accurate. However, no matter how impressed we might be with this, or the Biology teacher ‘expert’ would be with this, consider the vocabulary demands and expectations that have to be assumed: diffuse, molecules, region, gradient… The ‘science and art’ of teaching here, and the point about explanations, is to be able to unpick any barriers to understanding (in this case the essential key words). Allison and Tharby suggest that this is why explanation is one of the most difficult pedagogical skills to master and get right, as you need to re-imagine and reformulate your own expert knowledge into manageable and teachable material. You are the master builder with a ready made palace of knowledge at your disposal, but this needs to be deconstructed to its constituent bricks, mortar and steels and handed over to your apprentice builders a few parts at a time, so that they can piece things back together with understanding and meaning.

The pages in this section explore some approaches and techniques to develop explanations. As far as a holistic view is concerned, explanations are also further enhanced by modelling techniques and with questioning.

Associated further reading and references:

  • ‘Chapter 2: Explanation’, in Allison, S. and Tharby, A., 2017. Making Every Lesson Count. Carmarthen: Crown House.
  • Paul A. Kirschner , John Sweller & Richard E. Clark (2006) Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching, Educational Psychologist, 41:2, 75-86
  • Heath, C. and Heath, D., 2010. Made To Stick. New York: Random House. https://heathbrothers.com/books/made-to-stick/