Involving Learners

Resources, ideas and prompts for discussion related to Explanation

Should students be involved all the time, and I need to teach to their style, right?

Dangerous, workload inducing myths have pervaded education for many years, and given rise to ‘active’, ‘engaging’, ‘fun’, ‘action-packed’ and ‘enjoyable’ lessons prepared just because we thought that students must always be doing something. Furthermore that we should tailor our delivery to a preferred learning style (this belief remains persistent!). At this point it is important to dispel the myths and with the evidence base to back it up, this is done clearly within a 2014 publication by Coe et al., ‘What Makes Great Teaching? Review of the underpinning research’ on behalf of The Sutton Trust (you can download the entire publication here) and extracts are below. Doing something therefore can, to good effect, be listening to a carefully crafted explanation from a teacher, and of course we can add ‘interactive’ elements like questions and use of analogies but ultimately we should not underestimate that learning and memory is linked to what our students are thinking about.

From: Coe, R. and Aloisi, C. and Higgins, S. and Major, L.E. (2014) ‘What makes great teaching? review of the
underpinning research.’,
Project Report. Sutton Trust, London. (the citations mentioned can be found at the bottom of this page)

So how can explanations be interactive or encourage active engagement?

Various techniques discussed in this section have alluded to learners responding to questions, or being involved in physical analogies, or sharing their anecdotes with those of the teacher to enrich the explanation. However, here are more suggestions to make the passive listening more ‘active’:

  • Communicating your body language: your movement and where you position yourself in the room, your delivery, your facial expressions and eye-contact all encourage students to be more active in their listening.
  • Passion for what you are sharing: without wanting to sound cheesy, if you deliver your lines in a manner that suggests they are of great importance then it is more likely what you are saying will be viewed as important. Create the atmosphere by varying your tone and emotion, and never ever say “this bit is dead boring but we have to cover it because of the exams”.
  • Repeat after me: after you have finished your main message or points, ask learners to repeat back the main message of the explanation in their words. Go for those who notoriously ‘switch off’ – calling on them like this over time and giving them this encouragement should make them realise that they need to remain on track in future (this technique also works with modelling or demonstrations where teachers have demonstrated entire sequences of practical tasks without saying a word, and asked students to provide the running narrative of what is being done or repeat it back at the end).

When is it suitable for students to explain to each other?

There are many ways teachers hand over the explanation baton to learners, and most commonly it occurs as part of group tasks or group work discussion. One such example is ‘Home and Expert’ groups which is likely familiar; a student will leave their home base table to go and listen to an explanation from an ‘expert’ on another table based on a printed sheet or computer research, and they then come back and teach the rest. We then hope that all students will have taught each other, while we spoke little, and they were very ‘active’. The big issue with delegating such responsibility to students if this is done early on to share new information is that they will rarely, if ever, be experts at this point and it often introduces a whole host of gaps in knowledge around the room and we are probably less sure of what those gaps are and with whom.

Instead, if we build in opportunities for peer explanation after we have explained first then collaborative work could be very useful, and that includes using ‘Home and Expert’ activities:

  • Explaining what they understand in pairs or groups can allow learners to rephrase new material in their own words. They also get to rehearse it and repeat it.
  • Elaboration is a good way of learning new concepts, so students could explain the new idea and also how it links or follows on from other concepts covered before.
  • There is value in a learner who then understands something well to explain it to a peer who may be a little uncertain (this is common place).

All of the above allow students to practise and use their academic language, with talk focused on learning in and amongst various combinations of the class. On the final bullet point above, there is some interesting evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation T&L Toolkit showing that student-to-student tutoring can be effective in this way, especially when older and younger learners are paired together (we see this when members of the Sixth Form volunteer to support a GCSE stage peer, but it can work at other levels too).

Associated further reading and references: