A significant part of a teacher’s job is to explain things that they know and understand in such a way that their pupils might also come to know and understand them. This sounds simple, but to do it well takes time, thought and practice.
Unfortunately, despite its importance, in 14 years of teaching it has never been something that I have received direct training on. Instead, like most teachers I have spoken to, I have had to find my way through trial and error.
Because I have been at it for some time now, I think I have discovered some rules to live by in the classroom. So these are my five steps to improved explanation. I would love to hear yours, too.
Step one: Know your stuff
The first hurdle in a good explanation is a lack of knowledge in what is being explained. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen a teacher try to explain something like atmospheric circulation that they haven’t fully grasped themselves. It is not enough to just keep one page ahead of the class – you need to check that your own knowledge is deep enough that you can talk around the subject. You also need to know the subject well enough to pre-empt misconceptions, identify difficult concepts and work out how to order the explanation. All of this needs a secure knowledge of the subject.
Step two: Prepare
In Mining for Gold: Stories of Effective Teachers, the author Fergal Roche considers great teachers he has encountered throughout his life. One thing that he mentions is teachers coming to lessons well-prepared, with notes for their explanation. When you are explaining the same thing year after year, this may not be necessary. I can explain the idea of convection currents in the theory of plate tectonics with minimal planning. But when you introduce something new, it is worth considering very carefully how you will explain it.
Step three: Question
When you watch excellent teachers at work you see them constantly question their class. They ask questions to check that everyone is listening, that everyone has understood, to connect this topic to a previous one and to ensure that misconceptions are being addressed. They target their questions based on their knowledge of their class and adapt their explanation according to the answers they get.
Step four: Avoid diversions and distractions
This step has always been hardest for me. As Peps Mccrea explains in his book Memorable Teaching, good explanations stay on track. It is hard for pupils to keep the narrative of the explanation in their heads if there are constant tangents and incidental information added in. Novices find it more difficult to identify what information is important and what isn’t than experts. Keep to what matters.
Step five: Support working memory
If your explanation includes a lot of new information, make sure you are making it memorable. You can do this by hooking it onto things pupils already know, including notes that can be referred to afterwards when they apply what they have been told to their own work – such as a flow diagram of the key information – or by utilising the principles of dual coding. The latter suggests that we can take information in through both auditory and visual channels. Therefore, a verbal explanation can be improved with the use of visual prompts. If you want to see this in action, visit a geography classroom where you will usually see the teacher darting backwards and forwards to the board to draw diagrams to show geographical processes that support their explanation.
Teacher explanation may be the most important – and yet most neglected – tool that we have in the classroom. By giving as much thought to planning what we say to pupils as to the activities we ask them to complete, we can make a significant difference to their learning – and therefore their understanding of our subjects.
Mark Enser is head of geography at Heathfield Community College and blogs at teachreal.wordpress.com