Editorial - I demand an explanation

17th January 2014 at 00:00

Franois Hollande, president of France, attempted to explain himself this week. Under pressure over an alleged affair, he claimed it was a private matter and said he would not reveal details out of, ahem, "respect for those involved". That was, at the time of writing, the extent of his explanation.

Many will say this is not an explanation at all. But how do they know? What evidence can they provide?

The effectiveness of an explanation is very difficult to quantify. And explanations are incredibly subjective: what suffices for one person leaves another in the dark.

For example, some reports suggested that Hollande's alleged affair and so- called explanation had led to a small but surprising rise in approval ratings among female French voters. For them, apparently, his explanation was perfectly acceptable.

Explanation is an issue that Greg Ashman considers this week. He says that few in education ever really question whether a teacher is good at explaining things, or what makes a good explanation in the first place.

He suggests that this may be down to a belief that teachers are facilitators who enable students to form their own explanations. Yet teachers still have to explain what they want a class to do and how, and they have to step in when a student doesn't understand.

Others believe that a good teacher, as judged by results, is necessarily a good explainer. But, as Ashman writes, that argument can be problematic, too. You can't judge a teacher's skill by results or by asking a student, as it is difficult to assess whether the student truly understands a concept or is merely regurgitating a learned process or view. And a further debate then ensues: is the teacher still good at explanation if the student can only regurgitate?

For a minority of educators, this ambiguity fits nicely into their view of teaching as some sort of dark art, an indefinable ability you either have or don't have. Don't try to explain explanation, they say, it's simply something that good teachers can do.

But teaching is no dark art. Yes, some people are predisposed to being good at it, but it is false - and can be damaging - to claim that teaching is an innate ability that cannot itself be taught.

Just as we can help every student to be better, we can help every teacher to be better - and every teacher should recognise that they can improve. That goes for explanation, too. Clarity, the ability to view an issue from many perspectives, the capacity to adjust vocabulary and metaphor to suit an audience - these are all teachable skills that lie at the heart of being able to explain something.

It is still impossible to prove, of course, that it is these skills that make for "good" explanations. But by acknowledging the importance of explanation and by teaching these skills, we can at least have confidence that we are working towards creating a profession that's better at explaining itself.

And that is an aim that a certain Monsieur Hollande would be advised to share.



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