How can we improve our explanations?
Teachers have to do a lot of explaining and that is a complicated business. To get better at explaining we need to analyse what we say and how we say it. So what are the key skills that all teachers need to know when explaining?
In its simplest form explaining is giving understanding to another person. The cognitively demanding bit is understanding. Explanations have power and can affect us intellectually, imaginatively, emotionally, aesthetically, physically and transformationally.
1. Provide a dynamic starting point
Every lesson needs to start with a bang not a whimper. An explanation will be memorable by capturing interest and engaging from the outset. Recapping the last lesson is not going to provide the fireworks – that can wait until after you have got everyone’s attention.
2. Define the key terms or concepts
The language of the lesson is key and any key terms or concepts have to be clearly defined or there will be frowns and confused faces lost in the wilderness.
3. Link the explanation with concrete experience
Providing real experiences helps things to be understood so always aim to build in the concrete. If its real then it heightens the impact and gives what you are saying an actual pulse.
4. Use examples and exceptions
If you can’t draw on something personal or real world then lively examples can be injected into your explanations to illustrate what is being said. Anything that can give students a mental map is important.
5. Build in tasks
You can explain all you want but without students actually doing something they won’t ‘get it’. Giving everyone a purposeful activity punctuates your explanation and involves the learners in the learning process. They’ve got to be active!
6. Introduce and use technical language
Every subject has its lingo and so opportunities have to be given for students to use specific words and phrases. Never skip over the meaning of a word or a term or say you will come back to it.
7. Use connectives to enhance meaning
This is like teaching grandmother to suck eggs but it’s worth remembering the power of putting connectives into explanations to make explanations clearer and add emphasis. They help the continuity and progression of an explanation and put ‘flesh on the bones’ of it.
8. Exploit linguistic ploys
Lingusitic ploys add character and clarity to what you are saying. They act as signposts on the route to understanding. Examples include:
- The first point I want to make is…
- Now this is an important point so listen in….
- Pay extra special attention to this part…
- I’ll take these points in sequence…
- That’s the definition so let me tell you how it works…..
9. Use repetition and emphasis
Repetition is important because we don’t always ‘take in’ what is said the first time so repetition is important! Combined with vocal emphases, repetition brings an explanation to life and helps tattoo it in our minds.
10. Adopt an appropriate pace
Go to fast and you will lose everyone. Go too slow and students will start to play up. The pace of what we are saying can be altered for effect and a mixture of speeds is desirable but has to be married to the audience.
11. Use numbered points
When we speak in numbers then we are offering students a verbal list which helps them to layer what you are saying. For example, using the words, Firstly, Secondly, Thirdly etc are there to provide stepped thinking.
12. Use humour
Humour can be distracting and harmful to learning if used in excess but the clever use of language can help make something ‘stick’. This isn’t about telling jokes but using word play, puns, wit and adding dramatic emphasis to bring something to life and keep it alive in the minds of the listeners.
13. Link the explanation to other knowledge
Knowledge never exists in isolation or stands by itself guarded by spikes like a conker in a shell. Knowledge is always part of something bigger and so the connections need to be made. Knowledge is never discrete and separate from other knowledge so this is the opportunity to make links and go cross-curricular.
14. Build in the feedback loop
When teachers talk they start to get in the zone and talk too much. Teaching is not a monologue and so we have to be sensitive to the needs of students and get their feedback. Students need their own feedback too. We must build-in activities to help students assess their own understanding and ask questions of us so we can gather intelligence on how students are learning.
15. Take account of the audience
Making professional judgements about an audience is a skill. Any explanation has to be made up of material that everyone in the class can access and also capture the minds and challenge of those students perhaps one step ahead.
16. Raise the cognitive stakes of explanations
The intellectual success of an explanation involves raising the bar. Teachers need to move from the ‘data explanations’ that involve the transmission of factual knowledge, to ‘concept explanations’ which consist of considering reasons, explanations and causes to ‘abstract explanations’ consisting of rules and principles.
17. Sustain fluency and defeat mannerisms
Accessibility is key and being fluent in what you are saying is going to support understanding. Any uncertainty will shut-down interest and engagement. Likewise, any annoying habits and mannerisms are going to get in the way of learning and so need to be eliminated.
18. Use stimuli
Explanations can be improved by the intelligent use of stimuli such as props and audio-visual resources. These serve as powerful mental images and help students build understanding. They should be used but just not too much. Some can be helpful, some a distraction.
19. Provide a summary
A lesson can be left dangling in mid-air but this can cause confusion. Providing a summary is essential so that the key points can be pulled together as well as adding a new point and therefore setting up interest for the next lesson.