First posted on Tales From The Reach on 26 March 2019. This blog was written with Martyn Essery.
The next phase of The Reach Teach Toolkit will focus on knowledge, which includes explaining subject content and assessment skills to pupils. There are lots of ways we can explain things to pupils, but there are a few underpinning issues to be mindful of. These include:
- Remembering that you, the teacher, are the expert in the classroom;
- That it is up to you how you convey knowledge to pupils (you should have sound pedagogical skills);
- That generally, ‘Direct Instruction’ leads to better outcomes to ‘Enquiry/Discovery Based’ learning;
- That working memory is susceptible to cognitive overload;
- Being aware that some ways of explaining new content are better than others.
This blog will outline some key ways that could in enhance your explanations. You can read about ‘dual coding’, ‘concrete examples’ and ‘storytelling’ below. The is also a little bit on Andy Tharby and ‘excellent explanations’.
Dual coding is based around the idea that you should supplement auditory explanations of key content with corresponding and supporting visuals to aid understanding. However, It is not to be confused with ‘learning styles’ which become popular in the early 2000s, but has no evidence proving its efficacy. There is no doubt that people learn in different ways, but equally no evidence that matching instruction to someone’s preferred style works.
Importantly, picking the visuals to use is very important, and it is important that the same visual stimuli are used when retrieving knowledge in the future in order to make it stick. It is also important to bear in mind the principle of cognitive overload when explaining something new – not overloading working memory. So, whilst a slide like this is good to go back and review, when explaining for the first time it is better to have the simple image with the teacher’s verbal explanation.
In many subjects, pupils have to grapple with abstract ideas. These can often be theoretical as they exist in thought, but do not have a physical or concrete existence. Examples from various subjects include democracy (history, citizenship RE etc.), metaphor (English) and algebra (maths). These can be vague for pupils and, therefore, hard to comprehend when initially taught. Moreover, as theLearning Scientists point out on their website, human memory has evolved to better remember concrete information than abstract information.
For instance, our pupils’ understanding of democracy cannot be taken for granted. Democracy does not actually exist as a thing or an object. You cannot – technically – point a physical entity that sums up democracy in one go. However, it is an idea that it is acted out by people and becomes part of our way of life. Therefore, when explaining democracy to a class of pupils in KS1, KS2 or even KS3, a simple ‘concrete example’ of democracy can involve a vote amongst the pupils themselves. This allows the pupils to ‘see’ (or rather experience) the process of democracy itself. The same can be said for scientific experiments. It is one thing to talk pupils through a theoretical or abstract idea, it is another thing to show them ‘how it works’. The Learning Scientists explain this better than I with the concept of scarcity (click here).
Many neuroscientists and psychologists say the brain is hardwired to understand stories; and this is why stories can be a real boon when explaining things in the classroom. Importantly, a story is a series of connected events, real or imagined, shown in sequence via written or spoken words as well as through film and pictures. Educationalists often refer to narratives as a way of learning and there has been countless academic papers on the use of narrative in learning over the decades. However, the term ‘story’ suggests something a little more engaging than a simple chronological or ordered series of connected events.
English teacher Jordan Catapano suggests worthwhile storytelling strategies can include:
Sharing your own stories, just for fun – your trials and tribulations may inspire, engage and build positive relationships between you and your pupils. Obviously, they need to be appropriate and relevant to the context of the lesson or learning situation.
Using stories as introductions – an engaging story can be a great ‘hook’ into a lesson (this was advocated by Doug Lemov in the first edition of Teach Like A Champion. Ideally, they should be short and concise. The idea of a ‘narrative hook’ is also a tried and tested language device used in literature.
Use stories as illustrations – this could help make abstract ideas more concrete. A very basic example is Isaac Newton’s apple falling from a tree as an explanation of gravity. This story is a simple way to illustrate gravity, which – despite being fact – is still an abstract idea if explained without concrete examples.
Tie storytelling to learning goals – listening to stories engages focus and concentration. It can develop skills to make future explanations easier to comprehend and sit through without losing track of what is being said. However, this would need to be an explicit instruction.
Tell stories to engage reluctant learners – so long as the stories are engaging, they may appeal to those that would otherwise sit in class passively.
As part of the Toolkit’s focus on knowledge, we will borrow ideas from How to Explain Absolutely Anything to Absolutely Anyone by Andy Tharby in order to explore and improve our use of explanation in the classroom. We recommend borrowing or buying a copy of this (there are 12 reference copies in the staffroom CPD library). The book has been highlighted as it gives clear guidance regarding different aspects of explanation as well as plenty of suggestions for further reading. It covers many of the points made above in far more depth than a mere blog can. Another good book to use is Every Lesson Counts, which is also written by Tharby alongside Shaun Allison. In some ways, How to Explain Absolutely Anything to Absolutely Anyone is an expansion of several chapters in that book.
For instance, Tharby points to these key ideas for improving how we convey knowledge to our pupils:
- Punctuate your explanations with examples – using phrases such as ‘for instance’ and ‘such as’ will help pupils keep up when you are explaining abstract ideas.
- Add a few words of explanation after any technical term – e.g. “there was a plethora – which means a large amount – of options available”.
- Have another example up your sleeve – “I see some of you are still unsure, think of it like this…”
- Teach through opposites – “Remember it was x, not y, that caused…”
- Take the ‘temperature’ of the room regularly – target questions at those who don’t always put their hand up, and definitely don’t assume that because the five most vocal pupils in the class have got it, they all have. Regularly check for understanding, particularly if you are about to move on.
If you are too busy to read the whole book, we suggest reading the handout The Perfect Example (there are copies in the CPD library); this was discussed at our recent Friday afternoon INSET.
Knowledge in action
Now it is imperative that we use some (or all) of the ideas floated above in order to improve our own teaching. This is the plan for the next few weeks:
- Consider how you can adapt your explanations due to the curse of knowledge – what do you not do which you should do?
- Think about something you will be introducing over the next couple of weeks. Devise a perfect example through which you will illustrate the concept that you are teaching.
We will discuss your plans and findings in Tuesday morning Toolkit sessions – volunteers to share are most welcome!
Photo credit: featured image from Pixaby.com (used under a Creative Commons Licence).