Three Tricks to Improve Explanations

How do we help our students to make insightful use of academic content? How can we support students in confidently accessing more abstract ideas and applying these to their understanding? How can we ensure that students are able to engage with concepts that challenge them beyond the pragmatic foundations and into the loftier realms of theoretical evaluation?  In this week’s teaching and learning forum, Andy Tharby explores how we can support students in achieving these ideals with three tricks for improving explanations.

  1. Make use of what your students already know.

By activating their prior knowledge, you will be helping students to make explicit the scaffolding that they already have in place (but check for misconceptions – see trick 2 below). Students can then use this framework to attach and organise more conceptual ideas and principles, and to build their theoretical structures. There are multiple methods for making links to students’ prior knowledge, for example explicit teaching of key vocabulary before exploring new concepts.

As well as making obvious links to what students already know, using metaphor and analogy is also an effective way of activating prior knowledge. For examplewebmedia, when teaching Blake’s challenging and highly equivocal image of ‘mind-forg’d manacles’, English teacher Tod Brennan uses the analogy of your inner police officer to help his students grasp the sophisticated notion of socially inflicted inhibitions that have been absorbed by the self. The shape of the curriculum is also a crucial part of this explanatory process – does the structure allow for concepts to lead naturally from one to the other, so that there are solid hooks from which students can attach new ideas?

  1. Make your explanation persuasive.

Explanation is persuasion in more ways than one. Firstly, in order for explanations to work students have to trust that what you are saying is true, and that you are a credible source. This is all part of the essential relationship building between teacher and student, and for it to be successful you need secure subject knowledge and more than one convincing example in your armoury.

Another crucial part of your persuasive explanation is to tackle misconceptions head on, as these are very difficult to eradicate once they are part of a student’s knowledge. Annette Taylor explores the pedagogical technique of refutational teaching, which occurs in several stages. The first stage involves devising ways of testing the possible misconceptions that students already hold true – this is where secure subject knowledge is key. In the second stage the students learn the accurate facts before the teacher openly addresses the misconception. Next, the refutation: The teacher tells the students “why wrong is wrong” without dwelling on the misconception for too long and risk making it more familiar than the accurate facts. Instead, students fill the void created by the refutation through repetition of “what is right”. In the final stage, the student is inoculated through discussion of incorrect ideas they may encounter as a result of the misconception.

How might this look in practice?

A common misconception in English is the belief that every adverb ends in ‘-ly’. In the refutational model, we would begin tackling this misconception through stating that adverbs modify adjectives and verbs. We may then give examples of adverbs that end in ‘-ly’, for example unfortunately, as well as adverbs that do not, for example rather. Next, we would explain that “some people believe that all adverbs end in ‘–ly’ but this is wrong” before swiftly moving on to give more examples of adverbs with non’-ly’ endings. In the final inoculation stage, we might pose the question ‘Why might someone incorrectly believe that very is not an adverb?’

  1. Provide time for self-explanation

Often, asking students to explain ideas independently occurs too early in the learning experience. The result is poor quality and superficial understanding. A more productive model would involve teachers firstly delivering input about the new concepts with multiple examples. Students then use structured talk to explain the ideas in their own words, thus allowing them time for self-explanation and the opportunity to apply the new ideas to their existing concrete knowledge. For example, in a recent English lesson in which students were exploring the character Inspector Goole from Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’, Andy presented the class with four theories about who Inspector Goole could be before pairing students up to explain the ideas to each other, followed by independent writing.

In summary, the key to successful explanation of more abstract ideas lies in finding concrete examples to support the tricky parts of learning. An easy way for all teachers to find such examples is to read widely around your subject area and borrow the explanations offered by others, thereby enriching your students’ understanding as well as your own.

Further Reading

Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel T Willingham, Chapter 4.

What happens when we teach literary interpretations as facts by Andy Tharby

Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology

Posted by Fran Haynes

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