Self Explanation Bright Spots

In his research school blog Chris Runeckles (Blog) discusses the challenges of implementing self-explanation effectively into everyday classroom practice. There is no doubt that when used effectively self-explanation has the potential to promote greater progress than the more traditional approach of using teacher or exercise book explanations. The theory of self-explanation suggests that it is advantageous to learning to give students the opportunity to explain the meaning of new material or how they have come to answers/solutions themselves.  Such a definition seems to align itself with the work of Coe who questions depth of learning if students do not care evaluate their understanding, as long as they can correctly answer the questions/problems posed to them.

This week I have had the pleasure of observing lessons within the Geography department at Durrington, ranging from year 7 to year 11 lessons. This is always a fantastic experience and one from which I always take a lot, however this week was particularly useful with this blog in mind due to the number of self-explanation opportunities I observed.

Sam Atkins (Deputy Leader of Geography) was discussing the reasons behind changes in population structure as a country develops. The lesson culminated in the year 9 students attempting an exam style questions to “describe and explain” the changes in the demographic transition model. Before students began their answer, they engaged in a metacognitive deconstruction of the question. Exam question deconstruction can regularly become a surface learning activity with questions such as “what is the command word?” With very simple closed responses that require no elaboration. Instead Sam asked more challenging questions such as “what phrases would you use in this answer” and when given responses such as “this means that”, he asked students to justify their choices with reference to the meaning of the command words. Similarly he gave them alternative approaches, such as making 6 points for a 6 mark question and asked the students to explain why such an approach would be inappropriate. The subsequent responses not only showed strong subject knowledge but also a high level of understanding of the demands of the question. Most importantly Sam avoided the temptation to explain student responses back to the class, rather making it clear that unqualified/non-justified responses would require the student to self-explain. Sam prompted when students struggled but at no point to did he hijack the explanation unless there was a clear misconception developing.

In another lesson I was observing our PGCE student with a group of year 7 students, in this lesson students had begun the lesson with a low stake quiz that was using a combination of closed answer questions and MCQ’s to encourage retrieval practice. When going through the answers Katrina was focusing on her Socratic questioning to support her elaborative interrogation of student responses, using probing question such as “how do you know this?” Such questioning naturally encourages students to explain their responses, and when students had made a mistake on a MCQ not only did Katrina ensure all students had the correct response but she explained why, before then asking the student who had initially answered incorrectly to explain why their initial answer was wrong and why the correct answer was so. It must be remembered that when using MCQ it is imperative that incorrect answers are clearly identified and the reasons for them being wrong is clearly understood to prevent misconceptions becoming embedded.

Finally I observed Hannah Townsend with a year 8 class who again began their lesson with a low stake quiz that was challenging students to retrieve information from previous learning units. When going through answers Hannah was asking students to relate questions and responses to previous learning – for example when students had correctly answered questions regarding the impacts of climate change, Hannah then asked students to explain how such a theory could be linked to population density change in rural Kenya that they had studied previously. The self-explanation given by students to explain the potential links between these two topics, encouraged students to think hard about the content and more importantly showed an excellent understanding of how the curriculum knitted together and their understanding of this.

Self- explanation, as Chris concisely puts it, is an approach very vulnerable to poor interpretation/implantation, over simplification and misconceptions. However from just a few observations I can also clearly see how it can be used to challenge student thinking and allow for greater formative assessment of student understanding.

Posted by Ben Crockett


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