Developing Good Explanations/Document

From OER in Education

Characteristics of good explanations

Good explanations have a number of common features. A teacher will employ any number and combination of them according to the purpose of the explanation, the nature of the topic and the learning needs of the pupils. The most common features are

  • clear structure;
  • key features identified;
  • dynamic opening;
  • clarity – using voice and body;
  • signposting;
  • examples and non-examples;
  • model and analogy;
  • props;
  • questions;
  • connections to pupils’ experience;
  • repetition;
  • humour.

Clear structure All successful explanations have a clear and logical structure to them, using words, images and analogies that pupils understand and well-chosen examples to illustrate key features. So when starting an explanation you might first check that pupils understand the key words that will be used, then proceed through the explanation by breaking it down into distinct parts, illustrating it with an example if needed before moving on. For instance, when explaining methods for calculating with fractions, you might explain a method, illustrate it with an example, then move on to the next method, hence creating a chain of method, example, method, example, and so on.

Key features identified When planning explanations it is important to identify those key ingredients that aid understanding. Brown and Armstrong (1984) termed these ‘keys’. A key could be a central principle, a generalisation, an example or an analogy that would ‘unlock’ understanding. They found that teachers who were most effective explainers used more keys and more types of key than other teachers. Complex explanations, such as an abstract concept like democracy, rely on the joining together of a number of such keys. So, for instance, an explanation of democracy might include examples, an analogy, a visual depiction, comparison with other forms of government etc., and all of these components would have to be linked in a logical sequence. The trick is to recognise those features that could unlock understanding.

Dynamic opening Explanations benefit from a start that grabs interest and attention. Wragg and Brown (2001) refer to them as the ‘tease’ or the ‘hook’. They include the example of ‘In a minute I’m going to tell you why my uncle can’t eat raspberries and walnuts any more’, as a tease for explaining how to avoid dental decay. They draw the parallel with radio and TV programmes which start with quirky summaries of the items to keep you listening.

The hook can be a startling fact that is not obviously connected to the topic, an unusual way of representing the topic, a personal story or a connection to pupils’ lives.

When introducing an explanation on: Possible tease or hook
plate tectonics Soon I’m going to tell you why it might be more dangerous to holiday in San Francisco than Dallas.
size and number of molecules Do you realise it is a strong probability that you have drunk water that was also drunk by Elizabeth I?
infinite series in mathematics I am going to prove to you that Saint Sebastian actually died of fright (with reference to Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers).
twelve-bar blues in music How many of you like xxx (a current pop song) and yyy (a different pop song)? Well you can play these and many others with just three chords – want to know how?

Clarity – using voice and body The voice can sound monotonous and dull, or varied and engaging. There are many ways in which intonation of the voice and the use of body language can emphasise certain points and maintain pupils’ interest. Varying pitch and speed, slowing down perhaps to illustrate a key point, can sometimes help. Hands can obviously be used to point, gesture and emphasise. However, minor aspects of body language can also be important, especially to visual learners.

A teacher was once challenged by his pupils to sit on his hands for the whole lesson. He accepted the challenge but gave in after ten minutes. He found that being unable to use his hands badly affected his ability to explain things; he even felt that his memory was not working properly and he could not think what he wanted to say. You might also need to be careful about body language when talking to pupils. For example, standing in front of pupils with folded arms can give rise to negative responses (see unit 18 Improving the climate for learning).

Signposting Important parts of the explanation can be signalled with such phrases as

  • ‘what is really important to understand …’;
  • ‘we are going to go through the three stages in this process: first …’;
  • ‘to summarise what we have been talking about …’.

This will help the pupil to recognise the key points and also to follow the sequence of the explanation.

Examples and non-examples Examples are crucial in explanations, especially in establishing understanding of concepts or principles. Examples will help others understand a situation or idea; more than one example, linked to everyday experience, is very useful to illustrate a point. However, non-examples can be just as important in establishing the boundary of an idea or concept. So in explaining what an insect is, using the example of an ant and a bee will be important (perhaps with a visual aid), but so will the use of spiders as a non-example. There are several possible patterns for using examples in explanations

  • example, non-example, rule/definition, example;
  • example, rule/definition, non-example;
  • rule/definition, example, non-example.

This idea of providing pupils with examples and non-examples and asking them to work out the concept or rule, is considered to be a pedagogy in itself and is often referred to as ‘concept attainment’ (see unit 2 Teaching models).

Models and analogies Using models and analogies can help pupils to grasp an idea and visualise it. For instance, a three-dimensional model using ball-bearings could illustrate the kinetic theory of matter, or a plastic bag filled with water can model a cell. An example of an analogy is using the flow of water to represent the flow of electricity in a circuit.

Models and analogies help pupils to visualise

  • objects that are too big or too small to be seen clearly; e.g. the Earth or a cell;
  • processes that cannot easily be seen directly;
  • abstract ideas.

It is important to make sure that pupils understand the model or the analogy being used. They also need to be involved in discussing the strengths or weaknesses of the model or analogy.

Props A picture (perhaps from an ICT source), a concrete object or a demonstration can add to the power of an explanation as it captures attention and focuses pupils’ minds. Again it is useful for visual learners. For example, a balloon is a useful resource in geography for explaining air pressure differences. Giving pupils objects they can hold and examine also helps. For example, providing each pupil with a sedimentary rock will help when explaining characteristic features of the rocks.

Questions As can be seen in the following section on Connections to pupils’ experience, asking questions can be a very important ingredient in any explanation. Although asking open questions during an explanation can slow the explanation and may take it off-course, asking questions can help the teacher monitor the pupils’ understanding during an explanation and also help it to be more interactive, involving and interesting (see unit 7 Questioning). It is important to monitor understanding in explanations since misconceptions can be recognised, and dealt with by using further examples or by changing the pitch or direction of the explanation.

Connections to pupils’ experience Explanations often attempt to explain something completely new to pupils and use examples and props to aid understanding. Another useful skill is to activate pupils’ prior knowledge so that links between the new and the old can be made and the new ideas assimilated. So for instance, if there is to be an explanation of democracy, the teacher might first of all ask pupils what they know about how governments are elected and formed in this country. Or, when explaining the concept of insects, pupils could be asked what they already know about insects and this may well lead to the teacher being able to identify the sort of terminology that the pupils use (‘antenna’ or ‘feelers’) and any misconceptions or misunderstandings that they might have.

Repetition Allied to the use of linguistic signposts mentioned above, is the use of repetition. Repetition is an important ploy to emphasise a key point, idea or terminology. For example:

‘The important point that Lady Macbeth is making here …; the important point is …’

Whilst infrequent in written explanations, repetition is commonplace in spoken explanations as a means of emphasis.

Humour Humour helps to keep attention and may make some things easier to remember. For example, when explaining how to throw a ball up in the air to serve in tennis, you could add that you don’t throw the ball up miles – you don’t want it coming down with ice on! This adds something to an otherwise pedestrian remark.

Characteristics of explanations 20 minutes Using the observation sheet below as a prompt, identify the characteristics of explanations present in video sequence 8a. The teacher is providing explanations in a music lesson.

Which aspects of the explanations do you think particularly helped pupils develop their understanding? You may not find them all.

Subject of explanation:
Key features identified (tick) What are the key points or essential elements that will help pupils understand?
Clear structure
Key features identified
Dynamic opening
Clarity – using voice and body
Examples and non-examples
Models and analogies
Connections to pupils’ experience
In discussion with a colleague consider whether any other ingredients could be added to make any of the explanations more effective.

You could use this observation sheet to analyse your own or a colleague’s explanations