Excellent Explanations (Part 1)

Excellent Explanations Part

In this first of a series of blog posts, I want to argue for the power of accurate, clear and efficient teacher explanations in the learning process and why they are so important.

Teaching is Explaining: A lesson learnt

Part way through my first year of teaching I delivered a maths lesson on equivalent fractions. I gave my pupils a starter task to see what they knew, which turned out to be nothing at all. Then I chose to explain the learning for the day (with what I thought was intricate detail) and asked a fatal question to thin air:

“So, has everybody got that?”

One of my quite frustrating but exceptionally bright female pupils raised her hand, smiled sweetly and waited for me to acknowledge her. I expected her to ask when she could start the task; instead, she said:

“Sir, you know all the stuff you just said about whatever you’re talking about? I didn’t get a word. You could have just said it in Spanish”

The class laughed and nodded, it was clear they all agreed. This was definitely one of the worst moments of my teaching career to date.

Why did this hurt me so bad? Why did it matter so much to my practice? Until a few months ago, I didn’t realise how important what I say about the learning I am trying to impart to my pupils is; I failed to actually teach them anything. After this heart breaking experience, I’ve realised that without quality explanations that make knowledge and understanding plain to all pupils, teaching is entirely useless – we might as well just let our pupils figure it out themselves. At its core, I believe that teaching is explaining, which means that excellent teaching requires excellent explanations.

A simple argument for excellent explanations

“Obviously, speaking is good for the speaker, but when you have whole class discussions, a lot of the time, what students are listening to is other students, who don’t generally know as much about the topic as the teacher. When you look at things from this perspective, it is easy to see why teacher talk is so important.”

Dylan Wiliam

(I got this quote from this post…i’ll be talking more about it in my next piece.)

This is my simple claim: when learning new content, pupils need someone who knows that new content really well to explain it to them clearly so that they can learn it. Teachers, by nature of their role, know what this new content is; they hopefully know it really well. Therefore, teachers should explain new content accurately to pupils so that they can learn. I define ‘explanation’ as the process by which a teacher describes the content that the pupil needs to learn verbally and visually.

Expanding on what Wiliam has said in the quote above, if pupils don’t learn new content from their teacher with clear and detailed explanations, the obvious significant other who might do this job in our classrooms is their peers. Therefore, the possibility of them learning new content inaccurately, or more likely wrong, become far higher. Let’s take a classroom example to explain this further.

Screen Shot 2018-02-23 at 17.51.14

Example of a worked example I have used, taken from White Rose Maths Hubs.

In a lesson on three or four digit by two digit multiplication using the column method, it is essential as a teacher that I explain the significance of the zero in the first column when answering. Not to mention all of the nuts and bolts of the procedural knowledge that goes into making sure every step is performed with precision. If I fail to explain each process properly, there is a lot that could go wrong, allowing more pupils to make mistakes. If as a teacher I let pupils explain this to each other without them receiving adequate support, I am doing a few bad things. Firstly, my pupils might be learning it wrong, what’s to stop a pupil from telling them to add rather than subtract if they are unsure of the content or have never seen this before? Secondly, they might not be giving them the most accurate understanding of the learning that is needed. What if pupils forget about the carried digits?

With all due respect, allowing pupils, who prior to the lesson knew nothing or very little, to explain where to put digits to be carried in a compact calculation and why it is important is a pedagogical skill, not something I’d expect a nine year old to be able to achieve at such an early stage. Later on in the learning process it is invaluable for pupils to explain to each other but I believe new content must be learnt from someone who knows the new content well: the teacher.

Why are excellent explanations important in teaching?

Now we’ve established that for new content, other pupils are not an adequate source of learning, it’s important to consider why excellent explanations are so important. Quite simply it’s the simplest, easiest and most effective way to get pupils where they need to go in their learning. The simplest way for students to learn is for them to be taught lesson content through verbal and visual means. Clearing out the lesson clutter and just telling students what they need to know and how they need to practice it is simple to plan for as a teacher and easy for pupils to associate with learning (i.e. when Sir tells me this is what I need to know for my learning today at the start of the lesson, I need to listen…). Tom Sherrington, in this short but insightful post makes this point clear as he describe his feedback to lots of teachers on his travels:

“teach students something they don’t know – or don’t know how to do – and then check they know it/can do it”

Furthermore, when we approach explanations in this way, we allow more time for the deepening of that learning to occur. This is because if we tell pupils what they need to know and how they ought to do it early on in a lesson, they can practice the knowledge or skill until they are fluent and then move on to deeper more open-ended tasks where they can apply what they have learnt within the extra lesson time that has been gained. If pupils are left to their own devices to discover what the learning is for that lesson, they waste precious time trying to figure out what they ought to learn that day – or even not learning anything.

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