6 Features of Excellent Explanations

My last post attempted to explain why excellent explanations are so important in teaching. In this post I will try to draw together the many brilliant things that have been said by others on the topic of explanations to try and see if there are features of this core teaching skill that cut across phases and stages of education. I’ve put the common strands of other bloggers thoughts into a table at the bottom of this post.

The ‘core message’ of this post is that the heart of good teaching is excellent explanations. It is impossible to be a good teacher without explaining learning well. As Tom Sherrington says: “On the reputational scale, there is no doubt that teachers who explain things well…accelerate the learning process for everyone through the clarity of the explanation”. So what are the features of this area of teaching practice? Here’s the six I’ve seen come up time and time again.

  1. Find the core of your message: keep it simple

 This first principle of excellent explanations resides in making what you want to say succinct, clear and high impact. When you strip everything away in your lesson plan, ask yourself: what is it that I want my pupils to learn? Answering this question in a brief and concise way is what it means to ‘find the core of your message’.

One danger here is to correlate ‘simple’ with ‘watered down’. It would be utterly wrong for us as teachers to water down the meaning of clause structure in grammar or the significance of not moving the decimal point while multiplying by 10, 100 or 1,000 in Maths. By ‘watering down’ learning, as teachers, we risk losing the knowledge and skill we are trying to impart. Instead, we must keep our message simple for each lesson by identifying the core of the learning and then considering carefully how we will share this core message in a meaningful way; this is what ‘simple’ means.

In my own personal experience, I have found this aspect of explanations the most challenging to start with. Particularly since different lessons require different sorts of explanations. For example, in a shared writing lesson where I am encouraging pupils to use relative clauses effectively, I am modelling how to apply procedural knowledge; in a Geography lesson discussing the continents of the world, I am imparting explicit knowledge. However, despite the different types of knowledge that I am giving my pupils, I have found that if I can answer the question: “what is the core of what I am trying to get them to learn today?” in a simple, succinct way, I’m not going to go far wrong

2.Make it concrete

When explanations use visuals and tangible objects, they are always more powerful. Even when pictures and objects aren’t used, explanations that use relatable examples in contexts are always more memorable for learners.

This sounds so simple yet due to our knowledge as teachers, it is easy to jump to abstract aspects of learning when explaining. In some lessons, being ‘abstract’ about learning is foolish: in P.E it would be wrong for you to talk through ‘inside foot passing’ in football without showing them concrete examples of how to do it with an actual football several times. The same goes for Art. If I was teaching pupils sketching and shading techniques in lesson, it is essential that they watch me, concretely use the stippling or cross-hatch technique before they do this themselves. The purpose of this second essential technique is that, all of our explanations, across every subject, should be made as concrete as possible. As time goes by, they may need to use pictorial representations. Once they feel confident, they can then understand abstract examples in far more detail. Move from concrete, to pictorial, to abstract as often as possible. This follows a heuristic put forward by Bruner (1965, 1966) and there is a lot of research evidence showing how this has helped young maths learners in other countries (Fan, 2012; Cowan, 2011).

What I mean by all of this can be explained using a primary Maths example.  When explaining equivalent fractions to a Year 3/4 class, I began by showing how a ‘whole’ can be a ‘whole’ bucket or ‘tennis ball’ etc, but fractions are parts of numbers and in Year 3 we need to understand the intricacies of these fractions and be confident with them. From that point, I asked all my pupils to use fraction blocks, counters and other things to show me how many equivalents of one half, one quarter, one eighth and so on they could find using all of the concrete resources that they had in front of them. This approach to fractions, especially early on, has massively paid off. The following days meant that we used simple pictorial representations of fractions, using the bar method or a fraction wall to support learners. From this, we then progressed to more abstract concepts, such as multiplying and dividing fractions. I believe that because I have approached this aspect of the Maths curriculum in this way, I have seen accelerated progress and deep understanding. Always start with concrete, if possible (Heddens, 1986; Case, 1996).

Making things concrete isn’t just suitable for primary Maths, Nick Rose writes about using marbles to represent particle arrangement in solids to connect the abstract with the concrete and Tom Sherrington talks about a disintegrating sandcastle as a model of entropy. Mel Scott and Jo Payne talk about how in English we can also use physical movement to teach things like punctuation (Kung Fu Punctuation) and writing (Talk for Writing), which is supported by lots of research conducted by Pie Corbett and Sadoski (2000). In my school, I always try to teach Geography with a globe in hand, when teaching space we always use as many concrete representations of the planets as we possibly can. The possibilities are endless with this and I think as teachers, particularly in the primary school, it’s really important for making learning as memorable as possible. Could this be a challenge at GCSE or A Level? Personally, I don’t think so but I’m willing to be corrected about those age groups.

3.Use analogies

Put simply, this is when during an explanation, you compare the learning by comparing it to an example that students will already know about. As Nick Rose puts it in his focus on science: “Many aspects of science are difficult for students to learn because they relate to objects or processes we cannot (easily) see or compete with ‘common-sense’ theories (misconceptions) that children already possess.”

At a primary level, I think there is definitely a place for analogies in science and I have definitely been able to put this into practice in my own teaching. When teaching properties of materials, it’s been helpful to use the children as ‘atoms’ to move around a space in a range of ways so that they can kinaesthetically feel what atoms experience when they are in different states of matter.

One caveat for this aspect of excellent explanations:

At primary level, it’s essential that students understand metaphors and similes first and foremost before using analogy in explanations. This is because there is always a danger of them remembering more about the thing that the learning is being compared to than the actual learning itself (Willingham talks about this in this book and in other research). To make this feature of explanations work to your advantage, students need schemas built up in their long term memory of the things that you are comparing the learning to in order for them to assimilate this new knowledge accurately…

4.Use examples

I want to distinguish between modelling and examples here. When we ‘model’, we are showing how to do a particular skill or how to apply a new piece of knowledge in practice. This is an absolutely essential part of the teaching process and cannot be underestimated. However, this post is about explanations – so where do examples fit into this?

Well, I think that examples as part of explanations can be defined as the application of the factual or propositional knowledge being taught to a range of contexts before it is modelled. Often, the purposes of this is so that students will be able to identify the learning clearly. I’ll use an example to make my point clear. If I was to teach so that my pupils can understand nouns, I will need to tell them what a noun is (definition). But then, it is essential that I show where, when, how and why a noun will be used (examples). At this point I’m not modelling how to use a noun in a sentence, I am just getting students to identify them in a context. We could say the same for teaching fractions. This time, it’s helpful to use the concrete, pictorial and abstract model to explain this effectively. Say, in a maths lesson, that I’m teaching equivalent fractions and showing a range of equivalents of one half. I’d start by telling students what a half is, using all the vocabulary associated with it. Then I’d show them a concrete half (blocks, pies, pizzas, fruits), then a picture (bar method, circles etc) then I’d show them the abstract representation: ½. This would hopefully take pupils through all of the ways of knowing a half from concrete to abstract, setting them up well to be able to interpret the modelling and then apply this in practice.

Two more things that are helpful about explaining learning using examples. Firstly, it makes the explanation more concrete. When you use the example of the learning in question in a context, it is more likely to be remembered. For example, if I am teaching the conversion of the noun ‘drama’ into the verb ‘dramatize(d)’ it’s helpful for students to hear this word in context before they use it (‘we will watch a ‘dramatized version of Goodnight Mister Tom tomorrow’). Second, by getting pupils to explain back to you using an example, for me, it shows a depth of understanding beyond them just spurting a definition they’ve learnt by rote back at you.

5. Tell Stories

 Using stories engages the emotions and tunes in a particular part of our brain in a really interesting way – we are wired as human beings for narrative (See Willingham on this). Because of this, it’s important to consider if there are (sometimes personal) stories that you can tell when explaining learning that don’t detract from the learning itself. Whenever I teach anything about my home country or talk about places in Geography, I try to bring pictures of the places that I’ve been to show pupils what it is like in those particular places (which could be classed as a ‘pictorial’ representation). Telling a quick story about that particular place can help students solidify details of the learning that you are trying to impart in a memorable way.

Another example of this in practice is teaching word problems in Maths. When I teach pupils the classic steps: “read it through, underline the key information…blah”, some students really struggle to grasp it. However, when I have asked them to act the situation in the word problem out and dramatize the problem, it’s been AMAZING to see how many students have nailed word problems quickly.

6. Make it Credible – Pitch it Right

I like the point that Ben Newmark makes about this: you have to be a sage, before you step onto the stage! If you’re not someone that students want to listen to then they won’t – it doesn’t matter how young or old they are. By this I don’t mean that you have to dress to impress or talk in a particular way (although intonation and use of voice is important), what I mean is that you have to know your stuff and make sure it’s pitched at the right level for your students. A core part of planning is to really know the learning you’re going to teach. You’re destined to fail if you know a tiny bit more than your pupils before you rock up and teach.

Beyond knowing your stuff for lessons, you’ve got to make sure that ‘stuff’ is pitched right. You can’t start rattling on about the commutative, associative and distributive laws of addition and subtraction with year 5 pupils just because you know it. Similarly, if you use slightly too many complicated vocabulary words that they might not fully understand yet, it may tip pupils into wondering what on earth you’re saying; the opposite is also true, it has to be pitched at a challenging level but built on their prior knowledge.

Summary: Drawing it all together

So, here’s the six parts of excellent explanations:

  1. Find the simple core of your message
  2. Make it concrete
  3. Use analogies
  4. Use examples
  5. Use powerful stories
  6. Make it credible pitch it right

And here’s the table:

Excellent Explanations – What have others said_ themed

I’d love your thoughts on this. Please do get in touch.

Research and Book References:

Bruner, J. & Kenny, H. (1965) Representation and mathematics learning. Monographs for the Society for Research in Child Development, 30 (1) 50-9

Case, R. and Okamoto, T. (1996) ‘The Role of Central Conceptual Structures in the Development of Children’s Thought’. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 61 (1/2): 1–295.

Cowan, R. (2011) The development and importance of proficiency in basic calculation, Report from The Department of psychology and Human Development,

London, Institute of Education

Fan, L. (2012) Why do Singapore Students excel in International Mathematical Comparisons? Inaugural lecture at University of Southampton School of Education.

Bruner, J. (1966) Toward a Theory of Instruction, New York, WW Norton.

Heddens, J. (1986) ‘Bridging the Gap between the Concrete and the Abstract’. Arithmetic Teacher, 33:14–17.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to stick: why some ideas survive and others die. New York, Random House.

Payne, J., Scott, M., (2017) Making Every Lesson Primary Lesson Count: six principles to support great teaching and learning. Crown House

Willingham, D. T. (2008). What Will Improve a Student’s Memory? American Educator, 32(4), 1

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7 thoughts on “6 Features of Excellent Explanations”

  1. […] Jo Payne and Mel Scott answer eloquently with ‘Making Every Primary Lesson Count’. Drawing on recent research and decades of professional experience, they tease out six principles of excellent teaching that have high impact on learning. These principles are: challenge, explanation, modeling, practice, questioning and feedback and each have a dedicated chapter in the book. When exploring each principle, the underpinning evidence, personal experiences of the authors and practical strategies for implementation are discussed by the authors, providing teachers with clear ways that they can embed them in their practice. I am beginning to write about these principles here and here. […]

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