Research School Network: On Explanation Durrington ELE Tara McVey has a look at all things explanation giving some great and usable tips in this blog

On Explanation

Durrington ELE Tara McVey has a look at all things explanation giving some great and usable tips in this blog

by Durrington Research School
on the

I love the idea that Andy Tharby shares in his fantastic book on explanation from Chris Anderson of TED that your number one mission as a speaker is to take something that matters deeply to you and rebuild it inside the minds of your listeners.’

My youngest son is still at that age where his meandering explanation of something that he wants to share with you can take an age; the twists and turns and extraneous detail are of such vast and unnecessary quantity that by the time you reach the end of the explanation, you are really unsure of where the tale began. His explanations are joyful and infectious – but they do not rebuild anything in the mind of the listener!

So how, as teachers, can we give ourselves a framework for thinking about how we explain and rebuild our understanding in the minds of our students?

There are three key areas we need to consider:

- What we explain
- How we explain
- How we ensure student attention

What we explain

We need to start with real clarity about what we are trying to explain – or, more precisely, what we are trying to explain in one go.

Segmenting and granularity

Firstly, we need to consider what we want students to know by the end of a learning sequence and then think hard about how this breaks down into segments or granular steps.

A key moment in my own development as a teacher was listening to Kris Boulton talking about planning to teach solving simultaneous equations’ to a mixed attainment Yr 9 set; he worked out what was the most challenging thing that all students needed to know or be able to do. And then what were the precise steps towards reaching this goal.


Having worked out the granularity, you need to think about sequence. The order in which you teach or explain something is rarely simple – there is no one way up the mountain. Instead there are multiple routes you could take. But, as a teacher, an expert in your subject, it is a debate worth having – which is the best route? Which will build knowledge in the most logical way without overloading the students?

Linking to prior knowledge

We know that knowledge is sticky and that having knowledge of something makes it easier to assimilate new knowledge. We also know that what we are trying to do is support our students to create effective schemas where ideas and concepts are linked together. So, as part of our consideration of explanation, we need to be thinking about how we would check for understanding, activate prior knowledge, reinforce what is already known and explicitly link the new knowledge to it.

Allowing for processing

And finally, we also know that students will not learn simply because you have a carefully crafted explanation; they will learn because they think hard about your carefully crafted explanation. Therefore, ensuring that you plan for processing is key. Where and how will you expect students to respond, to think hard about what you’ve explained, to process the ideas?

How we explain

So, having thought clearly about what we are going to explain: the chunks of knowledge; the precise sequence; we also need to ensure that we think about the how’ of our explanation. Much of what we are trying to rebuild in a students’ mind is truly abstract. Working to build understanding of abstract concepts can be difficult. Therefore, we need to think about how we can support this.

Examples and non examples

One key idea to make abstract ideas clear is through the use of concrete examples. Knowing the definition of a possessive apostrophe, for example, is almost entirely unhelpful, without the support of examples of it in action.

But, what is also super helpful is to think about the exceptions and the common misconceptions: the non examples that are almost right – but not quite. Thinking hard about what these are – and using them in our explanations as well, helps our learners to really define the limits of a concept.

Live modelling and think aloud

The next step is to consider how we teach students to apply their learning. Usually, we design tasks which allow students to show what they know – for example, the move from knowing what a simile is and being able to identify it to being able to use it effectively and purposefully in their own writing.

When trying to support students to apply their learning, we sometimes share exemplars, the idea being that showing students what a good one looks like’ helps them to create a mental model of what they are trying to achieve. The issue is that doing so does not share the steps it took to get there. Simply providing students with a model of an already completed task does not help students to understand how to create it. Modelling is at its most effective when we work it live, supporting and scaffolding student thinking by sharing our own thinking aloud (thinking that we need to have done consciously in advance) and ensuring students are also thinking hard by asking directing questions throughout.

Multiple models

And it hopefully goes without saying that once is not enough; we need to consider how we return to the same ideas, model the same processes, retrieve the learning enough times to develop the student confidence and fluency to complete the task independently without the model.

Gradual fading

And, as Tom Sherrington says, it is all in the handover – you need to think carefully about when and how you fade that support to develop their independence.

How we ensure student attention

And finally, all of this, the most beautiful and sequenced and well presented explanation with the most carefully thought through modelling is all for naught if the students are not actually attending to it. Therefore, this is the final key.

Direct attention

Essentially, when we are explaining, we need to direct students’ attention so that their limited cognitive bandwidth is focused on what we want them to be thinking about. Don’t expect them to use information from their book at the same time as paying attention to something on the screen at the front. Don’t talk while they are copying something down from the board. If you want them to pay attention to a key point – highlight it verbally or even physically.

Essentially, you want to ensure that they are only expected to pay attention to one thing at a time – and that it is completely clear what that one thing is!

Reduce redundant distractions

And thinking again about the limitations of working memory, make sure you consider how your explanations or examples are presented. If you are using visuals, strip them back and remove anything inessential. If you give thinking and processing time, don’t talk over it. Stand still if you need to in order to allow for focus

Repeat messages

Finally, think again about what you are teaching. Within your explanation, what is the key, vital knowledge that all must understand – and what is the extra, the nice to have’. And, within this, think about how and when you can repeat those key messages. To paraphrase Tharby: Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them it and then tell them what you have told them.

So, there you have it, a framework for thinking about explanations (although I’m not certain I’ll be sharing it with my son!)

What you explain

- Segmenting and granularity
- Sequencing
- Linking to prior knowledge
- Processing tasks

How you explain

- Examples and non examples
- Live modelling and think aloud
- Multiple models
- Gradual fading

How you ensure student attention

- Direct attention
- Reduce redundant distractions
- Repeat messages

By Tara McVey

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