Quality first teaching: Six features of excellent explanations

Written by: Robbie Burns | Published:
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Teaching is explaining. But how do we explain effectively? Robbie Burns draws on research evidence and best practice and distils them into the six principles of excellent explanations

Part way through my first year in the classroom, I taught 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 explained what I wanted them to know. Or so I thought. As soon as I had finished, I asked: “So, has everybody got that?”

Silence. Then, one of my quite frustrating but exceptionally bright pupils raised her hand and waited for me to acknowledge her.

“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. A terrible moment. One I will never forget!

Why did this hurt so badly? Why did it matter so much to my practice? In sum, in that moment, I realised that because I had not explained clearly, I had not taught. I had not done my core job as a teacher.

The heart of good teaching is excellent explanations. It is impossible to be a good teacher without explaining learning well. As Tom Sherrington (2013) 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.”

If Tom Sherrington is right, and I believe he is, what makes great explanations? In this article, I have tried to draw together some of the erudite thoughts of others on this topic and condense them into six key features. For each one, I will (hopefully!) explain them well and look at some examples across the primary curriculum.

1, Keep it simple

This first principle of excellent explanations resides in making what you want to say succinct and clear. 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 learning.

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. The purpose of this second feature 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. 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).

Making things concrete is not just suitable for maths. Nick Rose (2014) writes about using marbles to represent particle arrangement in solids to connect the abstract with the concrete.

Mel Scott and Jo Payne (2017) talk about how in English we can also use physical movement to teach things like punctuation – for example, Kung Fu Punctuation (Beadle, 2005) – and writing (see Talk for Writing), which is supported by lots of research conducted by Pie Corbett and Sadoski (2000).
I have always tried to teach geography with a globe in hand; when teaching space, I have always tried to use as many concrete representations of the planets as I possibly can.

3, Use analogies

Put simply, this is when during an explanation, you compare new learning to something pupils might already know about. As Nick Rose (2014) 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 misconceptions that children already possess.”

At a primary level I think there is definitely a place for analogies in science and I have been able to put this into practice in my own teaching. When teaching properties of materials, it has 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.

4, Use examples

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.

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 am not modelling how to use a noun in a sentence, I am just getting students to identify them in a context.

By using examples, we make our explanations more concrete. When you use the example of the learning 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 “dramatise(d)” it is helpful for students to hear this word in context before they use it: “We will watch a dramatised version of Goodnight Mister Tom tomorrow”. By getting pupils to explain using an example shows a depth of understanding beyond just spurting a definition learned 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 (Shimamura, 2018).

Because of this, it is important to consider if there are (sometimes personal) stories that you can tell when explaining learning that do not 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 have 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 to solidify details of the learning that you are trying to impart in a memorable way.

In maths, I have found that when I teach word problems using the classic steps – “read it through, underline the key information...” – some students really struggle to grasp it. However, when I have asked them to act-out the situation in the word problem and dramatise the problem, it has been amazing to see how many students have nailed the word problem more quickly. Teach using stories when it is possible.

6, Make it credible – pitch it right

I like the point that Ben Newmark (2018) makes about this: you have to be a sage before you step onto the stage! If you are not someone that students want to listen to then they won’t listen; it does not matter how young or old they are.

By this I do not 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 is pitched at the right level for your students.

A core part of planning is to really know the learning you are going to teach. You are destined to fail if you only know a tiny bit more than your pupils before you rock up and teach.

Beyond knowing your “stuff” for lessons, you have got to make sure that “stuff” is pitched right. You cannot 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 are saying; the opposite is also true, it has to be pitched at a challenging level but built on their prior knowledge.

Further information & resources

  • Beadle: Could Do Better! Help your kid shine at school, Corgi, August 2008.
  • Bruner: Toward a Theory of Instruction, WW Norton, 1966.
  • Bruner & Kenny: Representation and mathematics learning, Monographs for the Society for Research in Child Development (30, 1), 1965.
  • Case & Okamoto: 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), 1996.
  • Cowan: The development and importance of proficiency in basic calculation, Institute of Education, London, 2011.
  • Fan: Why do Singapore students excel in international mathematical comparisons? Inaugural lecture at University of Southampton School of Education, 2012.
  • Heddens: Bridging the gap between the concrete and the abstract, Arithmetic Teacher (33), 1986.
  • Heath & Heath: Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die, Random House, 2007.
  • Newmark: Eleven principles for great explicit teaching, February 2018: https://bit.ly/3yIMoxD
  • Payne & Scott: Making Every Lesson Primary Lesson Count: Six principles to support great teaching and learning, Crown House Publishing, 2017.
  • Rose: Great teacher talk, Evidence into practice blog, May 2014: https://bit.ly/3jMUh0E
  • Sherrington: Great Lessons 6: Explaining, Teacherhead blog, February 2013: https://teacherhead.com/2013/02/13/great-lessons-6-
  • Shimamura: MARGE: A whole brain learning approach for students and teachers, 2018: https://bit.ly/3ANWBu6
  • Talk4Writing: www.talk4writing.com

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