Easy explanation in three simple steps

How can students be expected to complete the task we’ve set if they have no idea what they’ve been asked to do? I’ve had it happen in my classroom many times, especially in my NQT year, where students were, quite simply, confused. When enough of them were left puzzled, I’ve brought the class back together to tell them what to do again.

Clearly, it was my explanation that was lacking. I solved the issue, but at the coast of valuable learning time. How can you go about solving this issue, by potentially never having to encounter it again?

Well, during a weekly mentor meeting, my mentor suggested that I read Chris Runeckles’ Making Every History Lesson Count (here’s a cheeky affiliate link for you to pick that book up for yourself). He came up with 6 guiding principles that have made a huge difference to my pedagogy, and they’re invaluable to Historians and teachers of any other subject in a secondary school setting, really. He finds challenge, explanation, modelling, practice, feedback and questioning absolutely invaluable.

The book is far too big to break down in one edition of book club, so here are my key takeaways from his chapter on explanation. Hopefully you will find them just as useful as I do.

Teacher talk

Apparently, initial teacher training in the 2000s was very different to what I underwent. While we were told that students and teachers should work in an 80/20 split – that is, students should do 80% of the work – we weren’t told to avoid teacher talk as much as possible, as Runeckles suggests had been the case.

Now, though, he advocates that teacher talk is actually a necessary aspect of clear explanation. Without enough of it, students will be left with a ‘wooly understanding’. I’ve encountered this too, and it makes sense: if you don’t say enough, students will be left to infer what it is you meant. Be as clear as possible in your speech if you want students to get going immediately.

Runeckles does advocate for caution though: as experts in our subject, we suffer from what he calls ‘curse of the expert’. This is where, because we are expected to have such a depth of knowledge, we actually find it difficult to explain to those with less knowledge. There are, however, strategies to mitigate this.

Different types of explanation

Firstly, in your own explanation, try to inject a little bit of emotion. I’m not suggesting that you start crying out of passion (though for the subjects you’re really passionate about, you may do this involuntarily!), but manipulating your body language and tone can be invaluable. When telling the story of your topic, consider raising the pitch of your voice, taking pauses where appropriate, and employing your hands in interesting way.

If you simply sit back and explain in a very neutral tone, your students may stop listening and switch off or – even worse – fall asleep. Nobody wants that.

Ah, yes, the look of boredom and/or confusion.

Speaking of telling the story, plan out which bits will have the greatest impact when coming from you, rather than being read in a textbook. The New Deal, for instance, can be quite dry, so a textbook could suffice, but the interwar period tends to be more engaging, so consider sitting down on a desk (trying to emulate that cool teacher persona), and take them through the road to war, bit-by-bit. Talk about all of the frustrations by each country, and each bit of land that was lost throughout the ‘30s. They’ll be captivated.

Huntingdon School in York have actually taken the storytelling element one step further and use a whole lesson, for every topic, to give students a narrative overview – returning in subsequent lessons to fill in the details with critical analysis. You may wish to try this as a department, as it seemed to work for them.

If, however, you feel that your explanation, after all that, was a bit lacking, don’t dismay. Teaching is, after all, a constant learning process. It may do you well to sit back and show a short clip of someone else explaining content, whether it’s purely informative, or perhaps an interview with an Historian or the survivor of a war. Sometimes, using another medium will provide a much more memorable explanation. Runeckles recommends accompanying these with comprehension questions, to keep students focused on what you want them to be thinking about as they watch.

Know your class

Knowing your class will mean knowing what types of explanation will work best. Do they crave mystery? If you open a curiosity gap, students will naturally want to fill it. Try teasing the information, and returning later. Show them an image and ask them to create W-questions (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) and see if they can answer them by the end of the lesson.

Do your students work best when you slip your personality into explanation? Anecdotes can solidify core knowledge, though be careful that these don’t supersede the core content. The last thing I’d want my students to take away from a lesson on the Wall St Crash is that Mr Hamilton has experience with investing, even if it does help to engage them! Likewise, if you use analogies, make them school-based. I often drift into using popular culture – such as Captain America: Civil War to explain the English Civil War – but this is fruitless if my class aren’t Marvel fans. Using school-based analogies ensure that everyone will know what it is that you’re talking about.

What techniques are you going to start employing from tomorrow? Let me know if they worked in the comments below!

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