Five steps to improve teacher explanations – The Pillars of Pedagogy column

A significant part of a teacher’s job is to explain things that they know and understand in such a way that their pupils might also come to know and understand them. This sounds simple, but to do it well takes time, thought and practice. Mark Enser, head of geography at Heathfield Community College writes in Tes. 

Unfortunately, despite its importance, in 14 years of teaching it has never been something that I have received direct training on. Instead, like most teachers I have spoken to, I have had to find my way through trial and error. 

Because I have been at it for some time now, I think I have discovered some rules to live by in the classroom. So these are my five steps to improved explanation. I would love to hear yours, too.

Step one: Know your stuff

The first hurdle in a good explanation is a lack of knowledge in what is being explained. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen a teacher try to explain something like atmospheric circulation that they haven’t fully grasped themselves. It is not enough to just keep one page ahead of the class – you need to check that your own knowledge is deep enough that you can talk around the subject. You also need to know the subject well enough to pre-empt misconceptions, identify difficult concepts and work out how to order the explanation. All of this needs a secure knowledge of the subject.

Step two: Prepare

In Mining for Gold: Stories of Effective Teachers, the author Fergal Roche considers great teachers he has encountered throughout his life. One thing that he mentions is teachers coming to lessons well-prepared, with notes for their explanation. When you are explaining the same thing year after year, this may not be necessary. I can explain the idea of convection currents in the theory of plate tectonics with minimal planning. But when you introduce something new, it is worth considering very carefully how you will explain it. 

Step four: Avoid diversions and distractions

This step has always been hardest for me. As Peps Mccrea explains in his book Memorable Teaching, good explanations stay on track. It is hard for pupils to keep the narrative of the explanation in their heads if there are constant tangents and incidental information added in. Novices find it more difficult to identify what information is important and what isn’t than experts. Keep to what matters.

Read more steps Five steps to improve teacher explanations – The Pillars of Pedagogy column

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