By Michael Chiles
Effective teaching requires clear explanations. But clear explanations don’t always come naturally. In this article, Michael Chiles shares strategies to help improve your explanations, so that learning becomes a much easier process for your students.
Albert Einstein once said, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. Reflecting on your own classroom practice, I’m sure we have all been there when we have just finished delivering our explanation to the class and one pupil puts their hand up, “I don’t get it!” On the flip side, there will be times when pupils have that lightbulb moment and exclaim, “Oh, I get it now!”
Our classrooms are diverse and ever changing environments underpinned by the multitude of events occurring throughout a typical school day. The difference between whether a pupil ‘gets it’ or ‘doesn’t get it’ will depend on our explanation. When we explain, we do so to enable pupils to acquire new knowledge and skills. Ultimately, it is a core principle part of our role as a teacher. Therefore, it is vital we spend time as a profession practicing how to craft our explanations.
I believe the power of explanations will depend on three core principles – how we set up our arena (the classroom), the time we spend on preparing our pitch, and how we deliver our explanations. In this article, I briefly explore the key ingredients to preparing our explanations that will help in mastering this key pedagogical principle.
In 1991, Ball indicated, ‘Teachers cannot help children learn things they themselves do not understand.’ Research indicates a strong relationship between teacher subject knowledge and pupil outcomes. Reflecting on my own teaching practice, I remember in the early few years not always being prepared for a lesson. I would have a quick skim over the Powerpoint the night before and be like no problem teaching that. This would often be the case when I was delivering a lesson that I hadn’t planned myself and I was using someone else’s presentation within the department. Inevitably, this created problems whenever I was delivering the lesson because I wasn’t prepared for that tricky question, I didn’t always have the confidence or the conviction in my explanation. So, it would lead to pupils finding the subsequent tasks difficult to complete. I would then be left frantically running around the room trying to answer each individual question so that the pupils could complete the task.
The Sutton Trust indicated in their review of ‘what makes great teaching’ that pedagogical content knowledge was a significant component. ‘The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning.’ Therefore, preparing our explanations before delivering is an important component to ensuring we deliver them with precision to impart knowledge that enables learning to take place.
In order to do this, we need to have a clear understanding of the curriculums we are delivering. Take time to work collaboratively with colleagues and practice delivering your explanations. Subject leaders can use department time to enable colleagues to present an example of how they intend to deliver their explanation for a lesson the following week. For example, in Geography we might be teaching how longshore drift influences the morphology of a beach. This is a complex series of processes that occur to change the shape of beaches.
In the department meeting, time could be set aside for colleagues to demonstrate how they intend to explain this process, reflect on each other’s pitch and give constructive feedback. Not only does this provide teachers time to perfect the craft of their explanation, it also allows time to consider any misconceptions that pupil’s might have and how this can be dispelled. Using time in departments to work on your explanation also provides an opportunity to see how other colleagues intend to approach their explanation.
The final stage in the preparation of our pitch is the level of demand we apply to the content with our intending to deliver. Mary Myatt has passionately talked about the importance of teaching content that is ‘above their pay grade’. All too often pupils will ‘switch off’ if the work isn’t challenging enough for them. From a Geography perspective a classic example is teaching map skills to Year 7 pupils in the first few weeks of September. Most pupils will have done some form of map skills at primary school and dedicated a whole half term on different map skills won’t create the awe and wonder we want pupils to get from studying Geography. Integrating the map skills with other aspects of the subject would bring something new and create a challenge for pupils right from the beginning of their Key Stage 3 studies.
The first step to creating challenging lessons that activates deep level thinking is to consider what we are going to teach, why we are starting with this, and how we can create rigorous and challenging lessons. This is where curriculum planning is a core element to preparing our explanations.
Ultimately, when we pitch up our explanations we create a culture of high aspirations. We want our pupils to believe that learning should be challenging and that a healthy struggle is necessary for learning. To get this right, we need to take time to prepare our explanations by knowing our subject inside and out, work collaboratively with colleagues to find the best approach to teaching core concepts and processes, and pitch up to create a challenging learning environment.