By Adam Boxer

Adam Boxer explains why our novice students don’t always understand our explanations as much as we think they should. It’s because we’ve forgotten how expert we’ve become.

I want you to try something out for me:

1. Think of a tune in your head.

2. Find a friend.

3. You are the “tapper” and your friend is the “listener”.

4. On a table, tap out your tune without humming or singing or anything.

5. Before you ask your friend to guess what the tune is, try and predict the likelihood of them getting it right.

6. Ask them what the tune is.

In 1990, Dr Elizabeth Newton tried this out for real. Using tappers and listeners, she found that only 2 in 150 tunes were correctly guessed by listeners, but tappers predicted that listeners would get it right around 50% of the time. As such, if your listener got it right, I’ll donate a tenner to a charity of your choice.

This, and other experiments, teach us something about the relationship between our knowledge and others’ knowledge. When we have something in our head that is clear and obvious it is a biological impossibility for us to imagine what it must be like to not have that knowledge. It just can’t be done. We repeatedly fail to truly appreciate what “not having that knowledge” is like. The failure to appreciate the gap between our knowledge and their knowledge is called “the curse of knowledge” or “expert blindness.”

As teachers, we specialise in this area – it’s literally our job to take knowledge that we have and others don’t and pass it on to them. Most of the time, I think we get this right. We know that when it comes to really tricky concepts we have to work as hard as we can to cut the ideas up, simplify them and make them readily intelligible. I do, however, think there are two common areas that we don’t get right.

First, is in the obviously interesting way we think and talk about our subjects. To us, they are a huge part not just of what we do, but they are a part of what we are. We love our subjects and obsess over them in all of their nerdy gloriousness. Our students, however, do not. And whilst sometimes your tangents and meanders might be endearing, they aren’t always what your students want to hear. Don’t get me wrong: they are important and valuable and a part of what makes teaching brilliant, but don’t forget that most of your students aren’t as desperately in love with the subject as you are – it’s why only 1.2% of the UK working population are teachers. So yes, show your passion and your interest, but don’t get carried away.

The other area occurred to me recently when watching a History lesson on Lenin and the Russian Civil War. At one point, the teacher was talking about “propaganda” and explained really nicely what the term meant, but then straight after didn’t adequately explain what the word “opposition” meant. I wondered how many of those Year 8 students struggled to have a clear concept of what the word “opposition” meant, and though I haven’t done any kind of research I suspect it’s sizeable. The small number of students who struggle to access your own in-class explanations are likely to be the same ones who need the most support across the curriculum.

I started listening out for words and phrases like this during the lesson and jotted down a list:

Unified leadership, Motivation, Harsh, Much larger scale, Industrial, Loyalty.

These words are probably what we call “Tier 2” vocabulary in a three tier system. Tier 1 words are common words that almost everybody knows and you don’t need to teach; like “picture”, “list” or “happy.” Tier 3 words are technical, domain-specific vocabulary like “photosynthesis,” “iambic” or “longshore drift.” Teachers are conscious of these words that constitute the foundational grammar and discourse of our subjects and we normally teach them explicitly and deliberately.

Where things are less certain are Tier 2 words, words which sort of bridge the gap. They are high level, but not necessarily context dependent. Words like: “ecstatic”, “numerate” or “redundant” might be good words here. Teachers, being well-educated and sophisticated users of language, use Tier 2 words frequently and with ease. Our students, however, might not. Though we are careful and deliberate with our use of Tier 3 words, the very substance of our subjects, we are often cursed and blinded by our knowledge when it comes to using words in Tier 2.

So, try to be aware of the language you use and how accessible it is. We should certainly continue to use Tier 2 language as we induct our students into intellectual and academic rigour, but we may occasionally need to slow the pace and teach those words explicitly in much the same way that we would for more technical and domain-specific language.

Oh, and I’m keeping my tenner.