June #blogsync – My Best Classroom Explanations

This month’s #blogsync asked education bloggers to describe “an example of a great classroom explanation”. The theme is inspired by an Alex Quigley blog on “Top Tips for Explanation”, itself inspired by Joe Kirby’s “What Makes Great Teaching?” It’s an important issue because all teachers know that the way we explain things matters for how successful student learning is.
Problem is, I’m not really sure what counts as an explanation.
So below are three different types of explanation that successfully helped my students learn something and which might give you some ideas for explanations in your own classroom and also might show why debates about ‘teacher’ vs ‘student-led’ learning are often a bit odd. Alternatively, maybe you won’t think one (or any) of them, is really an explanation. That’s okay, but let me know why in the comments so I can ponder the distinction a bit more.
The Classic Didactic Explanation
I inherited a Year 11 Citizenship GCSE group a few weeks before their final exams. They’d previously had 7 teachers in 18 months and they simply did not have the knowledge required to pass their exams. People sometimes scoff at thoughts of a Citizenship GCSE: How much knowledge can it really involve? Answer: a lot. If you don’t believe me, here is the list of key terms a student needs to know and use in essays in just one of their exams (the shorter one). And this isn’t all of them.
Desperately trying to convey the information quickly, and struggling against the tide of their low-morale, I had the students draw the above diagram out, bit-by-bit, and explained as we went. It was old-fashioned chalk & talk, but it worked. They behaved; we drew; we questioned; we wrote out what each part was. Then, next lesson, we did it again. And same the one after that, until eventually I could point to any part of that diagram and they could tell you what it was and why. Don’t worry, this is not all we did.  As starter activities for each lesson I used news stories from the week (similar, if harder, to what they see  in the exam) and asked questions using the knowledge they had learned  (E.g. I remember one was about Nick Clegg. Cue, is Nick Clegg in the Opposition or Government? Nick Clegg is an MP, which House does he speak in? If Nick Clegg is an MP what sort of electoral system is used to vote him in? And so on…) and at the end of the lesson we would tackle a 12-mark past exam question by first trying try to figure out which part of the diagram was important for the question, which vocabulary we would need and take it from there.
What blew me away was that really focusing on this knowledge for a few lessons meant students then the grasped news items and exam questions way quicker and much deeper than when I taught Citizenship piece-by-piece – i.e. doing a whole lesson on the commons, then one on the lords, then one on laws, etc. Having an overview, with the correct terminology, of the whole political/legal system meant it was far easier for them to know what was going on when we then honed in on one issue (e.g. much easier to understand the EU and how it fits into the picture when you have a basic grasp of the way laws/courts work in England).  Seeing this difference was one of the reasons why I started to come round to an idea that Daisy Christodolou had explained to me a year earlier (yes, she’s been on about it for a while!) about ED Hirsch and his belief that a foundation of factual knowledge is critical for true understanding.
Though uncomfortable with chalk-and-talk activities I nevertheless started the following year’s teaching with this same process – getting the students to draw the outline on their folders and referring back to it as often as possible for consolidation. The difference in the quality of their understanding, and the more sophisticated vocabulary and analysis in their controlled assessments, throughout that year was incredible. Having that base of vocabulary really made a difference. Hence, while varying activities is very important it’s also true that starting by telling students the simple stuff over and over again helps lay a base for more complex topics.
Moral of the story: Bloom didn’t put knowledge at the bottom of his taxonomy because it is unimportant, he put it there because it is the vital first step.
The “Experiential” Explanation
On my fourth day with a brand new Year 13 BTEC Health & Social Care group, we had a conversation that went like this:
 Me: “Who are the people most likely to suffer obesity in England today?”
Student: “Rich people”
Me: “Why rich people?”
Student: “Because they can afford the most food, so they eat the most, so they get fat. Poor people can’t afford food, so they starve, so they are thin.”
No matter how I tried to question, reason, explain that people with lower incomes  are the group with the highest risk of obesity, the students simply would not have it. In their  heads, the more money you had, the more food you had, the  fatter you would get.
Unsure what to do next I made an unusual move:
Me: “Right, get your coats…..”
Ten minutes later (with appropriate permissions having been sought from school & supermarket) we were stood at the tills in our local Tesco. Each student had a basket.
Me: “Okay, let’s imagine you’ve just got home from work and you’re a single parent, you’ve got two children, they’re hungry because they haven’t eaten since midday and you’re tired. You can spend £5 on tonight’s dinner but you need enough food for all three of you and you have to be able to make all of the meal in fifteen minutes or less. Off you go….”
Twenty minutes later when the students stood in front of me with a sorry mess of frozen pizzas, angel delight, and tesco value meals the problem began to dawn. We then went and stood in the freezer section comparing the nutritional values of cheaper and more expensive goods.  Slowly, clicked some more. Finally we thought about who has the time to buy and cook fresh food, or who has the money/education/space to buy or grow (and store) fresh herbs. After trogging back to our classroom we then got back to looking at the data and writing out analyses (and yes, it’s not quite as straight forward as poor = fat, or cheap=frozen food, but we could only get to that once they understood the risks).
Moral of the story:  Sometimes you can’t just “tell ’em”, sometimes a good explanation means helping them see it for themselves.
The Peer-to-Peer Explanation
Unlike many teachers, I am not an advocate for peer-to-peer marking or teaching. Why would you get the least knowledgeable people in the room teaching other people about it? BUT, there have been occasions when it has felt right.
I taught an unusually sociable and hard-working A-Level Psychology group. Over a year their team work, their concern for each other’s work, their ability to help one another was top-class. It also helped that we studied a whole unit on memory so they knew how to make information retainable.
When studying mental health treatments I therefore asked each group to prepare a 15-minute ‘teaching’ session for one treatment. Students were encouraged to use vivid mnemonics, music, actions – and they had to provide at least 4 key facts that the audience were required to remember, as I later based our weekly vocab test on their presentations.
Several of the sessions were excellent but the one that blew me away was the group who looked at Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT), a procedure historically used for treating Schizophrenia. The group used the question “Is Harry Potter schizophrenic?” and asked the class to look at evidence that he might be (think: delusions about flying on brooms, the ‘lightening’ mark on his head). They also introduced the session with the song “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and later used this to talk about the ethics of giving ECT.
Their explanation had it all: a catchy tune, a mnemonic, a link to something relevant to students, it gave clear facts about the treatment and its ethical issues, and was – frankly – better than I would have done. It also gave students an opportunity to practise public speaking, slide design, and thinking of ways to remember concepts for themselves. The subsequent vocab tests also showed that the students had really understood this treatment.
Moral of the story: There are times when the best explanations might not come from you. Hard to hear, but true.
Reflecting on these explanations made me remember why I think knowledge/skills debates, or ‘teacher-centred’ vs. ‘learner-centred’ debates are usually over-egged. Different students, different topics, different contexts, all lead to the need for different types of teaching. In each of these sessions students developed new knowledge (and new skills) useful for our next steps as a class and their next steps in education.
People might ask: “But don’t you think there is a quicker/more efficient/more rigorous method for getting them to learn x thing?” Possibly. But students are people, not automatons, we can’t just ‘programme’ them to remember. And even if we could, they learn as much from the intentions of our actions as they do from the content. If I had yelled at my new BTEC students and told them they simply must believe me, it would have been easy for them to think I didn’t really care about their thoughts, hence they’d have had the perfect excuse to never again think for themselves. When my psychology students did those presentations we’d already had several lessons of hard-going teacher-led activities on brain biology. We were all getting bored. If I hadn’t harnessed their innate sociability they would have started using it themselves – chatting to one another under their breath – and I, aware that my enthusiasm for teacher-ledness had run out, probably wouldn’t have had the energy to fight their rational desire to be more involved. Hence, I harnessed their strength and made it into an opportunity rather than ignoring what were completely reasonable ways to feel at that point.
Yes, some explanations formulaically work with classes over and over again. But others, less so. What we really need to do next as a profession is work out: how do we know which explanation  type we need?  How can I figure out, in advance, if an activity will work for this group or not?  Because that’s a question I still can’t answer at all….