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Classroom instruction – Why teachers should examine the delivery of their explanations

The process of explanation is so integral to what teachers do, that we can sometimes miss how important it actually is, observes Michael Chiles...

  • Classroom instruction – Why teachers should examine the delivery of their explanations

When we’re explaining and modelling concepts to young children, or sharing something we’re knowledgeable about with friends, the quality of our explanations is crucial.

As the science writer Dominic Walliman puts it, “You can pretty much explain anything to anybody, as long as you go about it the right way.” And yet, within the teaching profession there can be a tendency to underestimate the importance of this for our classroom practice.

After all, the way in which teachers deliver their explanations will determine how pupils receive the information, which will in turn inevitably affect their understanding of the subject they’re studying.

This is why investing time in preparing and practising the delivery of teacher explanations ought to be made more of a priority in any school’s CPD curriculum.

Self-reflection

We’ve all been there – you’ve just finished delivering a lengthy explanation to the class when one pupil puts their hand up with the words, “I don’t get it!” Conversely, there will also have been other times when you’ve observed pupils experience that lightbulb moment before exclaiming, “Oh, I get it now!”

Our classrooms are diverse places, contained within learning environments that are constantly changing based on a multitude of different factors and events that might occur over the course of a typical school day.

For all that, though, the difference between whether a pupil ‘gets it’ or doesn’t will largely depend on the quality of our explanation.

When we explain something, we do so in order to enable pupils to acquire new knowledge and skills – which is, of course, a core part of our roles as teachers.

I believe, however, that the power of our explanations rests upon three core principles: how we set up our arena (ie the classroom); the time we spend on preparing our pitch; and how we actually deliver those explanations.

I can personally remember how, during the early years of my career, I wouldn’t always be fully prepared for lessons. My strategy would sometimes be to just have a quick skim through the PowerPoint the night before, and reason that teaching the content would be no problem.

This tended to happen most when covering lessons I hadn’t planned myself, using presentations prepared by colleagues within the department.

Inevitably, of course, this approach would lead to problems when delivering the lesson, because I wasn’t prepared for tricky questions and didn’t always possess the necessary confidence or conviction when giving explanations.

The upshot of this would be that pupils found the subsequent tasks difficult to complete. I’d soon find myself frantically running around the room, trying to answer individual questions so that the pupils could actually complete the task they’d been set.

Time investment

In an extensive 2014 research review titled ‘What makes great teaching?’, the Sutton Trust found pedagogical content knowledge to be a significant component of successful teaching, observing that, “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.”

With this in mind, preparing explanations shouldn’t be something teachers do on a whim. If teachers are to develop a genuinely deep knowledge of their subjects, they will need to invest time in preparing the delivery of the explanation(s) they’ll be giving during the lesson.

This is important for ensuring a level of precision that will reduce misconceptions and prevent pupils’ understanding from becoming fragmented.

So how can we do this? First, we need a clear understanding ourselves of the curriculums we’re expected to deliver. That means being sensitive to the curriculum sequence, and how everything fits together to form a complete subject tapestry.

Once teachers fully understand how each knowledge base is layered, it’s worth taking the time to work collaboratively with colleagues on practising the delivery of your explanations.

Subject and school leaders could also try building in time for departments to present an example of how they intend to deliver a particular explanation for a lesson the following week.

In geography, for example, we might be teaching how longshore drift influences the morphology of a beach. This is a complex series of processes that works to change the shape of beaches, thus departmental meeting time could be set aside for colleagues to demonstrate how they would explain that to a class.

Reflect on each other’s pitches and give constructive feedback. This will give you and your colleagues time to not only craft and hone your explanations, but also consider any misconceptions pupils might come away with and how those could be dispelled.

Spending departmental time working on your own explanations while seeing how other colleagues approach theirs will be time well spent.

Finding the right pitch

Another area worth considering is the level of demand applied to the knowledge we want pupils to know. This is a sentiment echoed by Mary Myatt, who has talked passionately about the importance of teaching pupils content that is ‘Above their pay grade’.

If we pitch the knowledge too high, pupils will naturally – and quickly – hit a mental panic zone and effectively switch off. It doesn’t help that this can also happen if the level of demand isn’t challenging enough.

Again, from a geography perspective, a classic example of this would be teaching map skills to a Y7 class in the first few weeks of September.

Most of the pupils will have already learnt some form of map reading at primary school, so you can be fairly certain that dedicating a whole half term to exploring different map skills won’t create the awe and wonder we want pupils to get from studying geography.

If, however, we integrate map skills with other aspects of the subject, we could show them something new and create a meaningful challenge for pupils, right from the very beginning of their KS3 studies.

The first step to creating challenging lessons that activate deep level thinking is to therefore consider what we are going to teach, why we are starting with this, and how we can create a series of rigorous and challenging lessons. This is where that aforementioned curriculum planning would come in.

The power of our explanations is largely determined by the amount of time we invest in preparing, practising and critically reviewing them. As teachers, our aim is for pupils to be challenged, and to hopefully enter into a zone where there’s a healthy struggle that activates deep thinking.

But if we’re to get this right, then we need to give teachers time to invest in the intricacies of their subject, and work collaboratively with colleagues to establish the most effective ways of delivering their explanations with precision.

The role of explanations in effective revision

Investing time in the art of our teacher explanations can have additional benefits by laying the foundations for effective retention, revision and exam preparation:

  • If teachers possess a deep understanding of how the curriculum fits together, different departments can work collaboratively on planning how knowledge can be recalled. Knowing the intricacies of our subjects allows teachers to better identify where previous layers of knowledge can be recalled when teaching new concepts and processes
  • Use department time to map out synoptic links across your curriculum and plan how you’ll review previously taught knowledge to promote retention and build further layers of knowledge to deepen understanding. Make these links explicit on your medium-term plans
  • Use teacher explanations to explicitly model how pupils can use the most effective learning strategies, such as retrieval and spaced practice, when revising at home. Giving pupils time to practice how to revise in lessons can support them in doing this at home
  • Use I, We, You to explain and model how to apply knowledge to exam questions, in order to move pupils from guided to independent practice

Michael Chiles is a teacher of geography, head of department and author. His new book, The Sweet Spot: A guide to efficient and effective teaching is available now (£15, John Catt); follow him at @m_chiles.

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