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Please allow me to explain …

Student requesting an explanation

Chris McGeehan, Lead OLEVI Facilitator, reflects on how being able to effectively explain complicated concepts can make, or break, a learner’s ability to move forward – or to lose confidence and become disengaged.

Queuing in a café recently I began to wonder why my queue seemed to be moving considerably slower than the other one. My wife insists this is my fault, as I have not developed the appropriate skill set when analysing the performance markers and hindrances that she is able to quickly deduce before selecting the optimum aisle. But no, the reason for the delay was due to the fact that I had picked a cashier who was clearly new and was struggling with the complex procedures – involving quite a lot of advanced programming – to get the till to work. Luckily for all concerned, an experienced member of staff was providing some ‘on-the-job’ training, which took the form of a series of explanations…

It appeared that the same explanation was being given to the trainee every few minutes. I did wonder if listing a set of commands and using jargon that would make an astrophysicist shudder, at considerable speed, was the best technique.

The trainer concluded each explanation with the question: ‘Do you get it?’ This brings us to perhaps the point of explaining or explanation. Quite simply, is it a transference of knowledge or skill without a practical demonstration? If the explanation is successful, the learner is able to continue independently; in the case of the cashier, this was not the case.

Explaining is something that is synonymous with teaching and learning. Classically, one conjures up the image of an expert gesturing and speaking with animated insight about the task or concept in question. This seems to go against all the coaching principles there are; so why is it such a useful strategy?

I can distinctly remember the pained look on the face of my maths teacher as he explained how to find the length of the hypotenuse using the Pythagorean theory a2+b2=c2. His explanation showed us what to do with the numbers in question and soon we were all busy calculating how long the sides of triangles were. This explanation allowed us to complete the task at hand, but I think it is fair to say that none of us knew why it worked and why it was useful. On the plus side, I recall a sense of accomplishment as we confidently worked through what felt like advanced abstract trigonometry; we were mathematicians! If he had decided to explain the history and context he may have ‘lost us’ and the lesson would have been a disaster. Alternatively, he could have set us the challenge of ‘finding a way to calculate the length of the long side of a right-angled triangle’. I see two problems here. One, I can hear my twelve-year-old self asking, ‘Why don’t we just measure it?’; and two, would we have ever got there?

‘Mansplaining’ gives us a stark warning that over-explaining something, or assuming the recipient has less understanding that we thought, can be condescending and patronising. Long drawn-out explanations in the classroom could disempower learners as any future joy of discovery is laid out in full.

On the other hand, direct instruction can lead to quick wins as learners’ confidence is increased, clarity about the unknown is resolved and motivation to ‘give it a go’ is created.
So, let’s look at some strategies that we can use, and let me explain…

Story and narrative

I began this blog with an anecdote. Fables, parables and fairy tales have been widely used to convey ideas to others for thousands of years. When we hear about characters with motivation, fears and dreams, it is difficult not to relate. Stories also entertain with unexpected twists and humorous or upsetting details that draw us in – if they are told well.

History was, at times, confusing. Teachers seemed to come and go, some would teach mini units, others found pages in the textbook that ‘we hadn’t done yet’ to fill lessons. Trying to get an overarching view of periods and eras was difficult. Russia was a particularly complicated subject, with ideologies, class disputes, so many leaders and wars; I developed something of a mental block until one teacher told me the story of Rasputin. Hearing about this man was fascinating. He starts the story as a homeless drunk and ends up having huge political sway as he was ‘magically’ able to prevent the Tsar’s son bleeding to death. Before being shot, poisoned and stabbed… The story was gripping. It also gave me a frame on which to ‘hang’ other events and ideas.

Signposting

At a training event I found myself speaking with an advanced driving instructor. We were talking about our mutual nerves in addressing a large crowd from a stage. It was then that he told me his ‘trick’. He knew that if he simply listed and detailed the rules of driving on different roads he would cover all the content he needed, but no-one would remember or engage with the content as it was too dry. So he developed a strategy where he would tell his light-hearted ‘stuff’ (which included quite a lot of 1970s’ driving jokes) from the centre of the stage; he knew this delivery style broke up the presentation, relaxed the audience and got a few laughs. But when he wanted to talk about something serious, e.g. fatal crashes due to speeding, he would move over to one side of the stage and speak slower, in a lower voice. After a short time, the audience has been trained to listen more intently when directed to.

If the signposting we are doing is too subtle or incoherent the impact is lost. Making the process more visible and explicit to students, by highlighting the cause/effect, or the who/what/when/why/how, or the motives of those involved, allows learners to re-frame the content; and if the same methods of signposting are used enough, students can begin to anticipate and follow the structure of the explanation.

Analogies

The Zones of Learning is probably one of the most popular thinking models to come out of OLEVI; the content is thought-provoking but not necessarily new to any audience considering it. What is the COMFORT zone? What feelings do we associate with the PANIC zone? Why might students end up there? What behaviours do we see in the STRETCH zone? These key questions start a healthy discussion about how we manage ourselves and others. The reason I feel it is so easily recalled is because of the visual analogy that usually accompanies it.

Drawing a bird’s-eye view of a large fried egg, where the comfort zone is represented by the yolk, the panic zone is the crispy outer edge, leaving the egg white to represent the stretch zone, is the tried and tested method of sharing this model with professionals and it really seems to stick. The links are loose at best, i.e. a warm, yellow comfort zone with an outer, burned-out edge of panic…

Another analogy that is popular is to explore the idea of two islands, a chasm and a bridge. “We are here, we want to get there, but we need to overcome the issues at hand. What is our bridge?” This, like the fried egg, is such a simple concept to understand; does it trick our brains into considering the accompanying content as equally simple to relate to?

Developing a greater awareness of what highly effective explanation means, and what it looks like in the classroom, can greatly enhance the learning of our students.

In the meantime, if someone would like to get in touch and explain how to pick the best queue, I would be extremely grateful.

The new OFP module on ‘explaining’ will be available to all OLEVI facilitators from January 2020. Look out for your personal invite. This will be added to the facilitator’s toolkit.

If you missed our module on modelling, log in to your OLEVI resources to access the full details of the module, with accompanying facilitator notes.

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