Effective Explanation

I always thought that my explanation in the classroom was pretty good. After 17 years of practice it felt like I knew what I was doing, and I understood how to make what I said stick. However, a few months of remote teaching and a few weeks of socially distanced teaching has shown me that I still have some way to go. When in the classroom I could pick up on an explanation that was causing confusion through the body language of my students and adjust it. I could direct questions to those who seemed to be struggling to pay attention to bring them back into the room. When I was able to move around the room more freely, I could notice when my explanation had been unclear, and errors were appearing in their work as they produced it. I could stop the class and re-explain the task if I needed to. With remote teaching and socially distanced teaching I couldn’t do this as easily and I have had to work hard to refine my practice.

To improve an explanation designed to help pupils learn, I found it helpful to return to a model of memory that helps us to see how that learning takes place.


Firstly, I needed to remember that pupils learn from what they pay attention to. We are bombarded with information all the time and need to select that which is important and relevant. Dr. Mike Hobbiss has studied the role of attention in the classroom and has worked with us here at the college on understanding its critical importance to learning.

What ever we pay attention to whilst someone is explaining goes into our working memory. This can hold a very limited amount of information and is easily overwhelmed if we try to hold on to too much as one time. We also need space in our working memory to think about the new information and to learn it and accommodate it into our existing schema, our long term memory about the topic.

Our long term memory is to all extents and purposes limitless and we can use this to support our working memory if we are secure in our knowledge about a subject.

So how does this apply to making our explanations work, especially with remote or socially distanced learning? Firstly, it reminds us that we need to begin our explanation by ensuring we have the undivided attention of our class. If we are recording an explanation to be used at home, we may need to teach our pupils what we want them to do in their home environment to reduce distractions and begin by reminding them that they need their phone out of sight and other notifications turned off from the device they are using. We also want to consider whether our delivery will hold their attention. Are we modulating our tone appropriately and drawing them in, the same way we would in the classroom with them in front of us. It is too easy, when we are concentrating on the technology for our delivery to become flat as our focus is elsewhere.

Working Memory

Secondly, we need to remember not to overwhelm their working memory. When in the classroom, we tend not to try to explain everything a pupil will need in that lesson and then leave them too it, and ideally we won’t do this remotely either. We still want the opportunity to explain things in small chunks with guided practice after each chunk. One way to achieve this is to instruct them to pause the video we have recorded and do the task before pressing play again as we move on. We can also avoid overwhelming working memory by keeping our explanation on topic and avoiding tangents.

Leave a trace

Thirdly, there is the problem that words are ephemeral. Once we say them, they last only as long as someone holds them in their working memory. We need to try and leave a trace of what has been said. This can be done in the classroom by writing up key words or drawing diagrams as we are talking. With resources for remote learning, we can make sure there are bullet points of our explanation appearing as we talk. Much like I am doing now. We need the written points together with the verbal explanation, rather than expecting them to go to another source for it, or we risk them having to split their attention and so struggling to follow. We may also need to slow our explanation down, giving pupils the chance to think about the words before we rush on to the next things.

Tell stories

Fourthly, we need to remember that, as Daniel Willingham explains, stories are held as privileged information by the brain. If we want pupils to remember our explanations, then it may help to phrase them as stories. Rather than simply listing the events of Typhoon Haiyan, we might turn it into a story that we can tell them. It also helps to use analogies to make difficult, abstract, ideas more concrete. For example, when explaining how freeze-thaw action works, I will use an analogy of the way water freezes in a plastic bottle placed in the freezer.

Link to prior knowledge

Finally, we can use their long term memory to support current explanation. It is rare that we are explaining something completely divorced from what came before. This is why we carefully sequence our curriculum. However, whilst links to prior learning may seem obvious to us they need to be made explicit to our pupils. Before starting explaining something new, we want to highlight how it links to what they already know. We could do this with a short quiz on that prior knowledge that they complete before we begin, or through some images to prompt their memory. We can then link our explanation to this as we talk.

Teacher explanation is incredibly powerful, but most of us honed our skills in conditions very different to those we now find ourselves in.

Mark Enser

Head of Geography & Research Lead

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