HuntingEnglish's Top Ten Explanation Tips

English teacher Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) recently shared his top ten explanation tips: A few gems:

1. ‘Know what the students know’ when planning your explanation: All great teachers have an excellent knowledge of their students. This knowledge is paramount in pitching the explanation just right. Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ is key here – the explanation should be matched to the audience: not too complex as to be unintelligible to the students, but not too simple or unchallenging so as to bore the students and prove uninteresting. By knowing your students you can adapt your language to draw upon their prior knowledge before activating links to the new knowledge that you wish them to learn.


3. Make explanations simple, but not simpler. [...] Convey a core message: Effective explanations therefore do need to have the power of compressed language. A good proverb, like “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones” has an enduring power. It generates ideas, sparks connections and combines both easily digestible language and memorable imagery. [...] I would argue that most extended explanations can be compressed into such a memorable statement – what acts as the core message of our explanation. 


4. Engage their hearts and minds: [...] As most charity advertisements will attest, individual stories that spark empathy and interest prove much more memorable than mass scale problems or abstract concepts.
5. ‘Paint the picture’ – use analogies, metaphors and images: Cognitive science has proven that analogies and metaphors are crucial to language, thinking and memorising knowledge (see here). [...] By using imagery and metaphors that evoke mental images, students can make mental hooks into what they already know and better organise their new knowledge.
6. Tell compelling stories: Memorable personal stories brings History and facts alive; dry statistics become enlivened when in the context of a story. 64% of students achieving A grades in exams is interesting, but not nearly as memorable as stories of individual students toiling and overcomes tough circumstances to gain an A grade.
Some of you will notice that these are many of the same points I cover in The Art of Explanation. It's great to see others out there thinking along the same lines. Perhaps it's not a surprise though. Explanation isn't a new discovery, it's as old as language itself, we're just starting to think differently about how to do it better.