At the heart of Geography is a desire to understand the world. In order to do so we need to make sure that we have a very good understanding of the complex processes that underpin the our dynamic planet. Many of these processes are hard for children to grasp and we often use a lot of diagrams, animation and other images to help us explain them.
In this series of blogs, started by Adam Boxer in this post Great Explainers: Richard Feynman, we are considering examples of excellent explanation. I would like submit the following by James Chubb of the Meteorological Office and his explanation of how hurricanes are formed.
What makes this a great explanation?
There are a number of things that I think makes this a great explanation.
- There is no extraneous information. It is highly focused on explaining the topic at hand. I know that I have a tendency to go off at a tangent when explaining a new idea and therefore run the risk of over loading working memory. In this post, What can we learn from Direct instruction, Joe Kirby cites Engelmann who points out that pupils need to be able to identify what is important in an explanation.
- It is sequential. The information in the clip starts at the beginning and works very clearly towards an end point. In his book Why don’t students like school, Daniel T Willingham makes the point that stories are treated as preferential information. Something about the structure of them seems to help with retention of information. He expands on the idea in this article The privileged status of story. By framing an explanation as a story we are make it easier to comprehend and the information is more likely to stick.
Here we can see how the information can be presented in sequential form.
- Images are well used. One thing I have learnt from watching some of the excellent videos provided by the Met Office is the power that images have to support verbal explanation (often linked in to the ideas of dual coding – see this Oliver Caviglioli post) . In this explanation we can see how images are used to show how air rises in areas of low pressure and how this draws in warm moist air from the surrounding area. Without an image this might be hard to grasp. Since thinking more about how to explain concepts well I have found myself using images far more to support what I am saying. I find the best way to use them is to draw them live as I am talking and then to leave them on the board for pupils to refer back to.
- Confidence. One thing that comes across in James Chubb’s explanation of the formation of hurricanes is his confidence in the subject matter. There is no hesitation, no prevaricating. He calmly and confidently explains the process.
Much of a geography teacher’s job is the careful explanation of how the world works and yet throughout much of my teaching I have given very little thought to what made explanation effective. It was never a feature of my training either through ITT or since through CPD. In fact, for most of my time teaching the only message has been to do less of it (to the point where teachers have been timed to ensure the total time they spend speaking doesn’t exceed 10%).
By studying some examples of great explanation I am hoping to glean more insights into what they are doing that makes what they say so powerful and reflect on how this can be harnessed to improve my own practice.
Next post in the series should be the great Ben Newmark who has previously written this incredibly useful guide to explicit teaching. It would be great to have more people take part either in the comments, their own blogs on on twitter. Who is a “great explainer” and what makes them so great?