The Mechanics of Expert Explanation

During my early teaching career, the PowerPoint presentation was a security blanket for delivering lessons. It got to a point that if I didn’t have a PowerPoint presentation ready, then I hadn’t planned my lesson and therefore I wouldn’t be able to deliver the intended outcome. Silly right? Fast forward to the here and now as I write this blog, I would say to every new and established teacher, PowerPoint presentations can become an unnecessary distraction that can remove a cog from the mechanics of your intended expert explanation. When I think back to my geography lessons, I don’t picture an expertly executed presentation, I picture quite the opposite, that of Mr Byrne sharing his expert knowledge of the world with passion and precision. This to me is the first cog in the mechanics of expert explanation, that all teachers possess, passion for their subject.

Cog 1 – Passion

It occurred to me a few years ago, when watching Hans Rosling deliver his presentations on our ever-evolving world, there was something about his delivery that left me waiting on his every word, his passion for the subject. He would suddenly change the pitch and speed of his voice, emphasising certain words, as he would build the anticipation of the explanation before revealing the answer. This delivery kept me captivated and wanting to know more, which I believe is important when instilling rich knowledge to students. In the classroom, this comes through our ability as teachers to tell stories and use concrete examples to allow students to relate to difficult concepts and processes.

Cog 2 – Precision

The dreaded MOT test, an annual uncertainty as to whether we have successfully ensured our vehicle is roadworthy. We want to know the answer to the ultimate question, has it passed? If not, we expect that the mechanic will be able to diagnose the problem and sort it, using their expertise. When we are delivering an expert explanation to our students, we need to know the mechanics of our subject, we need to be the experts. Therefore, the delivery of knowledge to the students in front of us should be done with precision, reducing the extraneous load by removing unnecessary information and ‘sticking to the point’.

Cog 3 – Rehearse

n the early stages of my career lesson planning involved lengthy 2-3 pages of a step by step script of what would happen in the lesson. I remember the more experienced teachers looking in bemusement, referring to the more orthodox phrase of ‘fag packet planning’. It was of no surprise after several years that I realised a 2-3-page lesson plan was not a productive use of my time and the outcomes I was expecting from students ended up being very much the opposite. I’m not saying that teachers shouldn’t be planning lessons, instead I believe it is important that we plan and craft out the delivery of our explanation. After all, if we can deliver an explanation with passion and precision, we have a greater chance of captivating our students. I remember a few years ago sitting through a workshop with Chris Moyse @ChrisMoyse and he said something that has remained with me ever since, ‘do the same thing, but better’. I often use a blank piece of paper when planning my explanation and use CPD time with the department to practise the delivery of our explanations, especially with concepts that students struggle to understand. The more we rehearse our explanations the more captivating they will be.

Cog 4 – Delivery

This for me is the most fundamental cog in expert explanation, the delivery, which is why rehearsing is crucial. The research on our working memory is important to consider when delivering an explanation because even with a passionate and precision pitch, we can quickly cause cognitive overload. This is where Barak Rosenshine’s Principle of Instructions is key to smooth delivery. Rosenshine’s study outlines the importance of delivering explanations step by step, each one building on the next, ‘the most successful teachers did not overwhelm their students by presenting too much new material at one time, and they taught in such a way that each point was mastered before the next point was introduced.’ Therefore, our explanations should be seen as chapters of knowledge that should be presented over time to ensure that students are guided through difficult concepts and processes.

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