Blogs of the week and Research Pods – 2. EXPLANATION

Blog of the week: Explanation (1)

This fortnight’s focus from the What Makes Great Teaching at Reigate School model is EXPLANATION. There’s some further discussion about this element in the Research Pod section, but Barak Rosenshine in his Principles of Instruction (1968) as a result of a wide range of studies into research on how the best teachers got the best results concluded that two things they all did was to present new materials in small steps, and check for understanding throughout. Teacher Helen Galdin O’Shea explains how another seminal and much-discussed research paper, ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction doesn’t work’ by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark had such an influence on her teaching. Along with Rosenshine’s paper, who also asserted that the most effective teachers talk for longer than less effective ones, these are the two that have most influenced me too, and have refocused my planning away from a culture of ‘doing’ to one of ‘thinking and learning’.

Research that changed my teaching

Research Pod: Explanation (1)

This week we are moving on to the principle of Explanation. The teacher in this week’s TWW blog of the week discusses how the Kirschner, Sweller and Clark paper had such an influence on her. I’m keen to include mostly bite-sized research chunks, as I know our time is precious but I thought, on this occasion, I would include the links to the two papers I’ve referred to in the blog section.

The first time I came across Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, my overriding thoughts throughout were ‘this is just common sense’, along with ‘hang on, we all do this in our lessons already, don’t we?’ The paper lists seventeen (which have latterly been condensed to ten) things that the most effective teachers do. The trouble over the last few years is that we have taken our eye off the ball, and fads, that have no basis in evidence, but instead based on trends and hunches have crept into teaching. Many of these have been at the expense of using the most important resource in the classroom – the teacher. Learning became ‘discovery-based’ and ignored the research put forward by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark and wider cognitive science, that children are novice learners and need careful guidance and explanation if they are to understand new material. Preparing and relying on teaching methods that rely on the child discovering new learning for themselves are far less effective and also for more onerous on our precious time in terms of planning and preparation. Misconceptions which have to be unpicked later on and gaps in learning are also far more likely to arise this way.

So Rosenshine isn’t suggesting that a teacher should stand at the front of the room and simply lecture to passive students. This, he said, would also be ineffective. However, explanations which are broken down into chunks, effective questioning and checks for understanding throughout along with modelling have been proven to be far more effective than handing the learning over to the students. The research of Rosenshine, Kirschner, Sweller and Clark has empowered teachers to simplify planning and concentrate on what students need to learn. In essence, a more straightforward way of teaching with the teacher as the axis of learning.

Blog of the week: Explanation (2)

This fortnight’s theme from the What Makes Great Teaching at Reigate School model is explanation. This week’s blog comes from Shaun Allison, Headteacher at Durrington Research School in Worthing and organiser of ResearchED Durrington. In his blog, Shaun states that there are three key elements to good explanations in the classroom: making use of what students already know; making your explanations persuasive and providing time for self-explanation. If you really wanted to get your teeth into improving your explanations in class, I can highly recommend the book entitled How to Explain Absolutely Anything to Absolutely Anyone by Andy Tharby, who also works at Durrington School and who co-authored Making Every Lesson Count with Shaun. It’s an easy read and has lots of evidence-informed and importantly, practical tips to improve your explanations in class.

Research Pod: Explanation (2)

Continuing with the theme of explanation, I thought I would examine one of the key takeaways from the book referred to in the blog section: How to Explain Absolutely Anything to Absolutely Anyone by Andy Tharby.

There is so much excellent content in this book, all of which is research and evidence-informed. However, one element that Andy looks at is: what makes the perfect analogy and example when planning our explanations? He states that examples can breathe new life into stagnant ideas, and provide insight and clarity. The best examples, he says, connect to what a student already knows, should be as simple as possible, should appeal to the senses, should be easy to transfer to new contexts, should be memorable, should come in multiples and should aim to provoke an emotional response.

The author then gives the example of an extract from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, a science book for beginners. To explain the conservation of mass, Bryson gives the example:

‘If you burned this book now, its matter would be changed to ash and smoke, but the net amount of stuff in the universe would be the same.’

This little sentence, he said, provided a Eureka moment for him. It used something tangible – the book he was holding. It was simple, tactile and it helped him transfer the concept of conservation of mass to other objects. This strategy is supported by the Rosenshine and Kirschner, Sweller and Clark papers referred to in last week’s Research Pod (links to the papers are also included there) – that the teacher is the best resource in the classroom as the expert in the room, and that careful guidance, broken down into small steps, rather than handing the learning over to the students to discover for themselves, is what the most effective teachers repeatedly do.

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