Sound subject knowledge and perfect learning behaviour are the foundations of good didactic explanation but, of course, strong delivery is necessary too. Good quality explanation means children are more likely to remember what they are taught. While, of course, styles of delivery can vary there are, I think, some fundamentals worth sharing. This post aims to do this. My final post in this series will be focused on the necessity of deliberate practice, accompanied by self and peer critique.
Teach from the front
For years, when explaining things to children for any extended period, I was a pacer. In the early part my career I picked up the impression that good teachers shouldn’t teach from the front because this encouraged students to see a division between their space and the space of their teacher, which led to poor behaviour. So, to address this, I paced. This meant walking the aisles between the desks, sometimes stumbling over bags and PE kits, while, owl-like, the heads of the children in my class swivelled around and around to track my circuitous meanders. Gradually I worked out this didn’t work. The main reason for this was it made my explanations worse because my movements meant I was focusing on walking and talking at the same time, which resulted in the deterioration of both. Secondly, it made it harder for the children in my classes to concentrate on what I was saying because they had to listen while simultaneously tracking my position in the classroom.
So, gradually, I stopped pacing. Now I teach from one position, at the front where everyone can see me, next to the board. I still move but this is now purposeful and linked to my explanation. For example, if I am explaining the attacks on the early Weimar government from the political left and right, I might walk to the left when talking about the Spartacists and over to the right when explaining the Kapp Putsch. The only other time I’ll move will be in direct response to something that’s happened in my classroom; for example, if I suspect a boy or girl is on the verge of switching off I may, in a technique I’ve seen identified by Doug Lemov, move subtlety towards them to bring their attention back.
The work of my students and their ability to remember what I’ve said shows this to be much more effective than pacing and, more recently, I’ve discovered that cognitive load theory offers insight as to why. If teaching should avoid overloading the limited working memory of our students, then largely staying put makes sense because it means children can better concentrate on the explanations of their teacher.
Thoughtfully vary cadence and inflection
Using cadence and inflection to stress and add further meaning to parts of an explanation is really effective in helping students understand what they’re listening to. Really good subject knowledge makes this much easier but even a little forethought can help. For example, if I’m explaining that the percentage of the vote for the Nazis rose I will use a rising inflection whereas if it fell, my tone will reflect that. If something might be considered historically unexpected, I try to sound surprised. Occasionally I’ll emphasis a particular point differently and more emphatically. In this video I punch a fist into my hand while explaining the influence of the SA to underpin the importance of violence to this group. It might be a bit hammy, but used sparingly it is effective.
Use storytelling techniques
People in general and children specifically find stories easy to remember and storytelling techniques can be effectively harnessed in the classroom. Asking rhetorical questions to foreshadow later events or elements of an explanation help students identify a coherent narrative, which makes material easier to understand and retain. Cliff-hangers are useful in building conceptual bridges between events. For example, in my summary explanation of William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings, I conclude by describing the meeting between the surviving English earls and bishops and asking students to think about why William might have worried about this, which is material we cover in the next timetabled lesson.
I draw heavily on metaphor and analogy in my explanations too. Making conceptual links between different themes and events can be distracting if done unthinkingly but is powerful in driving understanding when done well. Sometimes these metaphors occur to me on the fly while teaching, but mostly they come to mind before the lesson when thinking about what I’ll include. One that worked particularly effectively recently was a comparison between a plate-spinner in a circus and William’s attempts to retain control of England and Normandy, ensure loyalty from his own supporters while defending his new kingdom from both Viking invasion and attacks from Welsh princes. To ensure students did really understand the analogy I showed them a short video of spinning plates but later work showed it had been worth it.
Repeating and referring back
Repetition of certain key phrases and terms is something I’ve stolen from oral traditions and cultures. In such societies stories are the main way in which information is passed from one generation to the next and these can be very lengthy. The Iliad and the Odyssey, while now written, would originally have been learned off by heart. To ensure these stories could be remembered by both the poets and their audience’s repetition of adjectives and certain phrases are used carefully and deliberately. For example, throughout both works, the goddess Athena is repetitively referred to as ‘bright-eyed.’ To a modern reader this can be jarring but this fixes her in long-term memory because it gives her meaning. Willingham, I think, would call this chunking. I try to use this technique in my own explanations by, for example, always referring to Harald Hardrada as ‘ruthless Hardrada’ and to Edgar the Aethling as ‘unsupported Edgar.’ I hope that doing this makes students more likely to remember both.
I am also trying to build and strengthen long term memory by, whenever appropriate, referring back to previously covered content. Doing this makes students retrieve past information which then strengthens the memory.
Supporting illustrations and board work
As quite a few of those who follow my work (hi Tarjinder!) will know, I am particularly, perhaps annoyingly, proud of my handwriting and board work. This is something I’ve worked very hard at and the improvements I’ve made are clear when looking at the difference between the earlier video I made and more recent ones, which are higher quality. Clear, neat illustrations and text reinforce and support explanations because presenting students with information in more than one way strengthens memory. However, any illustrations, whether they are hand-drawn on a whiteboard or displayed on a LCD projector, should be neat, directly related to the content and referred to at the appropriate time. The key, as always, is strong subject knowledge and careful thought about the material being taught, which makes it far easier for a teacher to see which parts of the content would benefit most from visual reinforcement. Crowded boards or too many distracting images overload working memory and undermine the overall clarity of the explanation. Oliver Cavigliol does this tremendously effectively and his illustrations are increasingly informing my own board-work.
I hope the techniques I’ve outlined in this post are useful to others. Of course, all get easier with deliberate practice and critique, which will be the focus of my final post in this series