How would you explain these to a student?
Recently I’ve been considering what makes effective teaching and I think this is often overlooked as an important aspect of teaching. How a teacher describes, explains, especially abstract concepts is the key to student understanding. A teacher may have a perfectly behaved group, with great attitudes and loads of resources but if the teacher can’t transfer what they know and understand to the students then ultimately their learning will suffer.
I once observed a highly qualified, highly intelligent trainee with a PhD try to teach year 10. The students didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. He didn’t have a clue why they didn’t understand what he was saying. The gap between knowing something and being able to share that with someone who may be years younger and have less of a passion towards it than him was huge.
This is where I disagree with the Government about teacher qualifications. The reality is that it doesn’t matter about the level of teacher subject knowledge if they can’t transfer that effectively they won’t succeed as a teacher.
There are some pedagogies where teacher exposition has been marginalised in favour of students ‘finding out for themselves’. Chalk and talk has been frowned upon and undiscerning SLTs have put time limits on use of teacher talk. I completely disagree with this. The teacher is the expert. They know a lot about their subject. They’re employed because of it. Telling teachers that they shouldn’t talk is seriously limiting. Teachers should decide themselves, with a class in mind what is appropriate as the most efficient, effective way for students to learn.
What are the features of great exposition?
- Start by using language that a student understands and gradually include new keywords that stretch understanding but have been used in a clear context
- Use of pictures, diagrams, charts where possible
- Use of analogy or other literary devices that help students link the concrete to abstract
- Pace – not a set pace but a pace that the class sets. This is a great skill. A teacher can only decide pace based on student response, body language and the questions they ask. A great teacher can change the pace instantly.
- It encourages students to ask more and want to learn more. There may be lots of questions but they show understanding and an attempt to extend their own thinking.
- The tone, pitch, volume of voice is audible but also used with variation to help with emphasis or character where appropriate. Teacher enthusiasm will probably be shown via their voice.
- Students are silent when the teacher explains. Discussion and questions can come after or at teacher decided points.
- Use of repetition. Anything new should be repeated in different ways throughout the lesson
- Instructions are specific & clear. Not ‘tidy away’ but ‘put the pencils int he pots, pick the rubbish off of the floor and put your books in the box’.
- Pitched at the right level for the class. This is the toughest and probably the most important. There is no point teaching Pythagoras’s triangle theorem if they don’t understand square numbers, addition etc There is no point in using university level language unless they have basic terminology nailed. This isn’t the same as having high expectations, it’s about enabling students to access high level content appropriately.
It’s easy to know when teacher exposition isn’t clear enough through the following (although these are not just attributed to unclear exposition):
- Body language – slumping, looking around the room, fiddling etc
- Student comments such as ‘I don’t get it’, ‘I don’t understand what I have to do’ ‘I can’t do X’
- Student questions ask the thing that you thought you’d just explained
- Student work is incorrect
- Students don’t complete the work (because they can’t)
How to improve exposition
Practise explaining as part of planning.
Record yourself explaining something. Listen back. Was it clear? Why?
Watch someone teach that is good at exposition. Listen to examples of the above list of features.
Write yourself a mini-script or list of points you will follow when explaining so you get the correct order etc
Practise explaining with a colleague/friend/relative who doesn’t know anything about the topic