TWHF Teaching and Learning Champions: Episode 2 – Effective Explanation

“If you can’t explain it simply then you don’t understand it well enough” – Albert Einstein

In recent years, there has been a lot published about what constitutes effective explanation. In 1991 Sweller published his paper which looked at the effects of cognitive load on short term (working) memory. Understanding the effects of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and its repercussions on learning has forced teachers to evaluate how they present and impart new information(knowledge).

The influence on CLT on the education landscape led Dylan Wiliam to proclaim in a tweet in 2017 – “I have come to the conclusion [that] Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know.”

Following on from Sweller’s work, Barak Rosenshine introduced his Principles of Instructions in 2010. Heavily influenced by cognitive science, Rosenshine took the latest research and outlined 10 key factors which, he thought, enabled effective instruction.
With the shift in recent years towards evidence informed practice, it is important that teachers and school leaders are aware of how children and young adults learn best. In his book, ‘What if everything you knew about education was wrong?’ David Didau argues that teachers, due to various biases, continue to deliver methods of teaching which, according to all the latest research, is at best ineffective and at worst detrimental to children’s learning. Didau, proposes that teachers and school leaders take a step back and question the practice that is currently taking place in their schools.
An example of this reluctance to change is highlighted in Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke’s (at the time) controversial paper “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work.” Here Kirschner et al highlight the evidence for the superiority of guided instruction despite the overwhelming popularity of unguided or “child-led” learning.
It is clear, over the last 5 years at least, that there has been an acceptance that teachers and school leaders must take on board the advice highlighted from cognitive research and apply this to their day-day practice.

With this in mind, a group of teachers from across the White Horse Federation have come together to look at what constitutes effective explanation taking advice from all the latest cognitive science research.
Heavily influenced by CLT, the group have devised the following suggestions to help develop effective explanation in schools;
1. Teachers need to be aware of and understand the effects of cognitive load on learning new information. It is important to understanding that the brain can only do a limited number of things at once, therefore we need to be clear about what we want it to do
2. Tether new knowledge to what is already known and has already been experienced – Good teaching understands that every child has a different starting point, different prior learning and different life experiences.
3. Make the Complex Simple – Teachers who explain things well, making the complex simple, score highly as great teachers. Clear explanation accelerates the learning process
4. Introduce in small steps – Breaking down the learning into small steps is essential to reduce the cognitive load – working memory is small and we can only handle a few bits of information at once.
5. Building Opportunities to Revisit Prior Learning – The ‘Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve‘ is a nice visual way to remind us that we must give effective explanations, but then revisit the core message with spaced repetition, otherwise there is danger that it will be forgotten.

As part of the White Horse Federation’s wider Teaching and Learning project, the group have produced training materials and resources to support the development of effective explanation across the Trust’s 31 schools.