Giving explanations

After my first series about games in pedagogy, I would like to share some trivial considerations. An army seldom collapses from a very tough battle, or because the enemy has been very smart, but rather from a lack of supply. In most cases, disease is deadlier than bullets. A lesson does not fail from a lack of fun and does rarely fail because the teacher hasn’t worked enough. It fails because of very common and uninteresting issues, such as a broken LCD projector, a lack of rituals, bad weather and so on. A teacher suffers much more from chatter than from true violence. There is no glory in it, but it hurts all the same. In my next articles, I would like to discuss those seemingly boring matters, because they are essential. So let’s get started with


One major rule: keep them simple.

The trick is that you’ll probably make the lessons more complicated by trying to explain them. First, make sure that the students are in good condition before you give an explanation or a set of instructions. Partial explanations are confusing as well. The main strategies to give an explanation:

– Define a word. It’s best done by comparing different concepts than by replacing the difficult word by another one. You don’t really explain the word average, if you just replace it by medium or mediocre. Don’t explain it by translating it into your language, if possible. Place it in the series: huge, big, average, small, tiny. If you want to teach the vocabulary of the family in a foreign language, it’s better to fill a family tree rather than giving a translation. There are several words in Khmer for aunt or uncle. And they are not interchangeable. Different languages, different social organizations. In any case, don’t try several synonyms if the first one doesn’t work. The loss in accuracy can result in mistakes and confusion. Polysemy can be very tricky. Train the students to search the dictionary when they have any doubt. If they believe that they know all the words and if the sentence is still difficult to understand, some of the words probably have several meanings. The word corruption is often known by the students as a synonym of bribery, because it’s a very common meaning in the newspapers. It’s the fact of giving money or accepting money to do something bad. But the word initially meant decay and could refer to almost anything, from moral perversion to physical putrefaction. I’m not sure that the average English teenager understands those meanings, but I’m sure that the average French teenager doesn’t (we have the same word in French). French pupils can be very confused by a text from the 17th century with that word in it. With experience, a good teacher can often anticipate the need for definitions, and prepare them properly.

– Give an example. The best examples are concrete things known to the students. The example should be simple enough, so the student can see intuitively what’s important in it. Don’t give a sentence of 50 words as an example for a grammar rule. Nobody will reproach you to give some “stupid” examples such a “Cats eat mice”, to illustrate the plural in English. As long as it’s clear, it’s good. You will have plenty of occasions to expose the students to more difficult and interesting stuff during the exercises.

– Show the thing, either the real thing, or, by default, some kind of picture. However, the more complex the picture is, the more it requires comments. Therefore, a photo is not necessarily the best image possible. Don’t forget to precise the scale, one way or another. A picture of the pyramids means nothing without the shape of a man for comparison. Beware that most pictures are not to the scale at all. Most pictures of the solar system are just fantasy in regard to the scales.

– Use proportionality. If you have to explain the casualties during the Great War, 1,500,000 dead French soldiers mean nothing to the students. This number is a pure abstraction. If you want to make them understand how bloody that war was, align the boys in front of the girls, pretend that the boys are finishing high school education in 1913 and count: “One, two, three, you’re dead. One, two, three, you’re dead.” Indeed, about one third of the young men who were enlisted died within 4 years. But girls were almost untouched.

– Compare the numbers. A date in the ancient time is almost impossible to understand. For a teenager, 30 years or 3,000, it’s the past. But he knows that a 80 years old man is a grandpa. He knows that most people retire around 60 or 65. So, you can make a few calculations. Was it possible for a man to see in his life both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar? Consider that there is more time between the construction of the great pyramid and Cleopatra than between Cleopatra and us. And still, in our imagination, both Cleopatra and the pyramid belong to a unique ancient Egyptian civilization. The question of interpreting numbers would require an entire books.

– Use analogies. An analogy is a comparison of two pairs of words that demonstrate a similar relationship, such as father is to son what mother is to daughter. Beware that analogies may be tricky. People like them, because they trigger something in the imagination, but analogies are limited to some aspects of the things only. There is a serious risk of over-interpretation. Wing is to plane what sail is to ship. The physical mechanisms are not quite the same, even though both ship and plane are transportation means, and both sail and wing are related to the air.

Use as few words as possible. Don’t expect the explanation to be efficient immediately. And don’t try too much.The students may need a lot of help to do their exercises, but you can’t interrupt the activities all the time to give new explanations. It’s a question of balance. The best thing is often to make the students do the exercises, even if they don’t seem to fully understand. You may need the exercises to figure out what part of the lesson is still obscure. In general, teachers are advised to accept all the questions. However, set a time limit for them: “No more questions. Let’s have a try!” Of course, if there is a serious chance that the students don’t understand the lesson, it is essential to do the exercises in a secure way. It’s better to do them at school rather than as homework. The students should never be punished for failing. At this phase of the learning process, it is not relevant to mark the performance. Just play a few rounds for nothing. As homework, you’d rather assign more common tasks: the training that doesn’t require too much assistance from the teacher.

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