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The Art of Explanation … or is there some Science in there? January 1, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Inspiration, Reading, Teaching Idea.
Tags: , ,


the art of explanation

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by ianguest: http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/8335216680/

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently acquired the book “The Art of Explanation” by Lee LeFever. Impressed by the clarity and economy of explanation in CommonCraft videos, I wondered what lessons there might be for those of us who work in the classroom. I guess the first step is to isolate that part of our teaching and learning environments to which ‘The Art …’ applies and here the early chapters provide a signpost. Specifically the book is about explanations, so defining the term makes sense and for Lee explanation is about making facts more understandable; about ‘lowering the cost of figuring out an idea and inviting people to become customers of it in the future.’ Explanations help people beyond the ‘how’ questions through to the ‘why’ to the point where they are sufficiently confident and care enough to want to find out more for themselves. With teachers I’m sure that will have a certain resonance.

And some fell on stony ground

We’ve all at some time or another looked out over a sea of blank stares, a time when our attempt at explanation was … less than optimal! Lee provides some pointers here and argues that it all begins with confidence; when someone loses confidence that they can grasp the idea that you’re communicating, you’ve lost them. One problem which might lead to this is making assumptions about that level of confidence when working with a group. One-on-one, it’s easier to spot the tell-tale signs when you’re losing someone; with thirty (or more), that’s much tougher and can lead to false assumptions. One cause is the curse of knowledge, that we as ‘experts’ in our fields sometimes suffer from, where we misplace our ability to see the world from another person’s perspective. Again as experts, we’re sometimes guilty of using terminology to which our audience (or some within it) may not be party and as a consequence they lose confidence. One more factor of crucial importance in helping someone to understanding is in setting a context with which they can relate; if an explanation is provided in splendid isolation, people are far less likely to care.

Put a bow on it

To make your ideas easier for other people to understand, they need to be packaged in such a way that they address the audience’s needs. There are six important elements:

  • Agreement – build confidence from the outset by using big-picture statements which will have resonance for all.
  • Context – takes the points on which we can agree, to a new place; one which also lets the audience know why it should matter to them.
  • Story – a narrative woven around a character which experiences the aforementioned journey and resulting benefits.
    • Connections – analogies and metaphors used to support the story by connecting new ideas with something people already understand. The spices added to accentuate the flavour of a dish!
    • Descriptions – provide concrete examples of the desirable outcomes for the character and how they have been achieved
  • Conclusion – summarises what has been learned and provides a ‘call to action’ for the audience to put that into practice.

But at the moment, much of that is abstract. In order to better understand the degree to which ‘The Art…’ can inform our teaching, I perhaps need to consider a more concrete example. Can I apply these observations to a teaching/learning situation? And that’s for the next post …


1. The Art of Explanation – Terminal Velocity « In the pICTure - January 6, 2013

[…] the preceding post I discussed the aforementioned book and wondered if there were any lessons to be learned from the […]

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