Keep it simple

Another blog I wrote way back in November last year but never published. Just clearing the backlog, this is the last one! This discusses why I prefer to explain concepts explicitly rather than let students flounder by trying to work it out for themselves.

I have been mulling lately over the idea, so prevalent in teaching today, that it is better to let children work something out for themselves than to directly explain it to them. I know many people take umbrage at Michaela school’s slogan of ‘just tell-em’ as authoritarian and retrograde. I don’t think that is the case, and I will explain why, through a look at my own lesson planning experience.

First of all, is it really the case that children will understand something less if it is told to them rather than if they discover it for themselves? Let me give a few examples here which I think refute this idea. How many instances are there in schools where direct instructions are given to children outside of the teaching curriculum? Let’s see. We might instruct children in the classroom rules of conduct. We might instruct them on what to do if someone is bullying them. We might instruct them to follow a one-way system around the school or to enter the refectory in a particular way or at a particular time. All these instructions are likely to be verbal, whether made by a school leader at assembly, or a form tutor or teacher in the classroom. They might employ visual aids, such as PowerPoint slides or paper handouts, to reinforce the message. There is no expectation, however, that the children need to actually work these things out for themselves, or experience them kinaesthetically in order to understand the instructions. Language is a powerful communicator.

If we expect children to understand us when we talk to them, why then does this understanding stop when we use the same form of communication to explain a new concept to be learned? From primary school onwards, children are used to having stories read out to them. Through the power of the spoken word, as well as the intonation and expression of the teacher, children are introduced to new ideas and allowed to visualise the story in their minds.

If you have young children, then you know that they are always full of questions. If your child were to ask you a question such as ‘What happens to grown-ups if they do something bad?’ my guess is you would answer them directly with an explanation such as ‘It depends what bad thing the grown-up does, but if for example this person has stolen something from a shop or attacked somebody, the police would come after them and arrest them.’ You might go on to explain the matter further, talking about the legal system and jails. What you would probably not do, is bounce their question back at them and ask them to work it out for themselves, maybe by giving them a few hints, and only once they’ve struggled for some time on their own, would you supply them with the answer. The reason why you would most probably answer them directly the first time around, is that it is more time efficient. We are all busy people, and children ask a lot of questions. It is simply more efficient to give a clear and explicit answer, than to play obstacle course and encourage the children to find out for themselves.

In my lesson planning, I have met with this same dilemma. Learning time is limited and I want to make best use of it in the lesson. I also know, however, that there is an expectation that I should not just tell, but ask lots of questions to guide the students to the right conclusion themselves. Say for instance, the lesson is about the use of propaganda posters in the Second World War. The first thing you would do in such a lesson, is ensure that students understand the meaning of the word ‘propaganda’. The ‘just tell-em’ way would be to give the students a definition of the word right at the start, get them to write it down, and explain it with a few examples. You might then maybe display three posters on the board, and ask which one of them is not a work of propaganda, to check for understanding. At most, this process would take about five minutes of lesson time.

Many in education would frown at such a didactic approach. The alternative is to plant lots of clues and ask searching questions that will eventually get the student to the desired destination (we hope). This could be by putting up some propaganda posters on the board and asking students to work out what all these posters might have in common. Eventually, after much prompting, you might get to ‘they are trying to make people think or act in a certain way’ and eventually that ‘they are trying to influence people’. You might then introduce the word propaganda to them as what they have just described, and then task them with writing, in their own words, a definition of ‘propaganda’. You would then do an AFL task, perhaps putting up a false definition on the board and then using RAG cards to see if they agree with it or not. You might question certain students on the RAG card they have chosen, and ask them to elaborate. Finally, you might then display the correct definition of the word and get the students to write it down. Length of this activity? At least 15 minutes.

It does not make sense to me, to spend a triple amount of time to teach something to students, when the direct, explicit method can achieve the same in a fraction of that time. Sometimes, the simplest way is the best. This is just one of many examples where I think teaching is made needlessly overcomplicated. Tom Sherrington says it so well in his excellent blog: ‘Just Teach!’

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