Seven Keys to Explanations

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In his book, How To Explain Absolutely Anything to Absolutely Anyone: The art and science of teacher explanation, Andy Tharby suggests that there are 7 keys to effective explanations:

1. Strong subject knowledge

Teachers need to be able to understand and explain the ‘micro’ (specific skills and knowledge related to a topic or subject) within the context of the ‘macro’ (how does this specific knowledge fit into the disciplinary area as a whole and how does it relate to our understanding of and interaction with the wider world). However, one of the difficulties of a strong subject knowledge is being able to dismantle this knowledge to basic elements that can be taught to students.

2. Credibility and clarity

Explanations are actually an act of persuasion. It requires a circle of credibility (trust, competence and subject knowledge), reason and logic and the provoking of emotion.

3. Concise design – less is more

Too much new information at once can reduce learning. Information needs to be presented in manageable bites that link to students’ current knowledge and capabilities. The research indicates that this is most effectively achieved through direct instruction.

4. Concepts supported by real world examples

Abstract concepts are best supported using concrete examples that link to real word situations and problems. Tharby uses the example of space being describes as a ‘giant flexible snail shell’.

5. Metaphors and analogies

Connections need to be made between students’ prior knowledge and the material being taught.

6. Storytelling

We are pre-wired to learn from stories. Stories provide natural connections, they are interesting, easy to understand and easier to remember.

7. Chances to elaborate

Explanations are only effective when students are given opportunities to think about the material being taught. Student discussion also highlights areas of misunderstanding.

Strategies for Improving Teacher Explanations

1. Set up your classroom strategically

• Ensure you have reciprocal eye contact with your students
• Stand still to minimise distraction
• Choose one location from which you always give explanations so students make an association between you being in that spot and the importance of paying attention
• Set up a seating plan that will maximise student attention and addresses each student’s needs in terms of hearing, vision, etc.

2. Teach listening skills to your students

• Look directly at the speaker
• Stop working when the teacher is talking
• Remain quiet when someone is talking
• Maintain an open posture to signal that you are paying attention
• Ask questions after the teacher has finished talking
• Respect new ideas even if you don’t agree

3. Script explanations

• Particularly if the content of the explanation is complex
• Choose vocabulary and examples that will support student understanding and learning

4. Rehearse explanations

• To ensure a fluent delivery
• To consider the effect of pauses, changes in volume and tone and the effective placement of supporting visuals

5. Observe explanations of other teachers

• Take into consideration both effective and ineffective elements
• Apply this insight to your own teaching


Tharby, A. (2018). How to Explain Absolutely Anything to Absolutely Anyone: The art and science of teacher explanation. Crown House Publishing: UK