A key skill for the teacher is explaining things clearly. Here are a few tips for helping with that.
1) “Superfluous information creates confusion, muddies waters, and digs holes.” There is a man in my community whose career involved working with NASA on the Apollo program. We call him “Alabama” Bob Clingan. He’s a joy to be around, and his background bubbles up all the time into proverbial bits of wisdom. This one nails it on the head: “Superfluous information creates confusion, muddies waters, and digs holes.”
In short: clarity is king. When answering questions, be short, direct, and comprehensive. If yes will do, then say yes.
2) “When you confuse, you lose.” Journalist Eric Barker writes in his Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, “When you confuse, you lose.” The brain is attracted to clarity — not pretty words or clever asides. The longer you talk while giving directions, the more likely it is that you’re losing someone.
Aim to be short and clear.
3) Say what you’ll say, then say it, then say what you said. In Well-Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students, speaking teacher guru Erik Palmer calls these signposts. We’re good at knowing in our heads what we intend to say and then saying what we intended to say and then knowing what we said — but our listeners aren’t in our heads! So be clear at the start of your explanation about what you’re going to explain, and then explain it — steps are helpful here — and then summarize at the end with what you explained.
4) Use visual paragraphs. Steve Seward, a Michigan education legend and a mentor of mine, was the master of visual paragraphing, a technique he picked up from Adaptive Schools. The idea is that, as you’re explaining the steps of an explanation, you move your body with each of those steps.
“All right, students, first, we’re going to do X.”
Move one step to the side.
“Then, we’re going to do Y.”
Move another step to the side.
“And finally, we’ll explore Z.”
Move back to the first position.
“So, first X.” Move. “Then Y.” Move. “Then Z.” Move.
Visually paragraphing works wonderfully with all ages.
5) Shoot for Goldilocks. I’ve observed teachers mess up explanations in two ways: first, by not explaining things well enough; and second, by over-explaining things. This reminds me of a concept I picked up from Kelly Gallagher in Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It: in all of our instruction, we want to avoid over-teaching and under-teaching. The expertise we work so hard for in the art and science of teaching is the mental sense of where that “sweet spot” of instruction lies.
The goal is Goldilocks: not too much, not too little.
6) When you don’t know, say “I don’t know.” This is a final point from Alabama Bob. Sometimes the best use of everyone’s time — and the best way to boost your credibility — is to just say, “I don’t have a good answer to that. I don’t know.” It’s fine to follow that with, “But here’s my best shot in thirty seconds,” or, “But here’s where I’d go to find the answer,” or, “Here’s my email address so you can ask me tomorrow what my answer is after having some time to think on it.”
Just don’t try to pass “I think I might know” as “I know.”
All of these are pretty common sensical, but it is amazing how often I watch smart people — including myself! — neglect one or more of these rules of thumb, to everyone’s detriment.