Sunday, June 24, 2012


Explaining abstract concepts can prove challenging to the best of educators for the best to the weakest of students/audiences.

Here's one wonderful example of the art and challenge of explaining. [My husband actually used this clip recently to describe the financial fiasco in Europe and Greece].  It's taken from Elaine May's movie A New Leaf in which she starred with Walter Matthau. In this YouTube clip Walter Matthau runs to his accountant after an important check of his bounced:

While entertaining in its own right, this use of the clip to explain Europe's financial fiasco brings up a few educational points:
  • The power of a visual image to explain something (in this case finances or the importance of"capital");
  • The power of learning life lessons from others' stories and experiences;
  • The challenge of making an explanation meaningful and understood;
  • The power of laughter and art in helping explain and retain information.
The challenge to explaining is that not only must you define a concept, you must somehow relate it to the audience/student.
  • They have to not only understand the words you use, 
  • They have to understand the intent, 
  • They must understand how various factors interact with each other to create the "whole" of what is being explained, and 
  • They have to be able to understand WHY what it is your are explaining is so important to them.
Richard Feynman (Nobel Laureate in physics) in his book, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character (1985) talks about an experience he had as a visiting lecturer teaching a master class of graduate students:
"I was teaching a group of students who would ultimately become electricity and magnetism - Maxwell's equation...I discovered a very strange phenomenon: I could ask a question, which the students would answer immediately.  But the next time I would ask the question - the same subject, and the same questions, as far as I could tell - they couldn't answer it at all....After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn't know what anything meant.  When they heard 'light that is reflected from a medium with an index' they didn't know that it meant a material such as water....Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. [Bold was my emphasis.]
This happens all too often. Without a teacher's careful questioning and relating that topic to their lives, teachers often think their students have "learned" because they could shoot back 'facts' or jargon, and as a result missed the opportunity to EXPLAIN underlying meanings, concepts, application.

To best explain something:
  • The concepts must be related to ideas, names, places, things, students are already familiar with.  [Fractions or proportion, for example, can be explained watching a football game and figuring out 'first downs' ONLY to students who understand the underlying game.]
  • The explanation must be broken down into simple, recognizable components;
  • The use of images, pictures, graphs, charts all paired with words and explanations help students 'visualize' what you are explaining and provide additional paired memory associations. This is where teaching with graphic novels and illustrated texts can be prove extremely beneficial. This is also where the use of clips from favorite movies, cartoon, shows, can become powerful tools.
  • "Play around" with the concept. Once something is explained,
    •  ask your students/audience  HOW THEY think other things in their lives might relate to the concept, 
    • how they can USE what they just learned,
    • how it might be taken further and applied to something around with it, take concepts for a walk, a swim, a jump. 
    • You might, for example, ask them to write draw a cartoon or 'instructions' to explain the new concept to their friends or siblings.
  • Bring emotions into it.  Ask how what was explained makes them 'feel' or ask for images what you just explained conjure up for them.  
  • The more associations (visual, auditory, tactile, emotional, etc.) the greater the chance they will relate to it, understand it, and remember it.

 What are some of the tricks and tools you use to help explain something?  
Please leave your tricks, tools and impressions in the comments, and thank you for your visit. 

Before you leave... one more thing to keep in mind:


    1. Excellent post ~ hope parents and educators are reading this ~ When I used to teach on the college ~ I used all the mediums to reach all the senses ~ Visual, auditory, experiential and so on ~ Mind and body are so interconnected ~ especially in learning ~ enjoy the week ~ ^_^

    2. always learn something I didn't know on your blog, which leaves a lot of brain matter to fill!

    3. This is so so relevant. When I was in the classroom (and even now as a tutor) I make sure the kids understand the WHY of learning something AND how it relates to their world right now. When I was a student eons ago, I memorized because rote learning was the does not work as I soon learned for myself. Have an Xtraordinary week,

      abcw team

    4. Thanks for sharing the wonderful clip. I often find myself in the position of Mr. Beckett, unfortunately. My unseasonal entry this week is Ex Mess.

    5. the Einstein quote is TOTALLY relevant to a librarian.
      ROG, ABC Wednesday team

    6. This makes a very valid point. My daughter is a kinestic learner and I am a visual when someone overwhelms us with spoken facts we both disconnect. Not everyone learns the same way. Great post.

      Following from Ruby for Women Blog Hop.

    7. I discovered that when I am not interested in a subject I find it extremely difficult to learn this subject, let alone to teach it, in spite of all the rules I learnt about teaching.
      Good post, Meryl, but difficult to understand for me.
      Wil, ABC Team.

    8. Great post. It's hard to learn something that does not interest you.

      My entries:
      Moms...Check Nyo

    9. I agree it's so difficult to learn something you are not interested in!

      Thanks for linking up for WW :D

    10. albert einstein is so right - of course he is.

      and i love the kitty cat :)

    11. Very interesting post. I'm glad that you made the point about how just because a student can spit back facts doesn't mean they understand the concepts. Being able to relate to what they are being taught makes a big difference in retaining the knowledge. Carver, ABC-Wed. Team

    12. Very good post. I found the video quite entertaining, and the liquid cat. :)

    13. Relevant eye catching visual aids combined with concise wording of key concepts are a great way to capture interest and the get point across.

    14. Demonstrations, visuals and a bit of humor always helps when learning something new.

    15. As a recent college grad, I can totally relate to this post. Some of my favorite professors had actually worked in the field they were teaching about, so they could share relevant experiences. I also appreciate visual aids to help keep me focused (much better than just listening to a lecture).

    16. Actual experiences are always a great way to Xplain!

      X is for Xeroderma

    17. Great explanation on the importance of explaining! Cute kitty logic, too. ^.^

    18. Thanks for linking up with us today :)

    19. My husband always complains I pick the words and not the context.
      That is my sleep deprived brain thinking. It's really hot here in Singapore, and good that I am staying in my sister's place so I don't have to pay for accommodation, and I have 1 month so I don't have to rush. I wake up at 3 am in the morning because it is 8 am in New Zealand.

    20. I had a great comment in my head, really I did, but then I saw the picture of the cat and my thoughts disappeared.

      Thanks for linking up with us!

    21. This is very helpful.. Thank's for sharing..

      Visiting for Wordless Wednesday- hope you can stop by..

    22. Always educational AND eloquent! A great explanation!

    23. Love the post!
      Hi! Stopping by from the blog hop! Am now a new follower:) Would love if you could follow me back!

    24. Great post! New Follower from Mommy and 4 Peas in a Pod :) Please follow back.

    25. I really enjoy your blog! I'm following you from the Friday blog hop, follow me?