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In Praise of Explanations

December 3, 2014

Having seen it recommended by a couple of bloggers (Thanks, Larry and Stephen) I’ve just watched this video:

It’s an argument that there are good reasons why technology has repeatedly failed to transform education and seems likely to fail again. A similar message can also be found in much of Larry Cuban’s writings (and I can recommend his blog and Teachers and Machines: Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920) and initially I thought it might make a good postscript to my recently completed series of posts about the future.

However, while I agree with so much of this video I think there is a real problem with the explanation of what it is about teaching that technology has been unable to change and, in particular, the reason why Youtube videos will not replace teachers. The explanation given is:

Well, if you think that the fundamental job of a teacher is to transmit information from their head to their students, then you’re right, they are obsolete. I mean you probably imagine a classroom where this teacher is spewing out facts at a pace which is appropriate for one student, too fast for half and too slow for the rest.  Luckily the fundamental role of a teacher is not to deliver information, it is to guide the social process of learning. The job of a teacher is to inspire; to challenge, to excite their students to want to learn. Yes, they also do explain and demonstrate and show things, but fundamentally that is beside the point.  The most important thing a teacher does is make every student feel like they are important; to make them feel accountable for doing the work of learning.

Part of this is correct. Teachers can guide a class and hold students accountable for their work in a way that a Youtube video can’t. Teachers do more than teach and even if we were to delegate explanations to videos (which is something even I do occasionally) then they are still needed to select the videos and compel the students to watch them and to do any work resulting from them. However, too much of this restates an old caricature of the process of imparting knowledge.

According to many progressive educators (countless examples can be found in the comments here) there is something deficient about giving children information to learn. Knowledge is mere “facts”. The process of transmitting it is one way; here it is described as “spewing”, which fits well with the cliché of students “regurgitating facts”. Such transmission can be replaced by technology. It is also less important than how students feel about the learning, i.e. whether they are inspired or feel important.

What this fails to appreciate is the art of explanation. This is what makes a good teacher: the ability to explain something so that the entire class can learn it. This ability can be exercised remotely, educational videos may involve well-crafted explanations. However, a teacher in the classroom who knows the students can craft those explanations so much better. They have an idea of their prior knowledge and their levels of concentration. They can relate what is being taught to what they have taught previously, what students have been assessed to know and their general knowledge. They can adjust for the vocabulary and the attention span of the students. They can anticipate precisely where students will go wrong and, often, even which students will go wrong. They can even begin explanations with guidance as to how to get the most out of them (e.g. saying things like “you will be stuck if you don’t realise this point”, or “if you try to figure it out from what’s been written down without listening, you will make this mistake”) based on their knowledge of the class. They can decide whether a particular “hook” will work for these particular students.

Perhaps though, a teacher who knew the students, could design their own video to deliver the explanation, or pick the correct video for the class? Even that wouldn’t be as good as what they can do by explaining live. A teacher can interact with their students while they are explaining something to them. They can make eye contact and correct those not paying attention. They can ask students what they already know; what they understand, and what they find confusing. This, not provoking “higher levels of thought”, is what questioning is all about. A teacher can monitor the effect their explanation has on the students. They can identify which bits they might have to repeat three times, or which parts are so important that they will not move on unless every child in the room has acknowledged that they have heard it and will remember it. This is why it is so important to get students in the habit of listening and responding to teacher talk. Perhaps most importantly of all, particularly for helping the most able students, teachers can anticipate and answer students’ questions. I am not a fan of arbitrary divisions of knowledge into “facts” and “understanding” but it is this sort of dialogue that is the quickest way to ensure students do have more than a superficial grasp of what has been explained.

With regard to the section on the “affective” side of teaching, I’d observe that, few things are the cause of more rubbish to be talked in education than student motivation and so we should tread carefully. Every bad idea is sold as being engaging or being something the kids will love. It is right to be dismissive of the entertainment value of teaching resources or even teaching. No matter how good the kids are, and how entertaining the teaching is, they would still (as one experienced teacher told me) “like it even more if you just showed them cartoons”. I do object to being told that our job is to inspire students as if nobody ever learned as a result of anything but the most passionate enthusiasm. As for the idea we have to make students “feel important”, this is not a teacher’s job. Despite the claims of the cult of self-esteem in education, the right attitude to learning is as often about humility as it is about confidence. It is about appreciating what you don’t know and that you will need to work hard in order to know it. There is still a motivational side to teaching. It’s just less about inspiration and building self-esteem and more about authority, trust and expectations. Teachers can, of course, provide these things better than a video could, but it won’t look like Dead Poet’s Society. It will simply look like a teacher in charge of the classroom with students expecting to learn and that’s perfectly compatible with a teacher planning to impart knowledge directly.

The video is exactly right to identify why teachers cannot be replaced and are unlikely to be replaced in any upcoming revolution. It’s just unfortunate that the image given of what is indispensable about teachers is such a romantic one, appealing to inspiration and children’s feelings, rather than the more practical aspects of running a classroom in a way that ensures learning takes place.

17 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. Let’s analyse the needs of a good explanation as part of a teaching strategy.

    1. The pupil must be prepared/able to concentrate on the explanation for its duration.

    1.1 Must be motivated to participate with the teacher
    1.2 Must have whatever background knowledge is needed to access the explanation
    1.3 Must not be subject to distractions from the subject

    2. The teacher must deliver the explanation in such a way that it is coherent to whoever is receiving it.

    2.1 Teacher needs to modify the delivery based on real time feedback that might be questions, responses to questions or simply body language.

    2.2 Delivery needs to be interesting in content and tone.

    2.3 Delivery needs to be sequenced and logical.

    3. Teacher needs to know if the pupils have understood the explanation.

    3.1 Teacher needs to assess the degree to which the pupil(s) have understood the explanation.

    3.2 Teacher needs to decide whether or not to finish with this explanation and start a new one or do more on this one.

    I know Andrew has a thing about motivation so let’s get that out of the way first. No-one does anything without motivation, period. How they are motivated is a different discussion. Human teachers can motivate learning or motivate apathy and/or rebellion, it’s really that simple. I’d be a Chemist now if the teacher of the top set in my traditional 1960s/70s Grammar School had not motivated rebellion in every lesson through KS4 so don’t tell me it’s not a factor. Most of the things identified in the blog like eye contact, listening and responding etc are fundamentally about motivation. I’m willing to accept some teachers motivate poor behaviour through well-meaning “progressive methods” or whatever but really the things identified that a computer does least well is motivate children at the human level.

    Is it conceivable that a computer could do all this? Not at the present time, but never is a long time. Firstly computers might satisfy number 1 for a small minority but they are not going to do it for most. Even human teachers have problems with 1.1 for some children but they do have an intrinsic advantage simply by being human, especially in subjects such as the performing arts and PE. We are still some way off androids that could pass for being human. Second, although self-adjusting computer based tasks are available they are still relatively primitive compared to a skilled human when it comes to body language and nuances. Of course some humans are bad at this too. Third, while a computer could make a decision on whether the student should move on or not it is likely to get caught up in conflict with not understanding emotional issues. And of course teaching many things involves more than explanations.

    So it is understandable why people say that computers can’t take over from humans as teachers. While an expert computer system could explain things patiently in many different ways and store more knowledge than any human teacher could (and it’s inevitable that such systems will increase in sophistication) it is unlikely to connect on a human level for some decades yet. Currently the best teachers are going to be the ones that can extend what they do through the use of technology making it complementary to their work rather than a competitor to it. Like all learning that needs a lot of practice and those that avoid it will only have themselves to blame if they do end up making themselves redundant. if you are over 35 I wouldn’t worry too much ;-)


    • Let’s analyse the needs of a good explanation as part of a teaching strategy.

      So far, so incoherent. An explanation does not have needs.

      1. The pupil must be prepared/able to concentrate on the explanation for its duration.

      1.1 Must be motivated to participate with the teacher

      You mean they must comply?

      1.2 Must have whatever background knowledge is needed to access the explanation
      1.3 Must not be subject to distractions from the subject

      2. The teacher must deliver the explanation in such a way that it is coherent to whoever is receiving it.

      2.1 Teacher needs to modify the delivery based on real time feedback that might be questions, responses to questions or simply body language.

      2.2 Delivery needs to be interesting in content and tone.

      This is not a “need”. We might prefer it, but we can learn without it. And that assumes anything is inherently “interesting” rather than just interesting to someone.

      2.3 Delivery needs to be sequenced and logical.

      3. Teacher needs to know if the pupils have understood the explanation.

      3.1 Teacher needs to assess the degree to which the pupil(s) have understood the explanation.

      3.2 Teacher needs to decide whether or not to finish with this explanation and start a new one or do more on this one.

      I know Andrew has a thing about motivation so let’s get that out of the way first. No-one does anything without motivation, period.

      The issue I have is with equivocation. We use “motivation” to describe the drive to any deliberate act, but also to describe enthusiasm for or interest in, an action. We shouldn’t confuse the two. Students might need to comply, they don’t need to be enthusiastic to learn. I’m quite happy to discuss how to achieve the former, but the quest for the latter is invariably an excuse for lowering expectations or for blaming teachers.

      How they are motivated is a different discussion. Human teachers can motivate learning or motivate apathy and/or rebellion, it’s really that simple. I’d be a Chemist now if the teacher of the top set in my traditional 1960s/70s Grammar School had not motivated rebellion in every lesson through KS4 so don’t tell me it’s not a factor.

      What’s not a factor? You seem to want to endorse the idea that the behaviour of children in a class is a function of the behaviour of their teacher. It is never that simple. Children arrive with expectations and they also interact with each other. The same teacher doing the same thing can get a completely different response depending on the class, the school, the time of day.

      Most of the things identified in the blog like eye contact, listening and responding etc are fundamentally about motivation. I’m willing to accept some teachers motivate poor behaviour through well-meaning “progressive methods” or whatever but really the things identified that a computer does least well is motivate children at the human level.

      Children seem pretty motivated by machines that run games.

      Is it conceivable that a computer could do all this? Not at the present time, but never is a long time. Firstly computers might satisfy number 1 for a small minority but they are not going to do it for most. Even human teachers have problems with 1.1 for some children but they do have an intrinsic advantage simply by being human, especially in subjects such as the performing arts and PE. We are still some way off androids that could pass for being human. Second, although self-adjusting computer based tasks are available they are still relatively primitive compared to a skilled human when it comes to body language and nuances. Of course some humans are bad at this too. Third, while a computer could make a decision on whether the student should move on or not it is likely to get caught up in conflict with not understanding emotional issues. And of course teaching many things involves more than explanations.

      So it is understandable why people say that computers can’t take over from humans as teachers. While an expert computer system could explain things patiently in many different ways and store more knowledge than any human teacher could…

      Have you actually read my post?


      • To answer the last question first, yes I read your post. Thought there was a good deal of agreement. I was simply building on what you wrote to say why it is motivating factors rather than subject knowledge that is what make teachers impossible to replace with computers.

        Re: pedantry of wording.

        Add 2 words I thought were implicit but apparently not. Apologies, “needs of a good explanation for effectiveness.”

        1.1 – I mean must be motivated. Forced to comply is a way of motivating using MacGregor’s Theory X. Motivation can come from extrinsic factors, avoiding pain, sanctions, rewards etc as well as well as from intrinsic factors. There seems to be a consensus in liberal democracies that the latter is more effective in children’s’ learning than the former and that the teacher has a role in this but no doubt there is a balance to be had that will vary in different contexts.

        2.2 From a pragmatic consideration, in a liberal democracy, without some intrinsic interest I doubt many explanations will be optimally effective. This is borne out by considerable research evidence that demonstrates that intrinsic factors induce more hard work and commitment than extrinsic factors.

        eg Mark Lepper (1988). Motivational considerations in the study of instruction. Quite a lot more since.

        Sure, if you can’t achieve intrinsic interest, coercion might be better than chaos but sub-optimal.

        3.2 Motivation is motivation, intrinsic factors such as interest are a cause of it or indeed demotivation. Part of a teacher’s job is to motivate learning, it is not always easy to do so, it’s generally agreed to be a difficult job, but other jobs are difficult too. Part of a salesman’s job is to sell stuff sometimes to people who don’t want what he has to sell. That isn’t easy either yet his pay probably depends directly on it. There are many other examples.

        The behaviour of children in a classroom is directly related to the behaviour of the teacher. I’m certainly not saying it’s the only factor but it is a very important one. When the same class of kids has a riot with one teacher and behave well for another, same time of day etc on many occasions, we are even controlling the variables and demonstrating the effect of the teacher on behaviour. Denial is not going to change that. What should be done about it is a different issue.

        Games – strawman.


        • You seem to be repeating the same opinion without in any way addressing my argument or the realities of how children behave. Behaviour simply isn’t about one teacher at a time winning kids over. It’s about expectations and they are set over time, and they mean that some classes expect to work and will be disappointed if they don’t, and some classes will never cooperate with anyone wanting them to learn. They also mean that some teachers will be seen as legitimate targets for defiance, and some won’t. Do some supply at tough schools and see how far you get by relying on “intrinsic factors” for behaviour management.


          • The realities of how children behave are well documented and related to motivation theory. I have been at pains to say it’s not about one teacher alone, but that one teacher does have a significant effect. Neither have I said anywhere that it is about one teacher winning children over on their own. I have been talking about motivation as an important general aspect of teaching, not attributing that specifically and exclusively to one teacher and not defining it exclusively in terms of conformity through fear of sanctions. I think you are using behaviour here in a very specific context ie conforming to a set of rules or norms for particularly chaotic contexts, Neither am I saying that is unimportant, it is fundamental but behaviour in the social psychology sense is much wider than that and includes all behaviours not just what would be termed discipline in a tough school. I was under the impression that you were talking in general terms not focussing specifically on out of control supply classes. I have taught such classes – not as a supply teacher, granted, but that mode of teaching is hardly representative of the majority of classes. As always context is everything.


  3. If either/or, then clearly teacher > video.

    But if the choice is video to prime – teacher input in class – video always available for revision


  4. I’d recommend people read Derek Muller’s PhD thesis > http://www.physics.usyd.edu.au/super/theses/PhD%28Muller%29.pdf < Designing Effective Multimedia for Physics Education.

    Of course the difference now is that these days devices are reaching ubiquity and the ability to access video and audio comes with that – except, of course, in schools – where it has traditionally been and continues to be, blocked or the process to access been made non-trivial.

    But even that is really a side issue – what "has" become much easier to do is "make" media explaining and examining knowledge and to share that within the wider school community i.e. with parents and students doing similar things outside of the immediate catchment. I think this is one of the things Derek does explore in his thesis – the points at which using media offers opportunities for people cognate, share their reflections (possibly in blogs) and the ability to repeat lower level of repeated pieces of knowledge.

    Not too much research has been done on this. I would hazard a guess that "some" systems as pointed to in the video "might" be more effective than others especially if personalised or if a teacher were given an easy enough template to personalise especially in terms of feedback for low level tasks. To expect any finesse in this area is a bit on the optimistic side even the Khan empire signally fails at this.

    No-one has done research around the amazing progress made with writing using the Quadblogging site even at the level of writing.

    Computers are excellent for connecting people they aren't some magic bullet. Anything else really is tilting at windmills or extolling their virtues. What matters is the use of them to help facilitate communities of practice rather than acquisition of knowledge.

    More needs to be looked at in this area.


  5. What a great display of the historical folly of trying to fix education with technology! I’ll be sending this out, frequently!

    Regarding the centrality of the teacher, I’ll just point out that teachers work within a method for organizing the school district, which also has a very large effect.

    No less than John Merrow, education correspondent for the PBS NewsHour agrees with the following analysis. (See his post on Opting out on his blog, takingnote.learningmatters.tv).

    Organizing school districts with testing and the schedule guarantees:

    A) some students will be ahead, bored, idle and not working;
    B) some will be behind, tending to fall more behind, a problem which only compounds.

    A follow-the-schedule method, enforced with tests causes students to fall more behind, relative to grade level, on average, the more years spent in public school.

    Moving away from the schedule requires students get some amount of autonomy. This presents a different problem. Many students, are not _yet_ able to wisely and responsibly use the freedom required to follow their own individual plan. When autonomy is provided to students who are unready for that freedom, the result is chaos.

    You see the problem. For students to have their own plan, they need autonomy, autonomy many students are not _yet_ ready for.

    It seems like our two choices are guarantee chaos or guarantee idleness.

    There is a 3rd way from the Latin origination of education, educere, meaning to lead out the student from within.

    IF we could, and we can (we have evidence), by leading students through inner exercises in an “inner gymnasium”, little by little (it takes about a month), students begin to better hear the wise part within, develop the skill of the will, and a deep satisfaction takes hold;

    THEN it becomes safe to provide the very autonomy students need to work on challenges just right for each student.

    This is real education work – leading out the student from within – done by trained educators. Only students can do the knowledge work, the reading, writing and arithmetic.

    Leading out students from within begins to solve the structural problem of ‘the-one’ and ‘the-many’ that is unique to eduction work.

    …and there is evidence. It works.


  6. Thanks for the interesting post and particularly your long list of references to progressive garbage, which I look forward to browsing in detail.

    I agree on the limited utility of video and the danger of over-emphasizing motivation. My only quibble is in identifying ed-tech with video. In my opinion, we have missed out a couple of elements which technology is well adapted to provide, but only if people start to develop education-specific software.

    First, activity. Digital technology is inherently interactive (and by that, I don’t just mean pushing buttons or following hyperlinks) and interaction is essential to the teaching process. Because although the new traditionalists are right to emphasize knowledge, knowledge is not enough by itself. You need to manipulate and apply knowledge before you can really be said to understand it.

    Second, the sequencing of activity (including instruction) – something that makes teaching an administratively complex activity, particularly as scale increases.

    On this second point, I recommend the current Reith lectures which, referring to medicine rather than education, drawn attention to the importance of process – something that is argued we ignore in many fields, including (I suggest) education. Many of the arguments about DI vs. activity are resolved by reference to Bloom’s general approach: memorize *then* manipulate *then* apply. I would argue that technology is at root a way of managing process and we make a mistake when we think of it as something you buy at the shop.

    The reason why ed-tech has not been effective so far is that we don’t have any. As Diana Laurillard said in a question at the ALT conference in 2011, all education has done so far has been to appropriate everyone else’s technology.


  7. What interests me is how little is understood about the way technology gets to participate, in what I agree is simply “evolution.” Sympathetic readers of Andrew’s stance might find it encouraging to know that the DfE has only recently invited companies to submit tenders for a new ICT Services framework, the main route by which many schools will buy technology. That new framework has abandoned the inflated “transformation” rhetoric which characterised the last fifteen years for a much more beneficial, and challenging focus on “educational impact.”

    But I would argue that this problem is just one manifestation of a much wider, cultural issue, a widespread and often unhealthy fascination with “innovation.” I recall being at a Becta “Futures” event some years ago, in a room full of people taking tax payers’ money to “scan the horizon” and other equally vacuous activities. I asked one of the international speakers whether he thought innovation was always good. He stared blankly for some seconds before answering, “I guess so. I guess I’ve never really thought about it.”

    As something of an aside, I was leaning well in favour of the video’s argument until the point where the speaker said that: The combination of words and text works better than words alone – only to contradict himself immediately with, “on screen text competes with visuals, so learners perform better when it is omitted than when it is present.”

    Like the notorious “Shift Happens” powerpoint, just another example of where “digital literacy” becomes utter nonsense. If there was such a thing, that kind of schoolboy editing error would never see the light of day in any professional, “digital” publication.


  8. I don’t think a fascination with informed innovation is unhealthy, what is unhealthy is the confusion of innovation with fashion. Without innovation we’d all still be living in caves, clueless worshipping of fashion under the label innovation is a different issue. There is a similar problem with other labels because they reinforce correlation of anything with that label as causation and we know correlation and causation might be, but often aren’t related.

    Change like new knowledge acquisition is tough which is why you need to go through the innovator, early adopter, early majority, late majority, laggard adoption process. Government or a private sector monopoly can force the issue in your line of work, though. Large corporates and public sector organisations influence fashion, they rarely genuinely innovate.

    It is almost inconceivable that any business I have run could have succeeded without “digital learning”. Certainly that is built on a foundation of knowledge explained in the traditional way. I bought a BBC B in 1981 and all my subsequent tech and pro knowledge to run what is quite a complicated business is derived from talking to people, practical hands on learning and the web. Virtually none of it is from formal teaching or text books. Now it might be said that I prove that you don’t need to have digital learning in schools to use “digital learning” later but I’m not very typical among my peers, most are retired early often fed up with being victims of “the system” and self-confessed digitally challenged. People have run successful businesses without a good education and learnt their literacy late, that is not a good argument for not teaching literacy in schools. In one sense I’m quite glad a lot of my generation still resist informed innovation and its consequences. It’s at least in part what gives me and my business a competitive edge and makes work fun.


  9. “The realities of how children behave are well documented and related to motivation theory.”

    I don’t think that’s true at all. A lot of utter nonsense is written.

    “I have been at pains to say it’s not about one teacher alone,”

    Except in your last comment that’s exactly what you were describing.

    “but that one teacher does have a significant effect.”

    Which is precisely what I deny. The biggest factors affecting behaviour are there before you get to the room.

    “Neither have I said anywhere that it is about one teacher winning children over on their own. I have been talking about motivation as an important general aspect of teaching, not attributing that specifically and exclusively to one teacher and not defining it exclusively in terms of conformity through fear of sanctions.”

    You still appear to be ignoring what I argued about motivation. This seems to be more of an ongoing lecture than a dialogue.


  10. A lot of utter nonsense is written about science that does not mean all science is wrong.

    Behaviour in classrooms is affected by the teacher, that is a simple fact based on thousands of observations. Denying it won’t change it. What should or should not be done about it is a different issue.

    I said significant not necessarily the biggest. As I keep saying and you keep ignoring, context is important.

    You seem to be determined to interpret anything I write in a confrontational manner and then you accuse me of lecturing you and not listening? Hm.


    • Have you actually drawn back from the claim that motivation is the job of the teacher to simply claiming that behaviour in classrooms is affected by the teacher? I don’t think anyone has denied the latter.


      • Motivation is part of the job of the teacher but it is not the exclusive responsibility of the teacher and the division of responsibility is difficult to define in a range of contexts. You might not like it but that is the general consensus and what most teachers understand when they sign up. You are free try to change that.


  11. […] “just teaching” and in praise of explanations explain my teaching […]



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