Explaining and Explanation in Science Education

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:12 am

It was a bit tricky to work out the best order in which to talk about this topic and another one – a constructivist approach to explanation – but I think I promised in the yesterday’s post that I’d talk about ‘explaining and explanation’ next, so let’s do that. But hopefully tomorrow’s post will cast some additional light on this if you’re patient.

Suzie tends to talk about the distinction between nouns and verbs in relationships: having an expectation of our partners, versus expecting something. I kinda see what she’s talking about, in that verbs are inherently more fluid and dynamic than nouns.

The distinction between explanation and explaining is similar, but explaining contains explanation. Let me try to make that a little clearer.

I should also note (this is not one of my more coherent posts in terms of structure!) that this distinction and approach, as well as the constructivist approach, is owed to the German colleagues I recently visited in Bremen, particularly Christoph Kulgemeyer.

In this way of thinking, an ‘explanation’ is a unit in itself. It might be given by speaking or writing, or by speaking in a video or using an animation or simulation, but the explanation is a contained unit of meaning that is designed to increase understanding on the part of someone else, and is somehow delivered.

Explaining is the much larger social and interpersonal, dynamic process within which the explanation is given. It includes the person giving the explanation and the person receiving it. The process of explaining includes feedback, which is crucial. The explanation (as a unit) is modified and re-presented on the basis of the feedback received.

As a teacher (and this includes anyone who understands a concept and is seeking to help someone else develop an understanding of it, not just someone with the formal role) we have to make assumptions about what our student (the person willing to try to develop an understanding of the new concept) already knows, what life experiences they have had, what they are interested in, and so on.

Now, this brings me to one really important distinction between explanations given ‘live’, in classrooms or any situation when human beings are in a room, so that immediate (verbal and non-verbal) feedback is available, versus explanations given in books, videos, games and so on. Kind of by definition, the latter are informed only by the explainer’s ‘best guess’ about the characteristics of the ‘typical’ audience member, and no revision or improvement of the explanation in response to immediate feedback is possible. Simply, this is an explanation largely shorn of the process of explaining.

I’m interested in the implications of this idea for my own research using interactive simulations – although that has all occurred in classrooms with live teachers – and in its implications for things like the ‘flipped classroom’, which rely to a very large extent on explanations given in videos.