General Question

LostInParadise's avatar

Are there guidelines for how to explain things?

Asked by LostInParadise (24938points) August 16th, 2010

Giving explanations is something that we all do. For the purposes of the discussion here, I would distinguish explaining from teaching by the time frame. An explanation is something that is given in one session while teaching is done over a longer period of time. Giving explanations is only one part of teaching.

Has anyone compiled rules for how to give explanations? For example, is it best to explain things from bottom up or first give an overview. Is it best to give an example first or give a rule followed by examples? If the choice varies with the situation, what determines which strategy to choose?

We have been giving explanations for as long as we have been humans. If there are books on child rearing, which we have been doing since before we were human, it would seem that there should be guides on how to best explain things.

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6 Answers

plethora's avatar

Different people use different means and different people need explanations in different ways.

My preference, and doing this is probably one of my unique skills, is to give a complete but abbreviated picture. I always have a yellow pad in front of me and I am drawing pictures as I go. I must make the subject concrete and tangible. I want full understanding of the brief verbal (and actual) picture that I have drawn before I go on. It’s second nature to me now after years of doing it. But the very first step is to clearly understand it myself in its complex form and then break it down into simple understandalble bites.

augustlan's avatar

I generally tailor my approach to each person who requires an explanation. If I’m unsure, I’ll ask them to explain it to me, from their perspective. Then I can decide how thorough an explanation they require, and in what approach might work best for them.

wundayatta's avatar

Overview, example, rules, example, overview

This is how I see Edward Tufte doing his presentations. He’ll introduce an idea, and then give an example of it. This serves two different kinds of learning—those people who use sound or conceptual ideas, and those who need to see or touch something in order to get it.

Then he goes into the rules that make the system behave in the way he is describing.

He provides another example (or maybe more) to illustrate the rules.

Then he repeats what he was trying to show in the first place. Repetition is very important. People usually are lost the first time they hear something. The examples and explanation help ground them. You repeat the overview in order to show them how it all fits together. This time they can get it because they have a picture of what it is.

Here are notes from a lecture by Tufte explaining how to explain. These are rules for explaining to adults, but the principles will work with children, too. We all really do learn the same way. Some make a fuss about adult learners being different, but they tend to think that children are to be condescended to.

SundayKittens's avatar

This is a GQ!!!
I like to keep in mind the idea of “Broad to Specific”. Start broadly on the topic, then hone in to specifics…keeping in mind the topic the whole time.

zenele's avatar

General: I forward it to smart people like Matt or Jeruba.

Social: I wing it.

I prefer asking questions – that way I at least know the answer – or can understand what the thread is about.

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