Better explanations might not be the answer this time

by Mr. Sheehy

Jul 25 2009 017

As a teacher, I suppose there are some things I have become good at through constant repetition. I imagine I am adept at passing along clear instructions, as I attempt to do it every day. Detecting hang-ups and typical problems in communicating instructions has become second nature to me, and usually I can predict exactly where students will become confused in my instructions even before attempting to give them. Yet giving instructions is not a particularly challenging task, even if not everyone can do it. For the most part any teacher gets good at doing such a thing simply through that repetition.

What I can’t seem to get better at through repetition is explaining difficult concepts, or making challenging thinking skills appear simple. For certain concepts I have struck upon gold and been able to explain them in a way that makes sense. At times I have used metaphors for this, at times illustrations. My favorite discovery of the last two years is my explanation of irony. The definition of irony–I traditionally began with the idea that irony is an incongruity between what is true and what is thought to be true–is a tad difficult to wrap one’s head around at 15-years old when one has not been previously exposed to the idea.

At some point last year, though, I drew a picture on the board of a vertical dotted line. Up high and to the left I put a line labeled, “What is thought to be true” and down low to the right I sketched a line labeled, “What is true.” The lines don’t match up–thus the incongruity. I then stick examples on the lines for the different types of irony most typically seen–dramatic, situational, and verbal–and usually it makes a bit of sense. I figure that even if a student can’t reiterate the definition of irony, they might be able to reconstruct the graphic and explain it from there.

Yet there are some concepts I can’t seem to crack, and outlining is one of them. I have taught outlining a million ways, it seems, and my students are not much closer to understanding it at the end of my units than they were at the beginning. Typically the students who already knew how to assemble an outline can still assemble them–and maybe assemble better ones than before–and the ones who couldn’t do it still cannot do it.

Today I helped my students with outlines by handing them three sources for a feature article they’d be writing for the school paper. They’re all “my” notes that I created for my sample topic, and I asked them to work in groups to create an outline out of my notes. The idea is that in working together on my notes, they can build confidence with the process and then attempt to repeat it with their own notes, prepping for their own feature articles.

First I walked them through the steps of what one is doing when creating an outline. I drew a picture on the board of three boxes being compiled into one box to illustrate the idea that we are trying to create one cohesive paper out of the three sources–a fruit salad, not three types of whole fruit stacked on top of each other. I tried to sell the outline as the step when we combine things, so that when writing we can worry just about the writing–a difficult enough task all by itself. Then I emphasized that there really are only two steps to creating an outline:


  1. Read through your sources & decide what the main topics are
  2. Organize the details of the sources under those main topics (in the form of an outline)


Despite all this preparation and explanation, at least half of the class sat still or procrastinated, unable to achieve step one of this two step process. I spun the same questions and problems in my head that I always reiterate: How can I explain the skill any more clearly? What the students need to do is read through the concrete details and detect a more abstract pattern. What commonalities can they detect? What are the general themes, so to speak, expressed in these details? I can understand why they struggle with the process–it’s hard. It’s not reiterating information, it’s analyzing it and categorizing it. It’s higher level thought–the stuff that we aim to push students to do, not the stuff they automatically can do. Yet it is crucial for our students to learn this skill, and I don’t know how to make it any easier for them.

It reminds me of my days working at rebuilding our basement. I absolutely hated the process of taping and texturing the drywall. I watched just about every video on YouTube about applying tape and mud to drywall, read a good half-dozen articles on the subject, and studied the directions on every drywall product I’d purchased. I even spent a half hour reading a how-to book in Menards trying to glean any tips about the technique (there was no way I was going to purchase the book–that would have cost money), yet wherever I looked, I could not figure out how to smooth out the mud over the tape in a way that would measure up to my standards. It drove me crazy because it seemed like something I should have been able to do–it was ultimately just a matter of spreading mud onto the wall and gradually thinning it till it was even. It wasn’t a complex action, just tricky, and just something you had to develop a feel for. Like detecting the clutch point on a stick shift or balancing on a bike, explanations could take you only so far; eventually you had to discover that feel for the process.

With outlining–and ultimately with any detection of patterns in writing and thinking–students seem to have to develop a feel for the process. I can explain it, but I cannot make their minds see it. As far as I can tell, only when they see it can they understand what they’ve done, and that understanding is less a step by step process than it is a ingrained skill or way of seeing. It can be acquired, but not with a checklist, only through experience and, thus, practice.

For me, with the taping and mudding in my basement, I ultimately had to settle for a lower quality taping job, because I was not able to develop the mudding technique through taping only one room’s seams. I’d need to tape a dozen basements in order to acquire the skills I needed. My students often settle in the same manner. They toss together an outline, but they know it’s garbage. Yet at this point it’s the best they can do, because–to use my metaphor–they just haven’t taped that many rooms.

That seems to mean that if I’m ever going to help them acquire the skill, I should spend less effort trying to explain the process in cute and revelatory ways and more effort creating assignments where they have to use this thinking skill. With that method, they might eventually become better at outlining than I am at taping and mudding drywall.

At least, if I have any standards for them, I would hope they would be better than that.

Thanks for reading.