14 Sep 2023
A key skill of being an excellent teacher is the ability to explain things expertly with great efficiency. This is also true for journalists, and among them Ros Atkins has gained a considerable reputation for his. In The art of explanation, he sets out to teach the rest of us how to do it. For teachers, the result is an invaluable source of reflection about classroom delivery, not to mention other important aspects of the job like delivering assemblies, writing references and communicating via email.
Most uncomfortably, perhaps, Atkins contends that in order to get better at explaining you have to watch yourself. Every teacher I’ve known to do this has said watching it back was one of the best things they have done to improve their teaching. I’m not there yet, but I’ll keep watching Atkins’s explainers in the meantime.
Next, echoing a key insight from cognitive science in education, Atkins explains throughout the book how you can reduce cognitive load by using short sentences or by thinking carefully about the images you include to support your explanation or even what you are doing with your hands. I’m aware that wasn’t a short sentence. This one is.
Another interesting parallel is in the importance of helping our audiences to connect the dots to prior knowledge in order to embed new knowledge. Choosing what previous knowledge to link to is the skill of a good teacher, and a good journalist. Atkins offers plenty of advice as to how to do this efficiently, and even gives you nice sentence starters.
The art of storytelling as a pedagogical tool is undergoing something of a renaissance in education circles. For journalists, it never went away. Here, Atkins offers up numerous ways of organising this, including the ‘big question’ approach, which I observed used to great effect in a history lesson recently.
Atkins, it turns out, read history at Cambridge and writes with affection of his old history teacher, but the approach is one I am using more in economics and I’m sure it can be used in other subjects as well. Besides, there are plenty of ways to skin this cat, many of which Atkins also covers.
In an educational world of scripted lessons, finding the sweet spot between the script and being authentic can be a challenge. Here again, Atkins’s advice on the importance of finding your own voice is insightful and complemented with useful, practical tips to achieve it.
And if you need any further proof that this book is relevant to you, there’s even a section on email etiquette. Atkins draws on research to label long and/or incorrectly addressed emails as an ‘unkind tax’, then goes on to show how you can send messages that will actually be read and, crucially, acted upon. Talk about a workload-reduction strategy!
But this is a book that could be just as useful to students, too. The tips on writing efficiently to a word count should be read by all sixth formers. (Though writing this review shows I could do with going over them again myself!) His advice to visit a new place to familiarise yourself with it before doing an activity there is also handy. How often do students go into imposing exam rooms without having seen them? And how much anxiety could be reduced before university interviews or EPQ presentations by following Atkins’s advice?
Sadly, for all the wisdom therein the book somewhat overwhelms with advice. The section on the ‘Seven-Step Dynamic Explanation’, for example, could have been saved for a follow-up book. It contains interesting information on topics like memorisation, but it feels unduly repetitive.
It is often books from outside of educational publishing that have helped me most as a teacher. Different insights and perspectives from other professions offer something more than the same old content from the same old authors. The art of explanation is no exception, and I heartily recommend it to any teacher who wants to raise their game.