Choral Explanations on the (Not-So) Cheap

Once you start to see this “choral explanations” pattern, you start seeing it everywhere. I’ve mentioned before how you see it on sites such as Stack Exchange, and in the dialogue of accomplished tutors. In all these situations, people are not given the “one best explanation”, but rather, they are provided with an array of explanations for a concept or a task, and they use them to triangulate a deeper truth or understanding.

My point has been why we can’t better support this pattern with our educational materials. I think we can do a lot better. But even now we do do this to some extent.

Currently, I’m in the middle of a large institutional OER transition, and going through different gateway classes and seeing what’s currently assigned to students and whether there are suitable free and open replacements. And as I look at what’s assigned, I see a lot of this: a major text assigned with a “for dummies” book or a study guide.


A snapshot of required books for a class from the bookstore.

Think about this for a second. Pearson has spent probably a million dollars on its general chemistry text here to produce the best possible explanation of how chemistry works. Every word has been pored over, edited and re-edited for perfect clarity, diagrams have been commissioned and recommissioned.

And yet it’s paired with Barron’s “E-Z Chemistry”, which was probably written in a month, back to front, by a single individual.

Why? If you believe we must find the “one best explanation” and present it to the students, this makes no sense at all. Clearly, Pearson must already come close to that.

But if you believe, as I do, that students do best when presented with an array of explanations, of different difficulty, with different examples, and the like, then this makes perfect sense. In fact, in a perfect world, the student would have three or four textbooks to hop between for whenever something didn’t make sense.

Anyway, if you haven’t read the piece on Choral Explanations yet, give it a go. I swear it’s worth it, because once you start thinking in this way, you won’t be able to unsee it. It’s honestly everywhere, except in the textbooks themselves.

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