The Power of Explaining to Others

From a great New Yorker article that ran last month:

In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like: Should there be a single-payer health care system? Or merit-based pay for teachers?

Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.

Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we — or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”

When we argue we become dumber, more blind to our own lack of knowledge and logical inconsistencies. When we try to explain or summarize how things work, on the other hand, we suddenly realize that we don’t know as much as we think we do, and we tend to moderate our opinions, and be more open to data that may conflict with our beliefs. Curiosity replaces dogma. (It’s probably not for nothing that the smartest folks in the open education space make a habit of providing others with daily or weekly summaries of articles.)

People wondered why I liked clickers — it seemed very not-very-open-education. Why so multiple choice, Mike?

But I didn’t like clickers. I liked peer instruction. In the peer instruction methodology, students have to explain how things work to other students — and in the process they realize that they have no fricking clue what they are talking about (even though they were dead sure they understood it twenty seconds before).

Have you ever heard a student say “I knew it until I had to explain it on the test?” Illusion of explanatory depth, right there. They didn’t know it. But they never were given any activities that allowed them to realize they didn’t know it.

What happens in peer instruction? You give students daily opportunities to realize they understand a fraction of what they think they do, and you get amazing learning gains.

People wonder why I got obsessed with federated wiki. I got obsessed for a number of reasons, but as I discussed in The Garden and the Stream, one of the primary ones was this: a daily process of trying to explain and connect incoming ideas rather than rating them and arguing them changes your brain in helpful ways. Federated wiki takes us down a path of explanation and connection. Traditional social media takes us down a path of argument and retrenchment.

People wonder why I spent time on Choral Explanations as a future for OER. The reason? It’s likely to be the future that most advances the ability of students to learn. When students have to explain things to others (rather than argue a point) they must address gaps in their own knowledge. They must pierce the “illusion of explanatory depth” and realize wow, they actually have no idea what they are talking about. Only then can they rectify that.

And now my answer to the Post-Truth crisis? It’s to have students explain things. Some things they investigate will be simply wrong, completely false. Hillary killed an FBI agent. Three million people voted illegally. The more interesting ones are subtle: Have thyroid cancers increased near Fukushima? Did the Republican Party of North Carolina brag about voter suppression?

Again, it’s the power explaining things to others rather than arguing points. Can you summarize all sides rather than just present yours? And if you can’t summarize all sides, how in the world would you know that you are right?

It’s this power that I see most intersecting with open pedagogy as well. Explaining things to a teacher becomes just another test. Explaining things to people on the internet — especially where, as is the case with wiki, they can edit you — that’s the sort of stakes that forces some self-examination.

I think we’ve had a lot of open pedagogy that is about expression, and that’s wonderful. It’s certainly more engaging than some of the drier work of explanation. But as I’ve said many times over the past couple years, I think some of the most promising work in the future is having students explore that explanation space, and coming face-to-face with their own ignorance, as we all must do. And then either rectifying that or perhaps just respecting the issue’s complexity. I don’t know how to make that fun — please help me out there, all you talented people reading this! But I do not think it’s hyperbole to say the future of our planet depends on it.

13 thoughts on “The Power of Explaining to Others

  1. Great post – and thanks to Michael Feldstein for mentioning to drive me over here. 🙂 It makes me think of ye ole Bloom’s taxonomy – where describing and explaining are in that 2nd level, just above “remembering.” Remembering, memorizing, repeating, stating facts and lists. It would be interesting to get a bird’s eye view of all learning objectives at the undergraduate and graduate level across institutions. Ok, or maybe just even at 1 institution, and then get a bird’s eye view of the actual pedagogy of teaching and learning activities in classes – and see how they match up. I’d be willing to bet that a large percentage could use a power boost of higher level objectives and/or actual objective-aligned activities that would lead to more explaining and describing, more peer learning and assessment. And heck, perhaps a level up on creation and every other level in between as learners create iterative prototypes to help explain, apply their explanations to problems and case studies, analyze and evaluate their creations and explanations. How to make it fun? That act of creation: what are different ways you can explain something – visually, orally, textually, through movement, music, video, arts, products, design thinking practices. Thanks, and happy weekend!

    • This is a great comment, and it reminds me that I used to use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a way into talking about this — “evaluate” is up at the top end, but “understand” is down at the bottom. This creates the idea that “understand” is less valuable in a way, a lesser skill. I don’t think that is how Bloom meant it. But that’s how we’ve come to see it, every teacher pitching the fact they are teaching “higher order Bloom’s skills”

      • Mike, Re Blooms: Yes, exactly. What seems more useful for Blooms is probably helping toward scaffolding . Very hard to explain or evaluate if you don’t already understand! There are certainly ado ways to evaluate that lead to further understanding, so the scaffolding is not necessarily linear as it appears in most images.

  2. In other words, Mike, “the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else,” as the old adage goes. Or would you further distinguish between “explaining” and “teaching”?

    Slight tangent: how could one design a course or incentivize students (perhaps especially higher ability ones) to leverage “the power of explaining to others” as a means to an end, namely to advance their own learning? More concretely: how could we design a grading scheme based on one’s own learning gains achieved through teaching others?

    I completely agree with the true genius of peer instruction — students can hear and say things to each other that they can’t with an instructor, who is less of a peer and more of an expert. But if students are motivated by grades, how can we marry this necessary evil with the more enlightened pedagogy of peer instruction? Beyond altruistic or intrinsic motivation, how do we incentivize the student who can explain something to a peer, for his/her own benefit as well as the peer’s? And reward the effort as well as the outcome?


    John Fritz

  3. I’m going to read the original study cited in the New Yorker, but at least on the surface, some of this argument runs counter to the results in Wiley, J., & Voss, J. F. (1999). Constructing arguments from multiple sources: Tasks that promote understanding and not just memory for text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(2), 301–311.

  4. This so reminds me of my first years teaching; what I realized was that in order to teach I had to be able to not just “know” but “explain” the concepts behind the content and in order to do that my understanding had to be rich and deep. When I did “explain” to students it became real and embedded for me and I realized that practice in “explaining” before I taught made me a better teacher…I love how this article takes this many steps further!


    Everybody would agree: an ideal education as a whole should be an exciting game, which transforms participants into knowledgeable and creative persons, right?

    1. But existing education is mostly about providing basic/legacy knowledge and teaching how to apply this knowledge in practice. Educators test learners, score their progress, give feedback,… Let it be the 1st level of the education game.
    2. Educators should go farther and inspire learners to find/create subjectively new knowledge, to test new knowledge by themselves, fail, find roots of failure, remedy knowledge, test again and so on and so forth until success. Let it be the 2nd level of the game.
    3. Learners, having that wild experience on level 2, are supposed to organize it (with the help of educators) and learn how to learn (teach themselves) better. Success of these learners means they achieved the 3rd level of the game.
    4. Then learners, experienced in teaching themselves, have to try teaching others, novice learners, let them achieve levels 1-3 of the education game. Success of the novice-learners means that teacher-learners achieved the 4th level of the game.

    You got the idea: the Ideal Education Game grows as a snowball developing creative persons who develop other creative persons, who in their turn… This Education Game will propel humanity to another level!

    The source:

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