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Exposition and explaining

Teacher in classroom with students

‘A teacher’s presentation based on first-hand experience can be much more vivid and detailed than accounts in geography textbooks and often provokes genuine questions.’

Margaret Roberts, 2013

Topics on this page:

What is exposition? | Using explanation | Constructing a diagram to aid explanation | Giving explanations in your lessons | A few possible pitfalls to watch out for | Reading

What is exposition?

Exposition is one of the most important strategies for teaching. It is ‘presentational talk’ by the teacher, including describing, explaining and demonstrating. There are many things that students will find difficult to understand without teacher explanation, such as abstract concepts and things outside their direct experience. It involves a teacher presenting information and explaining concepts and ideas to students, while they listen, think and respond to what the teacher says.

While there is much more to good teaching than just ‘telling’, a good presentation or a vivid geographical ‘story’ can make the world come alive in your classroom. Most lessons will be introduced by a teacher recapping on the previous lesson and it is a valuable way to provide geographical information and introduce students to geographical vocabulary and ways of thinking geographically and presenting an argument. Teachers who are good raconteurs can provide exciting first-hand accounts of their own geographical experiences to provide stimulating introductions for lessons.

  • Read Roberts (2023) p 90-1 for different uses of exposition talk and the distinction between exposition and instruction.

Using explanation

For students to learn what we want them to learn they need to think about the things we want them to think about. They need to be ‘engaged’. Enser (2018) explains that engagement means avoiding distractions and tapping into students’ natural curiosity about the world around them. In order to engage students, a teacher must deliver a well-planned explanation that is rich in analogies and examples.

Explanations are best used to introduce students to new geographical concepts and ideas. You need good subject knowledge and must fully understand the concept yourself if you are to explain it clearly. Brown and Armstrong (1984) found that when teachers are good explainers it makes students engage more with higher levels of thinking.

Bear in mind what you have read about learning theory as you plan how to present your explanation. Begin your explanation from the students’ current understanding; you might have to find this out before you begin. 

It is important to draw upon students’ prior knowledge and explicitly link your explanation to what they have already been taught, so that they can incorporate the new knowledge into their schema. Choose the geographical examples you use carefully to support your explanation. It is often helpful to use concrete examples to introduce abstract ideas, because students remember them more easily.

Explanations should be ‘chunked’, which means the new material is presented in small steps, so as to not overwhelm students’ working memory. Analogies, metaphors, examples and stories are ways to support your explanations of abstract ideas. 

A good technique is to make use of dual coding, by combining your verbal explanation with a relevant visual or graphical image. You can reduce cognitive load in several ways when you teach. Do not overload students’ working memory with unnecessary detailed information. For example, cut out unwanted images and graphics and avoid reading out material already written on a slide.

  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 53-4 about accessible forms of data. This discusses three forms of representation (enactive, iconic and symbolic) and you should consider which is most appropriate to use when presenting geographical information to students.

Constructing a diagram to aid explanation

Powell (2023) describes how complex geographical concepts and processes are best explained when broken down into smaller chunks and taught in a sequence. Drawing a diagram step by step, either by hand on the whiteboard or revealing stages of a diagram on a PowerPoint slide, while verbally explaining are simple and effective strategies to do this.

As you observe different geography lessons, focus on teacher explanations and consider how the teacher:

  • gains and holds student interest and attention
  • structures the explanation
  • focuses students on specific geography vocabulary, concepts and ideas
  • uses ‘props’ – visuals, analogies etc.
  • checks student understanding during the explanation
  • deals with questions and student interruptions
  • closes the explanation episode and manages the transition to the next.

Discuss with you mentor what you have observed.

Expositions can include modelling and worked examples, as well as explanation to support students’ learning. These are often the best approach when you are introducing students to new processes in human and physical geography. When you use worked examples, slowly ‘fade out’ so that material is introduced in small steps.

  • Read Enser (2019) chapter 2 for examples of geographical analogies, stories, case studies and how to support working memory

You should collate a collection of these, as well as cartoons, illustrations, explanations and demonstrations, for use in your teaching. You might identify these from your lesson observations of other teachers, from department colleagues, teachers in local networks, conferences, textbooks and resources, Teaching Geography articles, websites etc. Keep a record of sources, indicating why it could be powerful to use and the relevant geography content where it could be used.

  • Work with experienced geography teachers to accumulate and refine a collection of powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations and demonstrations.

Use this Analogies and resources record.

Giving explanations in your lessons

There are many different purposes of explanations in lessons such as: explaining the purposes of the lesson; outlining how a process works; explaining why one factor affects another. You might want to explain an abstract concept or explore different attitudes to a geographical issue.

Before you start
  • Consider what knowledge the students have and then decide the purpose of the explanation and what will need be included.
  • Think clearly about the key geography you intend to explain; what key principles, terms and words will you use that you want students to understand; how will you ensure the students understand them?
  • How will you structure your explanation to make it clear and logical? (You might find it helps to prepare a ‘script’.) For example, you might explain the water cycle with the aid of a diagram and structure your explanation …‘First water from the sea is evaporated by heat from the sun, then the vapour condenses to form clouds’… and so on.
  • How will you pitch the information at the appropriate level for the students? Are you taking account of the students’ starting point? How will you make connections to students’ experience? Have you included too much factual information that will overload students’ memories?
  • How will you break down the explanation into chunks? Will you need to signpost key points by saying things such as ‘it is really important to understand…’ or ‘there are three things to remember’?
  • Bear in mind what students are most likely to struggle with. What do you want them to know by the end of your explanation? How are you going to make these key ideas memorable?
  • How are you going to present the geographical information to gain and hold the interest and attention of the students?
  • Will you use examples or analogies to support your explanation? Would props help? This could be visuals, or objects, e.g. a balloon to explain air pressure differences or samples of sedimentary rocks to help explain their characteristics. Remember that combining a verbal explanation with a visual representation of the concept can aid understanding (dual coding).
As you present your explanation
  • Try to avoid distractions from within the classroom, such as getting out books, writing equipment etc. Ensure all are listening to you before you begin.
  • Can you use a dynamic opening that will grab students’ attention at the start?
  • Use your voice and body to add clarity to your explanation. Intonation of the voice and the use of body language can emphasise certain points and maintain interest.
  • Signpost the key points for students. Use repetition to emphasise an idea or specific terms. Signal by saying ‘what is really important to understand …’. Consider making notes or a mind map of key points on the board as you are speaking to refer back to afterwards.
  • Pause to let students ask questions and share ideas.
  • Check students’ emerging understanding with some carefully directed questions.
  • Look out for possible points of confusion to avoid students forming misconceptions.
A few possible pitfalls to watch out for
  • Talking too long so you lose students’ attention.
  • Talking too fast, especially if you are nervous.
  • Pitching the content too high or too low.
  • Being derailed by interjections.
  • Relying on PowerPoint too much.

Your mentor will advise you if you fall into any of these traps. When you start teaching and are nervous it can be difficult to pitch things just right. While you generally want students to ask questions, interruptions can disrupt your carefully planned explanation. Establish ground rules so questions are not a distraction and you can deal with them later in the lesson.

Take heed of the PowerPoint warning. While it can be a very useful resource to support your explanations you must not become overdependent on it to present all the geography for you. Students can be exposed to many PowerPoint presentations in lessons in all subjects and they often think these lessons are dull and uninteresting!

  • Talk to some students about what they think make good teacher expositions and explanations.
Afterwards

Consider how successful your explanation was by considering the learning shown by students. After your explanation do students:

  • Show a good understanding of the new idea, can ‘visualise’ what you have explained and know how it fits with their existing knowledge?
  • Show they have internalised the key ideas, e.g. can they restate it in their own words and explain it to others?

When you have self-evaluated how well your explanation went, discuss it with your geography mentor. Consider:

  • How confident are you in using this strategy? If you need to do more work on your presentation and communication skills, seek advice on how to do this.
  • If you gave this explanation again, what might you do differently?
  • Read Biddulph et al (2021) pp. 71-74 and try out Task 3.2 on p. 74. These activities involve planning a piece of explanation, microteaching and filming yourself.
  • Refer to Roberts (2013) chapter 10, which discusses different repertories of teachers’ talk (see below).

Reading

  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Enser, M. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count. Crown House Publishing, chapter 2.
  • Enser, M. (2018) An engaging post, blog post.
  • Powell, C. (2023) ‘Why drawing a diagram matters: making the link with cognitive science’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Roberts, M. (2013) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.

Reference

  • Brown, G.A. and Armstrong, S. (1984) ‘Explaining and explanations’ in Brown, G.A and Wragg E.C. (eds) (1993) Explaining. Routledge.