Magazine

The art of explaining stuff

  • 28 April 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Clockwise from left: Offside rule, cricket, maths and science

Explanations of the AV electoral system tend to resort to analogies. But is this the best way to convey new ideas? The Magazine seeks tips from a teacher, a scientist, a philosopher, a cricket buff and two political boffins.

It's a bit like X Factor - only without the singing, and it doesn't go on for weeks. It's also a bit like choosing your favourite crisps, and then your second favourite flavour, and so on.

Ahead of the 5 May referendum on whether to adopt the Alternative Vote (AV) electoral system, those explaining this unfamiliar method of picking MPs tend to use analogies. But is this the best way to convey a concept to someone who knows nothing about it?

Author and award-winning teacher Phil Beadle says in a classroom, the key to getting information across is breaking it down into small, manageable chunks, checking each chunk has been understood and "grinding repetition". This isn't so easy to do in a three-minute news item, but other key methods are universal.

This includes getting people to see how the issue in question relates to them.

"It's been said about teaching that if you can't get students to see what's in it for them, then you won't take it on," he says. "Good teaching is about contextualising learning, connecting it to experience, finding an appropriate analogy."

Obviously, the larger the group of people, the more general the analogy has to be, hence the use of crisp flavours or reality TV to explain AV. Beadle, a secondary school English teacher, has used hip hop artists to teach William Blake and football in other lessons.

Beadle says there is a school of thought that people learn and take in new information in three ways: visually, aurally and kinaesthetically - through the body. The latter is when you learn by carrying out a physical activity, rather than just listening or watching a demonstration by someone.

"The best way to get people to understand is to use all these three ways," he says.

This three-pronged approach appeals to John Stern, editor of The Wisden Cricketer magazine.

He prefers to explain cricket while watching a match for demonstration purposes, and with a ball and bat to hand so the novice can see and feel how, for example, the seam affects the movement of the ball.

"I start with the basics - two teams of 11, each trying to score more runs than the other. But it quickly descends into caveats and qualifiers, which is too confusing.

"But I do explain the underlying concept, that the bowler is trying deceive the batter. If you understand why it matters that the ball swings, that helps."

He avoids analogies, as these tend to obscure more than they illuminate.

"It's tempting to say 'do you know anything about baseball', but really the only similarity is that there's a bat and a ball."

As a science journalist, Quentin Cooper has to explain some very complicated things to a diverse audience. He says the key is knowing what facts you can leave out.

"You need to give them only what they need to know and point them to what they need to focus on," says Cooper, who presents BBC Radio 4's Material World. "If you are explaining some aspect of quantum physics, you can't start with what an atom is, it would take far too long.

Image caption Don't get too bogged down in detail

"Take DNA. Most people probably couldn't give a full explanation of what it is, but they know enough to understand when it is mentioned."

Stern agrees. He leaves out strange terminology, such as names of the fielding positions. "None of that is important. There are so many weird and bizarre things about cricket, you could make up what you like and the novice wouldn't know the difference."

It's also crucial the audience has faith in the person doing the explaining, says Cooper.

"It means not everything has to have a direct relevance to their life. With science it's often hard to say that something has a direct bearing on a person's life, but you can get them to think about the wider universe they live in and wonder how it works."

Keep it simple

Philosopher Mark Vernon says the approach of connecting ideas to what people already know goes back to Socrates.

"He once explained a very complicated mathematical theory to an uneducated slave. He did so simply by prompting the slave, step by step, with things he already knew. So it's not so much explaining that you do, but helping someone to remember what they already know from other parts of life.

"Then they will regard what you've shown them as their own possession too, and be able to incorporate it directly into their lives."

University of Reading politics lecturer Dr Alan Renwick uses reality TV to explain voting systems - X Factor for AV and Britain's Got Talent for first past the post.

"Most people don't think about electoral systems, but they do make decisions every day and are constantly engaging with different ways of making these decisions.

"People are used to the concepts, but not the context. AV is an unfamiliar voting system. But the logic of AV is similar to X Factor."

Fellow psephologist John Curtice prefers not to use analogies, as comparisons are blunt and, in some cases, misleading.

Instead, he breaks his explanations into practical chunks.

"There are always two things voters need to know about a voting system - how the ballot paper is filled out, and how the seats are allocated. I would just simply explain these two aspects of the system."

It's what some call the KISS approach - keep it simple, stupid.