If you cant explain it simply you don't understand it well enough
Photo from US Department of Education

When teaching anything, you must question ‘Do I understand it well enough?’.

Is it possible to sum up and get to the real nitty gritty of teaching and learning in just one single sentence?

Well, probably not – not entirely. But if any single sentence does come close then it is this one:

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

You might recognise the quote. It’s from a certain Albert Einstein. It’s ironic really that the name that has become synonymous with ‘cleverness’ is the one person who has come closest to nailing what great teaching and learning is all about.

The key qualities of great teaching

Of course, in the big scheme of things an excellent teacher or tutor needs a variety of skills and qualities. Many strings to the bow are needed to be an outstanding practitioner.

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So, what does it take? Here are some of the key qualities needed: excellent subject knowledge, communication skills, determination, dedication, patience… the list goes on.

What is the most important skill or quality that is required? That’s a difficult one. If truth be told you need a combination of all the above, and more.

Subject knowledge is vital, naturally, but it is not the be-all-and-end-all. An Oxbridge graduate with a First in Mathematics will not necessarily make a brilliant Maths tutor or teacher. A professional author – an expert in their craft of English Language – won’t always be a wonderful English tutor or teacher.

A great teacher/tutor will need a secret ingredient too – and it is really what Einstein was driving at when he came out with the quote that is the title of this blog.

Pitching things at the right level is everything

Regardless of whether you are a teacher in front of a class of thirty children or a private tutor giving one-to-one tuition, pitching your lesson at the right level is critical.

Obviously, with a class of thirty, this is no mean feat. Even if all the students ‘on paper’ appear to be of similar ability, data only tells you so much. It takes no consideration of personalities or dynamics. It’s no surprise then that ‘differentiation’, ‘personalised learning’, or ‘stretch and challenge’ are educational buzzwords.

This is what great teaching is all about, after all. And it’s exactly what Einstein driving at.

Take William Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’. Here’s a play that could be (and is) studied at degree level and taught in primary schools. But the way the teacher pitches their delivery to a group of first year undergraduates, Year 13 A level, bottom set Year 1os, or Year 5s dancing around the makeshift cauldron chanting “Double, double toil and trouble” is all-important.

So, another way of interpreting Einstein’s quote is this:

If you can’t communicate your lesson (an idea, skill, technique, etc.) in a simple way that is clearly understood by all your students and pitched appropriately for them, you don’t understand your students well enough.

Essentially, whatever level the student is working at the teacher needs to pitch things perfectly for them.

Student as teacher: the real proof of the pudding

The great thing about Einstein’s quote is that you can look at it from different points of view – the teacher’s and the pupil’s – and it makes complete sense for both. How it works from a teacher’s perspective is detailed above. Now let’s look at it from the pupil’s perspective.

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We all know that pupils have different learning styles – it’s a major part of how a teacher differentiates and personalises for their students. A student that is passive – soaking things up like a sponge and just listening to what the teacher says – will only go so far. The student that is active in their learning – by doing – will learn and progress at a faster rate.

Coaching or teaching others is a logical next step. It is here that a student really demonstrates their full understanding of a concept or idea, if they can teach it and get it across to a peer.

‘Student as teacher’ is a tried and trusted classroom activity that works well in a range of contexts. For obvious reasons, it doesn’t work as well in a one-to-one tuition situation. However, a tutor can still use the Einstein quote literally with their student – if they can’t explain what you have taught them simply, they don’t understand it well enough. This means the tutor needs to rethink and go again.

Perhaps Albert Einstein didn’t have whole-class teaching or one-to-one tuition specifically in mind when he uttered his famous statement. It matters not, because we can still apply it to both to great effect. So, now tell us, do you understand it well enough?

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