Explanations matter.

Good explanations are vital to student understanding.

I pride myself on my explanations. Words are my forte (did you hear I wrote a book? 🙂 ) In my lessons I always explain the new material in a rigorous and deliberate manner, going back over tough concepts a few times, in a few ways, using analogies with familiar concepts, clearly enunciating any new terms and repeating them in different sentences so that the students get a feel for the new word and it’s meaning.

For example, protocols. I might start the topic of network protocols by explaining they are “rules for communication between computers, they make network communications work”.


I’ll then illuminate the concept of protocols by discussing the rituals people use when greeting a new person: they say hello, exchange names and use each other’s name when speaking, and so on. I then might say something like this:

“The rules of communication in polite society are a kind of protocol, a set of rules that make the interaction work. We follow a protocol because it makes everyone comfortable and helps communication be successful. The protocol tells us what to do when we meet people, and when we conduct a conversation. Establishing and following this protocol is important because it helps the conversation flow smoothly. Without any rules of communication which we call a protocol, meeting a new person and having a conversation with them would be quite difficult. Because both parties already know the protocol – the rules of communication – they can conduct a conversation with great success”.

I will then check for understanding with a few questions, using powerful questioning techniques from TLAC like “Wait Time”, “Right is Right” and “Cold Call” (unlike Ferris Bueller’s ineffective Economics teacher (see image).

I have so far used an analogy to introduce the concept of protocols in a familiar setting. I will then come back to discussing protocols in computer networks: being a set of rules for communication between computers that serve the same purpose – making communication successful – and in this way I have travelled a “Semantic Wave” to get the concept across, see this TeachComputing blog post for more on that.


But you will also note in my teaching narrative, I have used the word protocol no less than five times, in different contexts, ensuring students hear the phrases “follow a protocol”, “establish a protocol”, and “know a protocol”: it’s something to be established, known, and followed. They also know why: “helps communication be successful”.

Many teachers appear to be looking for that “magic lesson” which “drops the knowledge right into their heads from a PowerPoint slide”. Teachers: that magic lesson doesn’t exist but you don’t need it, you have all you need: your subject knowledge and a quiet class that listens to your explanations.


By mraharrisoncs

Freelance consultant, teacher and author, professional development lead for the NCCE, CAS Master Teacher, Computer Science lecturer.

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