Flipping through Thing Explainer got me thinking about how being forced to explain things in absurdly simple terms both often resulted in a more direct and exact description of a component and also (I imagine) challenged the author to avoid the use of domain specific language 3 and consider what, exactly, that vocabulary really means.
Ever since the existence of this text editor, I’ve been keen to throw my students up against the Thing Explainer to force them to really think about what special vocabulary and concepts actually mean – unavoidable if your explanation is to have any real value.
Is there any educational value to this exercise?
I don’t know for sure. But I can think of a few ways in which this might be beneficial:
- Domain specific knowledge is tested
- A deeper understanding of the concept
- Develops the use of literacy skills
Let’s look at how I think the above benefits can be attained.
Tests Domain Specific Knowledge
Students (and teachers!) can become very good at using the right technical language to describe concepts they either don’t understand well or flat out don’t “get” at all. This particularly applies to students who are good at rote learning definitions of things.
Often this regurgitation technique is good enough to get some or all marks for an exam question, but if you don’t understand foundational concepts, you can’t build on those for more advanced concepts.
Removing the use of domain specific language takes away the ability to fudge your answers – in order to explain advanced concepts, the student needs to also explain all the concepts that make it up 4.
Develops a Deeper Understanding
“Rewording” existing texts is a skill, and it’s one that students generally seem to hate practicing. Rewording using a limited vocabulary actually scaffolds this task – instead of pulling out a thesaurus and substituting vocabulary, students are forced to consider re-explaining the concepts in new ways.
Explaining things in genuinely new ways is (as any teacher would know), one of the best ways to deepen one’s understanding of a topic.
Wouldn’t simple language be a poor way to develop literacy?
I would suggest that, no, in fact it should improve students’ literacy by forcing the remapping of more complex and domain specific terms into the simpler language that defines that vocabulary.
Examples and Problems
My example for students was as follows:
A box with a round part inside. Bits of the round part can be turned on or off to remember things. When the power goes off, the round part still remembers. An arm can look at the round part and see the bits that are on and off.
Finding or changing the on and off bits on the round part takes a long time.
We’ve been looking at computer hardware for part of this first term and so they were familiar enough with hard drives to be able to correctly identify the component for that description.
I’ll admit I cheated a little here – the use of the word “bit” can be read both as a colloquialism and in its domain specific form 5. In my original explanation, I reversed the use of “part” and “bit” to deliberately avoid this, but ended up switching them back to avoid confusion.
Instead of the usual technical language describing spinning platters and reading heads and so on, we get to the nub of the issue: a hard drive is for long term storage (remembering) and it’s relatively slow. To differentiate it from other forms of secondary storage we look at some implementation terms (platters are round and an arm with a head is used to read them).
Certainly there are limitations here – it might be nice to be able to use concepts like “magnetism” to really hammer home the physical representation of binary data – but it forces a student who has learned the rote definition of hard drive (“secondary storage that uses magnetic fields to blah blah blah”) to actually consider what a hard drive really is.
Let’s have a look at some student examples:
1.A group of memory that mirrors it self on to another group of memory to keep a back up of what is stored on it.
2. A group of memory that puts half of what is known onto another group memory
We’re describing the concept of RAID – certainly level 1 first up and possibly level 0 second, although in this case I would send it back for further clarification.
1.the pretending of another computer that is run on another thing. It can be used to use the computer from another place.
2.the storing of stuff in many different places so that stuff can’t be lost, and it is easy to get.
3.the same way that a computer is made to be used in work, this means a place for work can have an even and matching thing for use for people.
The first item in this list is a beautiful example of what can be produced using Thing Explainer vocabulary – we’ve avoided all use of the term “simulation” or “virtualisation” to explain what virtual machines are.
As we get towards the bottom of the list, we run into the frustrations or limitations that some students encounter when trying this for the first time – the temptation to overuse words such as “stuff” (when explaining data in cloud storage) or to become fixated on a particular aspect of a concept (when explaining a standard operating environment) can cause an explanation to miss its mark.
When lots of stuff is put into a place so that if the stuff goes away then the stuff can be gotten again.
Despite the overuse of “stuff” in this one, all it really needs is a little context to help clarify that we’re referring to a backup of data.
All in all, I’m pleased with the results thus far. Students were satisfied with my justification of the activity and quickly saw the value in using this as a revision technique.
Would this work for younger students? I’m not sure, but the opportunity should present itself in the near future.