Why teachers’ explanations beat videos hands down

A small man pushes the stop button on a huge remote control

Source: Adapted from © Yuliqwiart/Shutterstock

Step away from the video, says Adam Boxer, and you’ll keep your students engaged and learning

I am shamelessly nerdy about pretty much anything related to education, be it retrieval practice, departmental leadership, questioning, cognitive science, practicals or curriculum sequencing – I love it all. Teachers are blessed with a vast range of tasks and actions, each of which carries its own nuance, skill and strategy. However, out of this rich array of teacher activities, one favourite emerges for me: the preparation and delivery of explanations.

When we hammer out an explanation together there’s a sense of thrill and excitement

The thought that goes into an explanation is deep and complex. How do we structure it such that it has a sense of narrative? How do we render the abstract concrete? How do we relate new ideas to old ones, and how do we ensure that students are attentive and engaged throughout? How do we sequence our examples to gradually broaden our students’ understanding? Each explanation is different and, though we have a few overarching principles to help, the process of building our explanations is intellectually challenging – it is a problem we need to solve.

Embrace the joy of explanation

I am lucky enough to work with teachers from across the country, and many of them feel the same. When we sit down and hammer out an explanation together, there’s a sense of thrill and excitement as the pieces fall into place and the whole thing clicks. I feel a sense of joy when I see that explanation in action, when the teacher falls into a state of flow and the students are pulled into the great story of science. Nerdy, perhaps, but a joy nonetheless.

And that’s why I feel such frustration when I see a teacher choose not to do this but play a video to their class instead. Rather than deliver the explanation themselves, they offload it to YouTube and, in the process, miss a magical opportunity.

Don’t let a video do the talking

For the most part, I find the videos teachers show students are of poor pedagogical quality. The concepts are not well sequenced or explained, and key terminology is rarely well defined. They move too fast and often use high-level vocabulary that students cannot access. They contain distracting elements and fail to effectively manage student attention.

A video can’t compete with the skill and dynamism of a teacher tailoring their explanation to their class

When observing, if a teacher plays a video, I test my worries by asking students simple questions about the video or the words in it, and more often than not they haven’t a clue. I recently observed a teacher using a video about how Darwin discovered natural selection, and at the end of the six-minute video quietly asked every student on the back row individually if they knew what a finch was. Out of the eight students, only one could tell me. Given that the video was entirely about finches, that was pretty concerning.

Accept you’re the best

Even on the rare occasions where the teacher chooses a well-constructed video, I struggle to believe that they couldn’t have done it better themselves, from a teaching point of view. Explanations are idiosyncratic – unique both to the teacher and the class ­– and a video made by someone 1000 miles away and five years ago simply can’t compete with the skill and dynamism of a teacher tailoring their explanation to their class.

Of course, there are some things that can only be illustrated via a video. If you want to show your students a reaction you can’t demonstrate or the like, then of course you need a video. But my advice would be to turn the sound off and pause it frequently to explain what’s going on. Sometimes, a video can be useful to give learners a sense of awe and wonder, but you absolutely cannot assume that students have actually understood what they saw.

In short, my opposition to videos isn’t governed only by the fact that I think they are bad, but by the fact that I think teachers are good. We are passionate about science, and most of us got into the profession to think hard about how we will dissect and communicate that science. Most of us, with a little help, can do that ourselves far better than any video can.


Find out why Helen Rogerson embraces video in her chemistry teaching.

Adam Boxer