Explanation anxiety

Do you suffer from explanation anxiety?

Do you purposefully shy away from offering a full explanation of your demonstrations, concerned that you might mislead, miss out, or misplace? Are you tempted to leave the explanation until after the demonstration not because you think that would represent good pedagogy, but because you hope your audience will be so thrilled by the effect they’ll overlook any descriptive inadequacy on your part?

Don’t be ashamed! The first step in dealing with explanation anxiety is recognising that you have a problem. You’re amongst friends here. No braying students will laugh at your stumbles, no academic will pick holes in your mostly-right-but-a-bit-rusty-if-you-really-think-it-through models, no science communicator will roll their eyes and tell you they saw this done better at the Exploratorium.

Just honest, constructive peer criticism. Together, we can conquer your explanation anxiety, and help you become the demonstrator you always wanted to be!

— I’ve sat on this post for months, and have rewritten it several times. Ironically, I don’t think I’m explaining myself very well. Time to heed my own advice and publish first, think through completely second. All I know for sure is that when I’m writing, I feel a degree of tension building as I approach ‘the explanation.’

Is there such a thing as “Explanation anxiety”? Do you suffer from it? Comments below, please…

2 thoughts on “Explanation anxiety”

  1. Ok, since we’re sharing. I’ve suffered from explanation anxiety all my life.

    Explanations are fraught with difficultly. Just think about it.

    Error source # 1- Science aims to develop the most powerful explanatory models for how the world works. Like any model, these are necessarily imperfect and incomplete. They are almost always revised. Very occasionally, they are completely over-turned by new evidence.

    Error source # 2 – Science educators have limited time, resources, and interest to master the wide range of topics we have to teach. We also cling onto a surprising number of scientific misconceptions, despite our training. Our understanding of these imperfect and incomplete consensus models of science will always be imperfect and incomplete itself.

    Error source # 3 – Our pupils tend to be much less motivated than teachers or researchers to want to understand many of the concepts we teach. On top of this engagement problem, they come to our demonstrations with their own pre-installed and stubborn conceptions about how the how world works. This framework causes them to distort our carefully devised explanations in ways which reinforce their original idea, and quietly suppresses any contradiction to it.

    These explanation errors can compound dangerously. Makes you marvel that it’s possible to explain effectively at all.

    But this is the bit I need to keep telling my insecure, perfectionist ego.

    It’s not about *me*.

    None of these challenges are reasons to avoid *trying* to offer our best current understanding of the most helpful models we are aware of us. We will fail more than we will succeed.

    Accept this and, as the best mugs say, keep calm and carry on.

    Every time we get over-anxious in our explanations we simply pass this anxiety onto our learners. And so, the damaging cycle continues.

    Every time, however, we publicly reveal our own struggle with incomplete understanding we have a golden opportunity. A chance to confidently model some of the cognitive and emotional strategies which people use when they are trying to make sense of new ideas.

    Our pupils suffer from explanation anxiety too. They call it learning.

  2. I think that one of the big advantages of informal science communication is that it is essentially marked positively rather than negatively, anything we communicate is a good thing. Where as a teacher is often effectively marked negatively as they should communicate the ‘syllabus’ and anything they don’t is considered a ‘bad thing’…

    So you are allowed to fail in some of your explanations as long as others works, this gives us more freedom, possibly to fail, but hopefully much more likely to succeed.

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