By Ashraf Al Shafaki
What follows is a diverse set of methods for explaining complex concepts to others. The methods detailed here are compiled and created entirely by Ashraf Al Shafaki.
One method of visual explanation is by using the 4 quadrants method. Two variables are used, one on the x-axis (horizontal axis) and the other on the y-axes (vertical exes).
The 2D (2-dimensional) plane is then divided into 4 quadrants. Each quadrant would include a case out of 4 cases that corresponds to the state of the variables.
Another way to think of it is as if there is a table that has 2 row and 2 columns that includes 4 elements inside it. The headings of the table are the x-axis and the left most column of the table represents the y-axis.
Clarity is an important thing. When concepts are clear in the mind, one can easily use such clear understanding of such concepts to think rapidly and deeply in a correct way to reach sound conclusions and to problem solve.
Sometimes two concepts are intertwined or superimposed in the minds of a student. This intertwining or superposition could result in improper gloomy thinking that could lead to deadlocks, blind allies or vicious circles in thinking which could cause confusion and frustration and do not lead to proper conclusions nor ability to problem solve.
The best way to solve this problem is by clearly separating those tow concepts through showing the differences between them. By becoming aware of the differences between the two concepts students start seeing them as two distinct things and stop confusing them for one another or superimposing them over each other. This greatly helps in understanding and thus greatly improves clear thinking and problem solving.
One good method for explaining is to outline the process. Not everything can be represented as a process, but things that can would benefit from being explained by conducting a careful trace for their underlying process. Explaining by revealing the process belongs to the time based or chronological explanation methods.
While explaining by relating the history of development of a concept or thing describes its chronological development along time, explaining by uncovering the process tackles things that keep repeating on and on again. The historic development of something happens only once, but a process keeps repeating once and again.
You can explain to a child what a beetle is by explaining the different phases in which the beetle goes in order to become a beetle starting by the time it was a small egg, then hatching and becoming a larva then a pupa and finally developing into a full grown beetle.
One method of explaining something is by enumerating and describing its component. For instance if you want to explain what a chair is you can say it is an object that consists of a flat surface supported by 4 legs.
If you want to explain what an elephant is you can say it is an animal that has large ears, a long trunk and a huge body.
By enumerating components of what you want to explain you make it easier for the mind to digest and comprehend. Composition is one of the relationships between concepts that helps the mind better grasp the concepts and be better able to use them in the thinking process.
Contrasting between two contrasting concepts is one of the most popular methods for explaining. It belongs to the relationship establishment explanation methods. It can be used only with concepts for which contrasting ones exist.
For example if you want to explain what black is you can clarify its meaning by contrasting it with white. Not only does this help those who already understand what white is understand that black is it's opposite but it also establishes a holistic view that combines black and its contrasting white concept together in a larger entity.
You can explain what a man is by contrasting him to a woman. Contrast establishes a sharper degree of understanding and makes concepts become crystal clear.
You can explain what hot is by contrasting it with cold and vice versa and so on.
One method for starting to explain something, particularly something that is commonly incorrectly perceived, is to start not by saying what this concept is but by saying what this concept is not.
For instance once can start explaining what mushroom is by saying that mushroom is not a plant or what a whale is by saying that a whale is not a fish. Excluding is mostly done by saying that the subject of explanation does not belong to this or that set. Breaking such a relationship helps the brain retract from any blind or incorrect allies it might be heading to.
One amazing method for explaining a complex concept that makes that concept become crystal clear instantly to the human mind is by using parallel patterns. The explainer selects a one-dimensional pattern of something the explainee is familiar with and is already crystal clear to him. The pattern selected must be parallel to another pattern that includes the concept the explainee wants to explain. The slot for the concept under explanation is to be left blank and the explainee is asked to fill it out. The concept being explained will become crystal clear to the explainee using this method.
For instance, let's say the explainer wants to explain to the explainee what the letter "b" is. He draws 4 quadrants that contain the sequence "1, 2" then another quadrant that contains the parallel sequence "a, ..." leaving its final slot blank. The explainee will be able to comprehend what the letter "b" is by visualizing the relationship it has with the elements around it. The explainee may be able to come up with the missing element in the empty slot, the concept being explained, or the explainer can spell it out for him and still this will greatly improve understanding of the concept.
The parallel patterns technique belongs to the relationship building methods of explanation.
Sometimes a concept is not very clear or seams to be something other than its reality. In such a case unrooting is an excellent explanation method. It helps dispel any myth in the minds of explainees.
A myth or unclear concept is often made so due to having an old root that has been covered for long. By exposing such a root the myth can easily be dispelled and the unclear concept can be greatly clarified.
One very effective and rapid explanation method that also deeply engraves concepts in the minds of explainees is by using visual explanation through diagrams. A visual representation of the concept being explained (within its context) is an effective explanation method that belongs to the explanation through relationship building set of explanation methods.
Sketch a diagram that represents the concept you are attempting to explain. Let that diagram represent the concept you are explaining and possibly draw the surrounding environment of that concept in order to establish context and give a fuller model that would in turn facilitated comprehension of that concept.
Let's say you are trying to explain what does a brother in law mean. You can draw a diagram representing two families with the son from one of the families marrying the daughter in the other family and pointing out the brother in law relationship between the brother of that son and his wife. A visual representation makes the comprehension process instant and more lasting.
Defining is often a compound method for explaining. A definition may use multiple methods of explanation at the same time. When defining something for instance one may use: dividing, features, function(s), belongs-to as well as other methods of explanation.
For instance let us define "chair". A chair can be defined as: "An object used for sitting on or standing on that usually has 4 legs and can be made from wood, plastic or metal." In this definition we used the belongs-to method by indicating that a chair is an object. We used the function method by indicating its function which is its being used in sitting on or standing on. We have also mentioned its components using the dividing method indicating that it has 4 legs. Finally we mentioned the material from which it is made "wood, plastic or metal" which belongs to the description method of explanation.
So as we see, defining is a compound way for explaining that combines more than one explanation method at the same time.
While a computer would best 'understand' something if you define it and provide a solid rule for identifying that thing, the human brain on the other hand does not work best with such rigid rules and works much better by absorbing examples of the concept being explained then generalizing such examples to create a mental model of that concept which enables the human mind to identify such concept and rapidly perform mental processes involving such concept.
For instance let's say you want to explain to a very young child what a cat is. Instead of attempting to define a cat to that child, you just point out to a cat or a picture of a cat and tell the child that this is a cat. You later point out to another cat or picture of it and tell the child that this is also a cat. By providing several varying examples of a cat, the young child then creates a mental model for what a cat is. This mental model for instance might be that a cat is some living creature that moves on four legs, has a tail and is shorter than human beings.
The mental model created might need to be refined to exclude elements that do not belong to the concept being explained. For instance in the example of the cat, it might be a good idea later on to show the child say a dog and tell him that this is a dog not a cat. Up until that moment the child might point to a dog, upon seeing it for the first time, and say "cat" based on the previous mental model he has created. By identifying elements that do not belong to the concept being explained through giving examples of them (exclusion examples) the explainer could thus assist the exaplainee in creating a strong mental model of the concept being explained.
Finally, it is worth restating that when the human brain understands a concept through examples of such concept, the brain is much better able to use such concept in thinking and perform mental processes much more rapidly involving such a concept.
In some cases it is difficult to come up with a precise definition of a concept, in such a case an alternative method of explaining it would be to try and describe in detail its behavior. By being aware of the behavior of the concept being explained, the explainee can get hold of the concept and grasp it in her mind.
For instance let's say you want to explain what a "cat" is. You may say that a cat purrs and meows, chases mice, drinks milk, eats meat, loves to play and sleeps a lot. By describing its behavior the mind of the explainee starts to get better hold of the concept being explained.
Explaining by using a metaphor is a very powerful method of explanation. The human mind works exceptionally well with metaphors. Metaphors enable the human mind to fully comprehend the new concept and even predict its behavior by comparing it to the metaphor.
For instance, when you want to explain the role of a trainer and you say that a trainer is like a maestro. The explainees instantly grasp the idea and start understanding that a trainer should please the audience, be responsible for the harmonious functioning of the trainees, ensure a smooth running of the performance (training), start a symphony gradually, allow trainees to warm up at the beginning of the training and end a training session (symphony) with a grand finale. All this can be deduced intuitively by the explainee just by mentioning that a trainer is like a maestro! This example shows how powerful the use of a metaphor for explaining can be.
One very effective way to explain is by allowing the explainee to actually experience what you are trying to explain. If you are trying to explain a situation, let the explainee actually be in such situation. If you are trying to explain an object, let the explainee experience such object with his senses by touching it, seeing it, tasting it, holding it in his hand and examining its properties. By actually experiencing something one needs no further explanation of that thing. The only problem with the experiential explanation method is that it is sometimes difficult to actually perform, but when it is feasible it is the most effective way to grasp what something really is.
One method for explaining a concept or situation is to provide an analogy between such concept and another one that is familiar to the explainee. The human brain is very good at understanding analogies. This is one powerful method for explaining new concepts particularly when the concept is complex and complicated having many aspects to it. An analogy can make it crystal clear.
In the case of representative examples one provides several samples of the concept being explained in order to make the explainee able to grasp the 'definition' of that concept. Providing clarifying examples is different, for here giving one example only can be sufficient. The goal here is not to provide many samples so that the explainee can arrive at some sort of definition of the concept being explained, but rather to provide the mind with a solid case of the concept being explained so that the mind can grasp the idea better. This method is often used right after providing a general theoretical or direct definition of the concept being explained.