Explaining Concepts is Hard

Explaining concepts is difficult - so much so that almost everyone does it poorly, even when they are deliberately trying to do it well. This article catalogues some of the reasons why it is difficult, and suggests a straightforward approach to doing it better.

What Do You Mean by Concept?

But first, let's be clear on what we're talking about here. Cognitive psychologists use the term concept to denote two different (but related) things:

  • concepts as abstract objects
  • concepts as mental representations

A concept as an abstract object is the external representation of the concept. In the case of things that actually exist (e.g. the Krebs cycle, or a database), it is the thing itself. In the case of things lacking a physical manifestation (e.g. Mastery Learning, or altruism), the description of the concept is the external representation.

(There is a great deal of nuance here, which shall be ignored for present purposes.)

A concept as a mental representation is a person's internal understanding of the concept. It is the source from which they could, or would, describe the concept, as an abstract object, to another person.

These two notions are related in that you can view explaining a concept as a transformation or conversion process - as one person (a teacher) helping another (a student) to transform a concept from an abstract object into a mental representation.

(Do not fixate here on the terms teacher and student. Everybody is a teacher, and everybody is a student. Which role you are in, at any given time, is dependent on the context of the particular situation.)

With this understanding of a concept, you can view any conceptual learning task as the learning of a set of concepts, varying in quantity from one to many. Likewise, you can view any instructional source - from an article, to a book, to an entire course load - as the teaching of a set of concepts.

Why Explaining Concepts is Hard

There are many reasons why explaining concepts is difficult. Here some of the most important, in a general (non-specific) sense.

1) Concepts Are Typically Complex

Developing understanding (Integration) of a concept usually involves synthesizing many separate facts about the components and/or behaviors of the concept.

Furthermore, developing understanding of a concept often depends on prior understanding of other (often complex) concepts, which serve as the foundations (the components and/or behaviors) of the more advanced concept.

2) Failure in Developing Conceptual Understanding Compounds

This structural nature of complex concepts - being built from less-but-still-complex concepts - means that failure to learn the initial concepts precludes the possibility of learning the more complex concepts built upon them.

IOW, the failure to learn concepts compounds as the student attempts to progress deeper into a concept-intensive subject.

3) People, in General, are Really Bad at Explaining Concepts

People are obviously bad at explaining things that they don't understand well, themselves. This should require no further discussion.

Paradoxically, though, people are also bad at explaining things that they do understand well. This is because their natural tendency is to explain things at the level of their own understanding. They do not naturally (subconsciously) empathize with lesser levels of understanding. Nor, in many cases, do they intentionally (consciously) step back to analyze 1) to whom they are trying to explain, and 2) what the student's baseline level of understanding may be.

4) Teaching Conceptual Understanding is Difficult Regardless of the Medium

People are bad at teaching conceptual understanding in books, in classes, in videos, in computer-based training (CBT) and in every other medium.

Because of that, there is sometimes a tendency to blame the medium.

Some media are, of course, better for explaining certain things than others are. Watching a process happen is usually easier than trying to imagine that process based on a description. But a well-constructed description can always help to ensure that the observed process is understood in its entirety.

5) The Teacher Lacks Control Over a Key Part of the Process

Ultimately, whether or not conceptual understanding is developed is dependent on the student - specifically on their ability to synthesize the information (Integration).

Though the teacher has no direct influence over this, it makes the clarity and comprehensiveness of the explanation all the more important.

How to Explain Concepts Better

So you have to start by figuring out where people usually go wrong, how they fail in trying to develop conceptual knowledge in someone else.

The answer is in understanding that communicating conceptual knowledge needs to be approached systematically.

At a high level, the teacher needs to:

  1. Decompose the concept into its component parts and/or behaviors
  2. Explain those individual parts and/or behaviors (at the audience's level of understanding)
  3. Recurse, as necessary

Each of these steps is essential. Doing well at each step gives you a higher chance of overall success. Failure at any step means failure of the entire process.

The key here, though, the step that you likely overlook in your own explanations, is the recursion. As you decompose the concept, you must examine each of the parts and determine whether or not you need to (recursively) decompose and explain any of those parts. IOW, you must deliberately decide whether or not you need to apply the same process to any of the decomposed parts.

Obviously, there is a point at which you should stop decomposing, a minimal level of understanding which the student must bring to learning the concept that is being explained. But it is far better to go too deep than it is to not go deeply enough.

This systematic approach is blindingly obvious, in hindsight. But most people fail to come to this understanding on their own.

You can think of this recursive decomposition process as the inverse of (a symmetry of) reasoning from first principles - as recursively teasing out the principles from which the concept is composed.

Admittedly, this process, can be much more easily stated, than it can be done. And there is much more to explaining concepts effectively than just following this process.

But this process is not optional. It is the required starting point for explaining concepts effectively.

Finally, note that this process of effectively explaining a concept to someone else mirrors the decomposition that you do as a student in the Absorption (LS2) Learning Stage. IOW, learning can be viewed as explaining something to yourself.

Learn More!


Michael Reichner is the Founder of SRSoterica (this site), and the author of spaced repetition system (SRS) flashcard decks for absorbing the concepts that underlie complex programming subjects.

Discuss this article on the site that it was linked from, or at the SRSoterica subreddit.

Last updated: April 18, 2020

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