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A very interesting quote

Updated on April 16, 2016

Explanation by Einstein

An important task of education is to explain the world. Or better said to make it possible for pupils to understand the world they will be part of. That said, Einstein had an interesting quote about explaining that makes clear how important understanding is to be able to explain:

If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.

If you project this quote on education, it means that educators need to understand well so they can explain it simply. But that also creates a few questions:

a. How do we get educators to understand well?
b. What is meant with "explain it simply"?
c. When do you "understand it well enough", when you can "explain it simply" or does that depend on the complexity of the subject?
d. What is that "it" Einstein is talking about?
e. Is explaining the same as educating?
f. What is meant with understanding?
g. And what do we mean with "well?"

You do not understand it well enough

If you can not explain it simply.

According to Albert Einstein

Is explaining and educating the same

or are they something completely different

Lets start with looking at explaining. If I understand the concept of explaining correctly what we mean with it is:

being able to describe something we think about in such a way that a listener is able to understand what we are thinking.

So the goal of explaining is to help others think the same way we are thinking. For example if I am thinking of a dog, I can not talk about an animal with four legs, because most animals have four legs. Even humans have four extremities, so that explains why some women will call some men dogs. But a listener could think something completely different from what I am thinking of when I explain to them that I am thinking of a dog, an animal with four legs and a tail.

A description

So explaining is creating such a description of an object, a subject, an idea or a situation that someone who is listening to my explanation could point out the object or understand my idea or see the situation. Explaining however is difficult as we can see when people play a game like pictionary or charades. Because most of the time our brain whishes to use the simple explanation of a single word that describes the object or subject or idea or situation. But even if we could use a single word we might not create the same image in the brain of the listener, because every human being uses their own particular images and combination of words to describe a single word.

Dog for example

For example if you write the word dog and would ask someone to describe the dog he now imagines, most people who had a dog when they were young would describe that dog. Most people who never had a dog would probably describe a german sheppard or a dalmation or a St.Bernard if the movie Cujo was their first encounter with a dog or a collie if they grew up with Lassie. But the strange thing is, if you asked someone to point out a dog in a group of animals, most people would have no problem doing so. Even though they might not think of that kind of dog when you ask them to point out what they think a dog looks like.

Easier to point

So sometimes explaining is easier done with pointing out examples then with describing something with many words. As the Chinese proverb says:

An image can say more than a thousand words

Because what amount of words would I need to write down or speak about a dog, to make clear what a dog is. Especially with all those different kinds of dogs humans have created over time. And lets be honest a boxer is dog, but it looks in nothing like a collie or a bouvier des Flandres who are also dogs. And how many words would I need to use to make clear the difference between a dog and a cat, so someone who does not know dogs or cats does not mistake a cat for a dog.

Simple explanation

Maybe this makes clear how easy it is to say that not being able to explain something simply means you do not understand it well enough. Because some things or ideas are not simply explained. For example there is no mathematical formula that will describe all dogs in such a way that dog is explained simply. Not like the formula Einstein is famous for:


Which means that matter is energy and energy is matter and light is a constant, so time must be relative and distance to, because the speed of light depends on the medium it travels in.

Explaining and education

So you could say that explaining and education are the same thing. The difference between the two you might say is that education is a constant activity of explaining. Education is you could say explaining on steroids. As its goal is to explain as much as possible in as short a time as possible. Although you might say currently education has become an activity that takes so long, between 12 and 30 years, you might forget it is all about explaining the world a student is part of.

Explaining and understanding - educating and understanding

We now know that explaining is not that easy, even if you understand a subject or object well. For education that understanding of an object, subject, idea or situation is even more difficult because it is complicated by the fact that an educator also needs to understand the group he or she is explaining to.

Why do educators need to understand their students?

Because different people understand explanations differently.

Why do people understand explanations differently?

Because people, as I said before, have different images and ideas about the same words.

As I said different people will get an image of a different dog, depending on their experience with dogs, when someone tells them about a dog. This is not only true for dogs, but for every idea or word there is in the English or any language. Which means that an educator needs to know more explanations of the same object or subject to be able to explain it to all those pupils in his or her classroom. But he or she also needs to understand how to discover which explanation will work with which student.

Diverse students

The work of a teacher is complex because he or she needs to understand an object, subject, idea or situation he or she is going to explain. But he or she also needs to understand how he can explain something he understands to people with diverse experiences and he needs to understand how he can discover which explanation works best for which student, so he can give all those diverse students an explanation they understand. But a teacher also needs to understand that some subjects, objects, ideas or situations are simple to explain when you understand them while others are so complex that understanding will not make them simple to explain. As I have shown with the example of the dog.

Explaining complexity

So it is not enough to understand something to be able to explain it simply, you also need to understand the receiver of the explanation, you need different methods of explaining and you need to understand when you can explain something in a simple way and when something is to complex for a simple explanation. Because for someone to understand what you are explaining you also need to understand what we mean when we say that someone understands something. Because letting someone repeat what you said does not mean he understood. Just like Confucius said:

Tell me and I forget
Show me and I remember
Let me do and I understand

You could translate this in:

Making me repeat literally what you told me does not mean I understood it;
I can repeat what you told me if you also showed me pictures or showed me the movements, but that does not mean I understood;
If I do something I not only remember, but I also start to understand what you told and showed me.

What this tells us is that understanding is something else then remembering. Something Confucius already knew in 400 before Christ.

Now explaining has become even complexer, because when I want to explain something simply I need to understand that something. But I also need to understand how complex that something is. I need to be able to use different explanations for different people. In combination with the ability to discover which explanation works best for someone. But I also need to understand that repeating my explanation by the one I gave the explanation too is not the same as understanding.

Some more about - explaining

Understanding - to explain

To explain you need to understand


See results

How to understand

by explaining

The quote by Confucius holds the answer to the solution of Einsteins quote. In the third line it says:

Let me do and I understand

So real understanding comes from doing. And off course we first need explanation, especially if we are going to work with a dangerous or deadly machine. But how simple we might make the explanation, understanding will come from using that machine, not from our simple explanation. You might even say that how complexer or more dangerous an object or idea how simpler our explanation has to be in the form of only telling the most dangerous elements and letting the one who needs to understand practice with that object or idea. Like we do today with simulation programs and simulators and war games and education. These are all instruments to keep the explanation as simple as possible and let the student understand by doing.

Keep it simple s...

So if you really understand understanding you know to keep the explanation as simple as possible. Because real understanding comes from doing, not from repeating what someone told in their simple explanation. Although repeating someones explanation to someone else who does not understand yet also helps understanding. In the end it is about doing to create understanding, not understanding it well enough to explain it simply.

Do you think explaining is enough to understand.

What do you think - about explaining

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