The delicate balance of explanations

Yesterday I talked about (and linked to) Vi Hart’s masterful explanation of logarithms. By coincidence, today I found myself in a deep discussion about visual explanations with someone who creates them for a living (she builds interactive graphical explanations of financial trends for a major newspaper).

We ended up talking about the delicate balance of explanations. If you focus only on making things accessible, you run the risk of oversimplifying. People who watch your explanation may feel good about themselves, but they haven’t really learned something in a useful way. By “useful” I mean understanding something well enough to apply that understanding in new and different situations.

On the other hand, if you try too hard to be comprehensive, you might end up drowning your viewers in detail. When people are subjected to information overload, they are likely to walk away before having learned anything really useful.

And so, as with any narrative art, teaching with visual explanations is a process of opening doors for people at just the right rate, so that viewers can have the pleasure of truly absorbing something new, and then building on what they have just learned, in a series of satisfying steps.

It is an art at which Vi Hart excels, which is why I study her videos with such fervor and delight. Every time I watch the “Logarithms” video I learn something new about how to teach.

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