Should Teachers Explain or Demonstrate?

If I were a chess teacher, I would want my newbies to understand …

… how a bishop moves,

… how castling works,

… what checkmate means.

To help them understand, I could…

show them (“see how this piece moves; now see how that piece moves”)

tell them (“checkmate is defined as…”).

Both strategies sound plausible. Both probably help, at least a little bit.

Is one better than the other?

Today’s Research

I recently came across a fascinating study that explores this question.

A chess board seen from an angle, with red arrows showing how pieces might move in different combinations

In this research, two strangers met over an online puzzle — sort of a maze with prizes at the end of various paths.

Sometimes, one stranger could EXPLAIN to the other the best strategy to get the most points. (“Get the pink triangles, then the hollow squares, then the green circles.”)

Other times, one stranger could SHOW the other the winning path. (“Watch me go this way, now this way, now this way.”)

Which method worked better, show or tell?


In this case, the answer depended on the complexity of the puzzle.

For simple puzzles, both methods worked equally well.

For complex puzzles, telling helped more than showing.

I would have been surprised if there were a straightforward answer to the question; I am, therefore, more inclined to believe this “it depends” answer.

Take Two

This result — explaining complexity > showing complexity — prompted the researchers to test a second hypothesis.

In this case, the research details get very tricky, so I won’t go into them. But the basic idea was:

Perhas both words and actions can explain concrete things, but

Perhas words do better than actions at explaining abstract things.

Sure enough, the second experiment supported that hypothesis.

As the researchers say in their first paragraph:

Our findings suggest that language communicates complex concepts by directly transmitting abstract rules. In contrast, demonstrations transmit examples, requiring the learner to infer the rules.

In brief, the more abstract and complex the concept, the more important the words.

Teaching Implications?

Before we rush to reform our teaching, we should notice several key points about this study:

It involved adults working with other adults, and strangers working with strangers.

The participants were not — as far as I know — teachers. That is: they have neither expertise nor training in helping others understand.

The task involved (sort of) solving mazes. I’m an English teacher; my teaching — and perhaps your teaching — doesn’t focus on maze-solving like mental activity.

In other words, because this research differs A LOT from typical classroom work, its findings might not apply precisely to classroom work.

Teaching Implications!!

That said, this study reminds me of an important lesson:

Practice. My. Words.

That is: when I’m explaining a concept to my students for the first time, I should script and rehearse my explanation carefully.

Now, because I’ve been teaching for a few centuries, I’m occasionally tempted to wing.

Yes, “indirect object” is a tricky concept … but I understand it well, and I’ve explained it frequently over the years, and I’m sure I’ll do just fine…

No, wait, stop it. This research reminds me: words really matter for helping students understand abstractions.

I need to get those words just right, and doing so will take time, thought, and concentraction. (Ollie Lovell emphasizes a similar idea when he writes about the importance of “bullet-proof definitions”; for instance, in this book.)

A second point jumps out at me as well.

This study contrasts showing and telling. Of course, most of the time we combine showing and telling.

As I’ve written before, Oliver Caviglioli’s Dual Coding offers a comprehensive, research-informed exploration of this complex blend.

When I think about dual coding, I typically focus on the “showing/drawing” half of the “dual.” This study, however, reminds me that the “telling” part is equally important — and, in the case of highly abstract concepts, might even be more important.


In brief, in my chess classroom:

I can simply show my students how bishops move: that’s easy.

But “checkmate” is complex. I should both show and tell — and get the telling just right.

Sumers, T. R., Ho, M. K., Hawkins, R. D., & Griffiths, T. L. (2023). Show or Tell? Exploring when (and why) teaching with language outperforms demonstration. Cognition232, 105326.

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