Better Explanations?



Can explanations really be made that much better for children? Let’s take a common example and give you a sense of what’s missing. You surely learned about carbon and know that it’s an element on the periodic table. Maybe you remember learning that we’re carbon-based lifeforms. You might also remember something about carbon-dating. Everyone who takes chemistry learns about carbon, it was probably in chapter one of the textbook introducing atoms & elements. And today, there is a lot of talk about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon is important and this assortment of recollections is about the level of understanding that most high school graduates have.

If a child were to ask you, “what is this carbon stuff I hear adults talking about?” You might search the internet for a good explanation and you’ll find something like this: “Carbon is a chemical element like hydrogen and oxygen. It has atomic number six on the periodic table. It has two main forms, diamond and graphite.” Dig a little further, maybe check the Wikipedia page, and you’ll find many pages of true facts about all the properties of carbon. But what you’ll never find anywhere on Wikipedia or the internet is a clear explanation of what it is!

Here is what you won’t find: You know that black stuff you see on burnt toast? That’s carbon. Burn a piece of paper or wood and it’ll turn black too, that’s also carbon. Remember what happens when you’re roasting a marshmallow and it gets too hot? It’ll turn black. Everything from carrots to chicken, they all turn black when burned. Even you, your skin, if you get a third-degree burn, your skin will turn black. You can try burning a little piece of your hair or fingernail to see for yourself. All of these things have carbon inside them. The word “carbon” even hints at this: it was originally a French word. A scientist from France, Lavosier, was the one who noticed all these things turning black. He thought maybe there was a common ingredient inside them all. He didn’t know what this black stuff was so he simply called the black stuff “carbonisé,” which is the French for charred stuff.

This kind of explanation gives you a sense of what’s missing from most explanations we give children. We typically give children the formal definition of a word like “carbon” without explaining what gave rise to it. A proper explanation for children always orients them to the things that are directly observable—and they are already familiar with. After all, the purpose of learning is to understand the world we live in—the world all around us.


Let’s take another classic example. One of the most common questions that children ask is, “Why is the sky blue?” It’s another question that most adults learned themselves when they were young, but the explanation they were given was so poor that few understand it. If a child were to ask you this, you might search the internet again for some help. You’ll find an explanation like this:

Sunlight is white light made up of many different colors of the spectrum. As sunlight passes through the atmosphere, particles in the air scatter the light. Blue light gets scattered more than the other wavelengths of light causing the sky to appear blue.

Huh? Try this explanation on a child and they’ll stare at you puzzled. “Light is scattered just like my toys get scattered?”, they might ask. There are so many bold claims hidden in this explanation: white light is made up of different colors, air is made of particles, light has a wavelength, light can be scattered. These are all important details, if your goal is to have the most advanced understanding.

But the mistake is to assume that someone can progress from no understanding of a topic straight to the most advanced understanding of the topic in one step. Instead, an advanced understanding must be built up, one layer at a time. That explanation above for “Why is the sky blue?” is a layer 6 explanation. There are more basic levels of understanding which must be grasped first. Knowledge builds, layer upon layer, like an onion. The more basic explanations are still true. But there is more truth to be understood, for people who want to go further.

Here is a short video explanation of, “Why is the sky blue?” which gives you a layer 1 and layer 2 explanation.