Teachers, what would you say is the most critical skills that we help our students develop?

In my view, one of the most critical, yet underrated, skills that our students need to develop is the ability to effectively explain a complex topic.

I saw this clearly this morning. I was at Starbucks and I overheard a guy sitting next to me unsuccessfully attempting to explain the rules of a card game to his poor, confused girlfriend. It was painful: his questionable word choice, misguided order of explanation, and long-winded detail were almost too hard to listen to.

I jokingly thought to myself: “How could our society have allowed this? How could someone get through school and be so bad at simplifying the essential components of a game and figure out an order to present them such that another person could understand?

Then it dawned on me. "Explaining" is a skill. Explaining the rules of complex games is uncannily similar to the types of executive mental functions used every day by the world’s most successful people. We really should be teaching these skills in school ... and games may be a great way to do it.

[See also: How to improve students' knowledge retention]

Developing executive function skills

"Explaining" involves such high-level executive functions as (1) summarizing, (2) simplifying, (3) choosing appropriate communication tools (verbal vs. visual vs. simulation), (4) determining how to involve the audience in the learning process, and (5) conveying information incrementally (simple stuff first) in a pace carefully tailored to the audience’s comprehension feedback.

These are the same skills involved in a number of real-world applications:

  • Writing an effective, concise corporate memo or email
  • Making a 30-second TV commercial
  • Leading a product design meeting
  • Teaching a 60-minute class about photosynthesis
  • Pitching your company to investors in an elevator
  • Writing clean software code to be used by other developers
  • And the list could go on.

Explaining games could improve executive function

I’ll bet that long-winded guy I overheard at Starbucks would probably suck at all of the above activities! Yet what if, when he was in 3rd grade, he’d had a teacher who made a point of having half of her students learn a new card game every week, and then explain it to one of their peers in the other half of the class?

With a little guidance and a few dozen rounds of practice teaching people how to play games, that student likely would have become a very talented condenser of information. And he would have continued to refine those skills in everything he did over the rest of his educational and professional career.

Conclusion for educators: although games can sometimes be inefficient for learning, we can make them exponentially more effective for students’ mental development, by simply devising lessons that encourage students to explain the games to each other.

Including these kinds of activities that require kids to explain things to each other will improve executive function. It'll better prepare them for a future in which simplifying, summarizing, and communicating information will be increasingly important. And, we also might save some poor woman from a frustrating morning at Starbucks.

[For more ideas about how help our students learn efficiently, check out our massive guide on how to double your students knowledge retention.]