The ‘war’ on Teacher Talk Time was one of the more depressing developments in my teaching career. Obviously secondary students will rapidly get bored if they are subjected to lectures – no one is advocating that teachers should drone on and on for hours – but the obsession with cutting down teacher talk became dysfunctional under the Ofsted framework.
The profession became awash with strategies to prevent teachers from talking. Here’s an example from TeacherToolkit (a typically excellent resource bank) that I found dismaying at the time:
“Teacher Talk can often be the root-cause of poor behaviour and debilitating progress during a lesson. … “Reducing Teacher-talk” will be my sole focus for 2012/13 in my own classroom, as well as observations of other colleagues and CPD training throughout the school year.”
Some of the Top Tips show the extent to which ‘teacher talk’ became taboo.
- “Give the students a stop watch and let them monitor “your talking”. You are allowed a maximum of 10 minutes in the entire lesson.
- Imagine you cannot talk! Then think how you will communicate your ideas and assess student progress without the use of teacher verbal input”
This prohibition on teachers explaining things was undoubtedly stimulated by Piagetian views that providing instruction gets in the way of understanding and given force by the fact that Ofsted routinely penalised teacher talk in lessons. Only a year ago, Andrew Old drew attention to the negative teaching assessments featuring complaints about talking – to the extent that consultants were specifically offering CPD on the ‘new minimum teacher talk expectations’.
About the same time, I was running a small investigation into my teaching using my (then) Y10 GCSE psychology group. I was principally interested in the extent to which students used and rated a variety of review techniques. I also recognised that I could find myself criticised for ‘teacher talk’, so I added some talk and listening items. Students rated the frequency, learning quality and enjoyment of some of the different ‘talk modes’ that took place in the lessons.
Looking at just the frequency and enjoyment items (higher scores = more often) I felt I could take some solace. Students felt I talked a lot, but they didn’t exactly hate it. Indeed, their least favourite activity was listening to another student explain something to the class.
However, looking at student ratings of how each item facilitated learning, teacher talk appeared even less ‘debilitating’.
The three items they rated as helping them make progress were; asking me questions, listening to my explanations and my asking questions. Listening to pupils answering my questions and talking to a partner were, according to them, the least effective learning methods.
Now, that’s not to say there shouldn’t be student talk – far from it – but it made the case that I wasn’t alone in thinking that good quality talk had a place in lessons. If my students could see the value in ‘teacher talk’, why couldn’t Ofsted?
Even in November of this academic year, despite numerous and repeated clarifications by HMCI, it appeared that it was clear that minimal teacher talk was still a requirement of the regulator.
However, with the slow rehabilitation of direct instructional methods as a valid teaching strategy, my hope is that the focus will continue to shift from criticising the quantity of teacher talk to examining how we can raise the quality. There are at least two excellent reasons why teachers should talk:
Providing good explanations of difficult concepts is one the greatest skills a teacher can possess. It requires a considerable understanding of the subject and a good deal of skill to do well. One of the things I like about the MET Tripod survey is that ‘Clarity’ is an important factor, e.g.
- “My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic we cover in class.”
- “My teacher explains difficult things clearly”
Tom Boulter recently explored how easily this can go wrong. He identifies a number of ways in which teachers can explain things badly: By assuming prior knowledge the students don’t have, moving into abstraction too early or too quickly, covering too much explanation in one go and bad questioning to support explanation. This last item he illustrates with an amusing example; if you laugh it will be because you recognise having done it youself.
So, how can we explain things better?
Pitching it right: Through things like quizzes and skilful questioning, the teacher needs to identify the level and timing of an explanation. I’ll readily admit, I still think of this as the Zone of Proximal Development. A good explanation is genuinely something that does needs explaining (i.e. not something they already understand) but also builds upon secure knowledge foundations.
For example, there’s little point getting students to speculate about the adaptive value of traits of animals (human or non-human) whilst students have an inaccurate understanding of evolution through natural selection. To successfully explain natural selection, it helps if they have a secure understanding of how artificial selection works and how traits are inherited. Provided the foundations are present, using Darwin’s logic from The Origin of Species (moving from artificial selection to the idea of the natural environment doing the selecting) isn’t such a stretch. It’s also a good opportunity for stories (see below)
Use of analogy: I’ve written before about the value of analogies in teaching science, but they can punch above their weight when it comes to helping students understand scientific ideas. Treating coulombs as cars or trucks moving around a road can help students tackle the counter-intuitive difference in the behaviour of voltage and current. Analogies typically work well where the subject knowledge required to properly explain a phenomenon is higher complexity than the behaviour you want them to be able to predict.
Concrete to abstract: Another feature, which links to the two above, is sequencing an explanation so that it starts with the concrete and familiar before moving into the abstract and unfamiliar. A good model (e.g. marbles representing particle arrangements in solids, liquids and gases) can connect the invisible to the familiar. By introducing complex ideas in stages; starting with familiar and concrete models and moving in steps towards the more abstract, we can maximise students’ ability to assimilate the new ideas successfully.
Pictures and worked examples to illustrate: Good explanations are typically assisted by the use of supporting images and examples. It’s important to note that pictures aren’t there to look decorative or provide ‘engagement’ – that might simply split attention – but as a potentially useful way to manage cognitive load. By linking the image directly to the concept being explained, we provide a visual mode that can be processed alongside the verbal explanation. Worked examples are another way to potentially overcome the limitations of working memory when dealing with difficult new concepts.
Diagnostic questioning: As Tom pointed out, a good explanation requires some good questioning to support it. Rather than recapitulate his points, it’s clear that explanations should be supported with diagnostic questions (e.g. What would happen if? Why do you think that?) designed to identify misconceptions creeping in or clouding out the explanation you’re trying to build.
Consolidation and application: Along with good questioning, students need opportunities to consolidate their conceptual understanding and practice at applying it. These might take many forms (depending on the mode of teaching your prefer); for example, having used a worked example of classical conditioning (predictably Pavlov’s dogs) I get students to use the explanation on a range of different scenarios (from familiar: a pet comes running at the sound of the food cupboard door being opened; to unfamiliar: rats learning to avoid Warfarin).
Another great use of teacher talk is story telling. We readily see the importance of stories in the transmission of cultural knowledge in wider society, so it seems odd that we discourage teachers from developing a skill in this area. There’s evidence to suggest that we’re adapted to readily learn from stories in order to quickly learn survival lessons from others. For example, Daniel Willingham explains:
“Stories are easy to comprehend and easy to remember, and that’s true not just because people pay close attention to stories; there is something inherent in the story format that makes them easy to understand and remember. Teachers can consider using the basic elements of story structure to organize lessons and introduce complicated material, even if they don’t plan to tell a story in class.”
Willingham relates two laboratory experiments which suggested that a narrative structure helps students understand the causal connections within material. In a later article he reports how a similar technique used to teach science helped immediate and delayed recall of the material.
He goes on to suggest:
“You don’t have to think of narrative just as the story of an individual or group of people; you can think more abstractly conflict, complications, and the eventual resolution of conflict as the core of narrative structure.
“I prefer to think of narrative in this broader sense because it is more flexible, and gives teachers more options, and also better captures the aspects of narrative structure that I suspect are behind the advantage conferred.”
I think this is a good approach to curriculum design. Topics of study can be structured into a broadly narrative framework – a phenomenon to be understood, a mystery or intrigue to be revealed. For example, I introduced aggression to my Y13s with clips of the London riots – the story broadly based around how the psychologists Albert Bandura and Philip Zimbardo might try to explain them. Good stories will take more than an hour or two to tell – but students can easily keep up with the ‘plot so far’ by recapitulating the story; “Last time in psychology …”
“The first part of the answer is that as social creatures who regularly affiliate with strangers, stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next. Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts.”
So, stories can be highly effective methods of transmitting cultural knowledge and additionally they sometimes allow teachers to develop some of our broader educational aims. For example, in psychology we teach some definitions of abnormal behaviour and go on to discuss the limitations of each. I use the story of Alan Turing – starting with his work at Bletchley Park and ending with Gordon Brown’s statement to the House of Commons in 2009 – as the example for developing criticism of the definition. It turns what would otherwise be a fairly dry evaluation point into a memorable and socially important lesson.
As Tom Boulter illustrated, it is easy to slip into ineffective explanations and questioning when developing your skills as teacher. However, the fact that teachers can be poor at questioning hasn’t led to a ‘war on questions’, rather an attempt to improve the quality of questioning by focusing teachers upon their best use. Likewise, explanations can be long-winded, overly abstract and poorly constructed, but rather than simply seek to minimise the use of teacher talk, we should see it as an important tool to develop for effective teaching.