I used to teach English as a foreign language in Spain. It was without a doubt the best introduction to teaching I could have had and my experiences in teaching others to speak in English has had a profound effect on how I teach now. The beautiful thing about TEFL is that the results of your teaching are instantly viewable: you teach something very specific; they use what you’ve taught them instantly. Carefully selected teacher talk is crucial in this process, but it needed to be balanced with carefully structured student talk. If the balance tipped too far to teacher voice, pupils were overwhelmed and lost confidence. Too far to pupil voice, and students’ language became riddled with inaccuracies. Finding the precarious balance between teacher talk and student talk is vital.
Thankfully, those days when teacher talk was timed is on the way out. Many have pointed out how clear, concise and direct teacher talk is hugely valuable. It is the quickest and most efficient way to relay information and to avoid misconceptions. It allows pupils to hear what successful understanding and thinking sound like. It gives them organic examples of exciting ideas and the vocabulary to express them. It gives them to instantly share the often-contagious passions of excellent teachers. The pedagogical approaches which sought to demonise teacher talk seem to be losing traction. The Rousseauean ideals that every child should work things out for themselves now seem less well-placed, especially in relaying factual knowledge or word meanings.
Having said that, so much teacher talk is still ineffective and at times, overpowering. We still need to consider howand when we speak to the class carefully to avoid falling into one of three sink holes.
1. The one-way transmission
If children only listen, we run the danger that they don’t fully understand. This might be due to the difficulties of pitching teaching when we don’t fully check pupils’ prior knowledge and current understanding. It might be due to the pace with which teachers deliver lesson. If teachers talk without also listening, they run the risk of missing what pupils are actually learning. This runs the risk of leading to…
2. The land of gobbledegook.
We’ve probably all experienced a scenario in which we’ve delivered what we thought was a brilliant lesson. A lesson in which really high-level ideas were being reached, supported by some excellent turns of phrases and word choices. I remember teaching one such lesson on Animal Farm to a group of Y9s. I was blown away with what we were saying about equality and the very real dangers of cyclical regeneration of inequalities. Wow, I thought. I’m a great teacher.
Then I read their work. At best, it read like dodgy capitalist propaganda; at worst, it was doggerel. My problem had been that the ideas ‘we had been disuccing’ were in fact, the ideas I had been saying. And saying. And saying. My explanations, though carefully planned, had been pitched too high and had not given the pupils time to process, probe, question and ultimately think. The good behaviour of the students and their desire to learn had blinded me to the fact that I was transmitting without listening. It had obliterated true thought and true learning.
3. The absence of silence.
Daniel Willingham writes that “Memory is the residue of thought”. Real thought requires a calm and measured environment. Thought about complex issues requires silence. If we want pupils to think about something, we need to give them the time and the conditions to do it. Sometimes, well-meaning teachers are tempted to repeat instructions, give prompts to help struggling students or rush to help certain individuals. Their teacher voice breaks the silence. As Jamie Thom writes in his excellent Slow Teaching, “embracing silence and muting ourselves regularly can help to ensure that students are actively thinking, and can save teachers much needed energy”.
So, to avoid these sink holes, we need to think carefully through what we are saying, and why we are saying it. Our voice should be balanced with questions and opportunities for short bursts of discussion that allow pupils to process new information. We should carve opportunities into the lesson for pupils to develop their views based on their knowledge: we should give them the space to ‘own’ their learning. And above all, we need to celebrate those moments of silence during the lessons when you know pupils are really, truly thinking.