Back in 2008 I was told by an Ofsted inspector that I talked too much. I had always prided myself on being considered an outstanding teacher, and was devastated to be told my lesson was “satisfactory to good”. My attempts to probe this judgement got little further; he offered no criticism of what I’d said or how I’d said it, just that I’d spoken for too long.
This came as huge blow to my self-confidence and I spent the next few years reinventing myself as a trendy, progressive teacher. Out with modelling and whole class instruction; in with group work, problem solving and PLTS. It worked. Lesson observations were given the thumbs up, the kids were having a great time and results were going up. Smiles all round.
When I started writing this blog back in July 2011 I was very much into experimenting with saying less and less, and making the kids discover more and more for themselves. In fact, in one of my earliest posts, I explained how the very title of the blog came from a technique of getting students to act as teachers in order to leave me free to ‘observe’ learning. Occasionally, some of the more academic students complained that they wanted me to ‘just tell them stuff’ but I dismissed that as the product of too much spoon-feeding from other, less exciting teachers.
Signing up to Twitter gradually made a difference. The process of engaging in debate with other teachers who had actually bothered to learn about education came as a real eye opener. I was confounded the first time I ran up against Andrew Old embarking on one of his trade mark Direction Instruction diatribes. Could thinking, rational teachers still actually believe this? Clearly they could, and I wanted to know why. I started to read. First Hattie’s Visible Learning, and then others, including Willingham, Hirsch and Engelmann. OK, I conceded: there is a place for this kind of teaching. What’s needed is balance.
I started writing about integrating right and left wing teaching in such posts as What’s deep learning and How do you do it? and Why aren’t we supposed to teach anymore? I stated to wonder whether my love affair with teaching skills was all It was cracked up to be and started asking Should we be teaching knowledge or skills? and Is it better to be told, or to discover a fact? On the way I encountered problems such as The Learning Pyramid but still felt the need to justify Why group work works for me.
Now, I’m not completely recanting – I still believe students need to be given opportunities to work collaboratively – but I’m definitely a lot clearer on why I might want them to do it. My beliefs have shifted quite a lot. I am now firmly convinced of the need to teach students a curriculum which is predicated on expanding their horizons and giving them knowledge of the world beyond the sometimes narrow confines of their lives and have become increasingly passionate about grammar. I’m even beginning to doubt the primacy of AfL!
But perhaps the biggest shift in my thinking is on the troublesome topic of teacher talk. You see, when that inspector told me I talked too much he was basing that judgement on a body of thinking which had identified that much of what teachers were saying was guff. Teachers had had carte blanche to bang on in whatever tedious manner they decided was appropriate for far too long. It was right and proper that this view should be challenged. But, predictably, as soon as it became acceptable to critique teachers’ talk, ill-informed idiots began to interpret this as a preference for teachers not talking at all. Sort of reminds my about all the wrong-headed nonsense that’s been spouted in the name of progress.
This is something that had become increasing apparent to me over the past year or so, but it wasn’t until hearing about the fabulous work Lee Donaghy is engaged in at Park View School in Birmingham that it all clicked into place. Teachers absolutely must talk if students are actually going to learn anything worthwhile; the trick is to make that talk as efficient and instructive as possible. I’ve spent the past few months experimenting with the teaching & learning cycle Lee describes and have come to the (possibly unoriginal) conclusion that its success is dependent on the quality of teacher talk. You see students’ ability to write well depends on their ability to speak well. As teacher we are modelling speech all the time. We don’t really get a choice about this – we’re either doing it badly or well. This cycle provides a model for ensuring that our talk makes the strongest possible impact on students’ ability to write, speak and think in academic register.
Stage 1 is dependent on the teacher being able to explain clearly and coherently. Alex Quigley has suggested some top tips for doing this effectively, and every teacher should give time to telling compelling stories, making analogies which shed new light on a topic and introducing academic language into their explanations. This type of teacher talk is essential if we value students being able to express abstract and unfamiliar concepts in anything other than broken, inarticulate approximations. Understanding requires knowledge of language: if you don’t have the words for a thing then you can’t think about it usefully.
Stage 2 requires teachers to model their thinking. We need to be able to show how our thoughts become writing. When students speak they rarely consider the structure of what they’re saying. Often it isn’t in sentences, and they are, quite literally, unable to organise it into anything coherent enough to remember, let alone write down. I use what I call Thought Stems to force students to focus on how not just what they’re saying.
So instead of the insipid, unfocused open questions, and pointlessly meandering, conversational verbiage into which teacher lead discussion often descends, students are required to express their thoughts using academic language. They are forced to turn the unformed maelstrom of ideas into something that has structure and, crucially, which they can remember well enough to write down. This stage also depends on discussion.
While not all discussion has to be teacher lead, student lead discussions are only successful when teachers have modelled what a good discussion looks like. Classroom discussions need to involve every students and the outworn dialogic structure of Initiation – Response – Evaluation will not achieve this.
IRE goes a little like this:
Teacher: What is the chemical symbol for Oxygen?
Teacher: Well done.
While this kind of ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s head’ questioning has its place in assessing what a student has memorised, it’s not at all useful for getting them to think. Instead, we need questioning that ‘requires students to think, not just to report someone else’s thinking.’ (Martin Nystrand) To that end, questions should have clear and specific purposes such as to clarify (what did you mean by that?), probe (can you tell me more about that?) and recommend (which answer do you think is best?).
Another problem with IRE is that once the teacher has selected a victim, everyone else in the room can relax: they’re safe from further interrogation until the teacher has evaluated (well done) their stooge’s response. If instead students are expected to evaluate their classmate’s responses by bouncing questions around the class expectations for participation are that much higher. Rather than wasting time with the confusion that is Bloom’s Taxonomy, I recommend 3 question stems to encourage students to evaluate each other’s responses:
So questioning could look like this:
Teacher: With your partner, discuss what you know about Oxygen. (suitable pause) Dan, what do you know about Oxygen?
Dan: O is the chemical symbol for Oxygen.
Teacher: Emma, is he right?
Emma: Er… yes?
Teacher: What else do you know about Oxygen?
Emma: You breathe it.
Teacher: Sam, which of those answers do you think is the most interesting?
Now, at this point students are often very good at snookering us with the classic, ‘I don’t know’ gambit. The appropriate riposte to this is to say something along the lines of, “I know you don’t know – I’m asking what you think.” We need to stand firm and make sure that they do think. You could hover over them and stress them out, or you could give them some discussion time. Either way, as long as you’re clear why you’re asking the questions and let go of the need for ‘right’ answers, all will be well.
Stage 3 is where group work comes in. In order to avoid cognitive overload, students need to transfer what they’ve learned from working to long term memory. As any fool knows, the best way to do this is use what you’ve learned. Ideally, students will be forced to recall this learning multiple times until it’s second nature. This is particularly important when we’re encouraging students to shift ideas from thought, to speech, to writing. They will revert very quickly to using everyday language and we need to be on hand to gently coax them back to the unfamiliar academic register required to master the subject you are responsible for teaching.
- Getting students to work together to design their own thought stems using mark schemes to find key command words
- Student led feedback – make students lead feedback and discussions. Some students are naturally very good at this but the less confident could lead sessions in pairs or use prompt sheets
- Paired writing – encourage students to discuss language and sentence choices at the point of writing
- Listening triads – to help students focus on how they speak not just what they say, get 2 students to discuss a question and the third to record their conversation – this can result in some surprising revelations
- Value listening by asking students to feedback what they’ve heard rather than what they’ve said in a discussion.
But the teacher is still required to talk, if not to engage in whole class instruction. Our job is to help students organise ideas so that they can be used independently. One of my favourite methods for doing this is to use Question Formulation Technique. John Sayer’s Deeper Questioning Grid is a useful tool to help students refine their questions:
Stage 4 is where they are able to work independently and at this point you should, if you’ve talked effectively, be able to finally zip it. This is true independent work, where students are confidently able to transcribe their thoughts without having to speak because of all the high quality talk to which they’ve been exposed. This is in sharp contrast to the chaotic shambles, which often gets passed off for the kind of ‘independent learning’ which many of us have been guilty of perpetrating on our undeserving charges in the name of witlessly reducing teacher talk.
The pogrom against teacher talk conducted by Ofsted and SLTs up and down the land has had almost as toxic an effect on teaching as the insanity that was ‘showing progress every 20 minutes’. Students’ ability to use academic language articulately and well requires effective modelling, and this is impossible if teachers are afraid to say anything. So, in the name of all that is holy please, please, stop telling teachers not to talk. Instead train them in how to improve the quality of their talk.
It was refreshing to hear Michael Wilshaw’s assertion that Ofsted had no preferred methodology and that didactic lessons could be outstanding, but Old Andrew’s research into the sad reality of Ofsted inspections means that being allowed to talk in lessons is the new ideological battleground between ordinary working teachers and the feckless bampots who hold us to account.
And on that note, I’ll shut up.