We have two ears and only one tongue in order that we may hear more and speak less.

Pupils are asked to discuss stuff in class all the time. As, from time to time, are teachers. Think back to the last discussion you took part in. No matter how civilised they are, it tends to be an exercise in patience; we spend a lot of time waiting for everyone else to shut up so we can have our say. Inevitably, this de facto approach allows discussion to be dominated by the loudest, most confident participants. As John Wayne put it, we are often “short on ears and long on mouth.”

This begs two questions:

  1. Is it worth spending classroom time on having discussions?
  2. And if so, how can we improve their quality?

I’m a great believer in the proposition that talk is a powerful lever for cognitive change.  (For a more extensive discussion of the power of dialogic teaching to improve education outcomes read this paper by Robin Alexander.) Arguably, all teaching is about changing the way pupils think, but the only way we can ever hope to see their thoughts is through asking them questions and getting them to write stuff down. Writing is essentially private and is unlikely to help develop a class’s thinking, whereas talk is, well, audible. It is, by its very nature shared with everyone within earshot. As such it has the capacity to affect everyone who hears it.

But more importantly perhaps, talk can be used not to see what pupils think, but to change it. By asking them to express their ideas in academic language we can have a surprising impact on pupils’ ability to write in academic language, and therefore to be academically successful. I’d like to state confidently that rigorously conducted classroom discussions in which participation is required and contributions are expected to ‘sound like an essay’ have phenomenal results on attainment. However, this contention depends mainly on my personal experience and the anecdotes of those who’ve trod a similar path. So I’ll just suggest it instead.

But it stands to reason that if classroom discussion is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. To that end there are a great many things we could concentrate on, but one of the most important conditions to get right is that listening ought to be as valued as speaking. This is tricky as listening, by it’s very nature, isn’t something we can directly see (or hear) pupils doing. If we want them to value listening, so must we. One simple tweak might be to ask pupils to feedback what they have just heard, not what they’ve said. This has a number of benefits:

  • Pupils have to speak more clearly in order for their ideas to be understood.
  • Pupils listen much more attentively so that they are able to remember and articulate what others have said.
  • Discussions are less likely to be dominated by more extrovert participants and become a ‘safer’ place for ideas to be exchanged.
  • More introverted pupils can find it easier to share what another has said than their own private thoughts.

Most importantly, the quality of classroom discussions will improve, but so can the whole dynamic of a class.

Another way to promote listening is to allow pupils to struggle. If we always give reminders of our instructions or questions we may inadvertently encourage pupils to be less attentive. By not just simply bailing them out, we will actively teach pupils that they need to be more attentive. If instead of simply offering redirections we make pupils search their memories and grope for answers, the reverse might be true. As teachers, we should recognise that when we jump in, or paraphrase pupils’ answers, we prevent them from having to struggle. Frustrating as it might be, learning is most likely to occur when pupils are not given easy certainties and constant hints and reminders. That said, struggling and failing doesn’t result in learning.  If pupils, despite their best efforts, cannot recall instructions then we will need to restate them. But not too quickly.

It may also be worth our while to insist on behaviours which are more likely to demonstrate that listening is taking place. Technique 32 from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion is SLANT:

  • Sit up straight
  • Listen
  • Ask and answer questions
  • Nod your head (to show you understand and are listening)
  • Track the speaker

These behaviours are not a panacea. But they are, if nothing else, good habits to develop in our pupils; what we practise, we get good at. If they do little more than make them more socially adept they are worthwhile, but if they also make them more attentive, so much the better. And they have the added bonus of being relatively easy to spot.

Related posts

Teacher Talk: The missing link 
Developing oracy: it’s talkin’ time
A simple theory about writing