In which I research ways to reduce teacher talk

The feedback from my most recent lesson observation set me the target to reduce the amount of teacher talk in my everyday practice, in order to provide more time for students to demonstrate ‘rapid and sustained progress’. However, in researching strategies to reduce teacher talk, I quickly reached the conclusion that my way forward lay less in finding ways to reduce teacher talk and more in findings ways to redirect it. The following is a list of ways that I’ve found in which this might be possible.

Think-Pair-Share

Most of the strategies that I found relate to questioning technique. ‘Standard’ questioning technique follows the initiate-response-feedback model: the teacher asks a question, a student gives a response, and the teacher tells the students whether this was a good answer or not. Think-pair-share (which I do use from time to time, although I haven’t really fully understood why I should use it until now) redirects the feedback stage of this model: students formulate an answer, which they share with their partner so as to agree on a common answer, and the teacher then select some of the pairs to share their common answers (and, more importantly, the thinking behind them) with the class.

One of the strengths of this approach is that students have to think not only about what their answer is, but why it is a good answer. There’s no reason why this isn’t possible by using the ‘standard’ individual model, then asking the student a follow-up question to check the understanding behind their answer, of course. However, with the think-pair-share model, this process is redirected away from the teacher – students have to explain their answers to each other in order either to select the best answer or to identify and combine the best parts of both answers. This creates the conditions for progress with reduced teacher talk – the pair phase allows students to teach each other, while the share phase allows the teacher to identify those students with good answers and to use their explanations to correct any other students’ misunderstandings before moving on to the next activity.

Obviously, think-pair-share presupposes that students have at least a working knowledge of what a good answer looks like, which leads me neatly on to the next section.

Model Answers

At the start of a sequence of learning, give students some exemplars that demonstrate the central learning objective – some accurate six-figure grid references; a written explanation of rural-urban migration that uses specific detail and develops key points; a good, clearly-drawn climate graph. (Yes, I’m a Geography teacher.) In other words, start the lesson by giving students the answers. Follow this up by using questioning to elicit an explanation from students as to how these answers might have been reached. This could take the form of a step-by-step process, or a checklist of success criteria, which remain on display for the remainder of the lesson. Students can then refer to these criteria throughout the lesson in order to assess their progress by providing each other (rather than the teacher) with feedback as to whether or not they have a good answer, why it’s good (or not), and how it could be improved.

Wait!

At the start of a think-pair-share sequence, students should have an idea of what a good answer looks like, and how to reach it. However, while they are still at the stage of making sense of the process of reaching a good answer for themselves, they need to be given thinking time. When the teacher then asks them a question, then, it is important to wait, giving students the chance to apply the process in order to reach an answer and then to check that it is a good answer. Reducing teacher talk, in this sense, doesn’t mean replacing it with anything other than silence.

Follow-Up Questions

Once students have had chance to make sense of the process of reaching a good answer, and have applied it in order to reach an good answer for themselves, the teacher then uses targeted questioning (as mentioned above) to identify those students with good answers and to use their explanations to correct any other students’ misunderstandings. There remains the possibility that students’ answers might not be wrong, though, but incomplete instead. At this point, the temptation might be for the teacher to repeat their answer and to add additional information to it. This is where follow-up questions along the lines of ‘Can you add anything to that answer?’ can be used to hand more responsibility over to students and, crucially, to reduce teacher talk. If no students can add anything to the answer, but the teacher can, then the process needs to be repeated in order to encourage students to reach a better answer!

Three don’ts

Don’t answer your own question. If no students have a correct answer, focus your questions instead on eliciting the processes by which students arrived at their incorrect answers. Then refer to a model answer, and ask students to explain the process by which the model answer was reached. Finally, ask students to apply this latter process to the earlier question.

Don’t repeat a student’s answer unnecessarily. If you’re not sure whether everybody in the class heard the answer, either ask the same student to repeat themselves, or ask another student in the class to repeat it on their behalf. The second approach has the added advantage of making sure that every student remains engaged when their peers are talking.

Don’t summarise or wrap-up. Students should complete activities that encourage them to reflect on what they have learned, and should be to point to evidence that they have learned it. This involves asking questions. One simple way of doing this is to express the learning outcomes in the form of a question by framing the outcomes with the words ‘Can you’ and a question mark.

Storytelling / Anecdotes

Finally, one suggestion of an occasion in which teacher talk might be productive is in the form of storytelling (either factual or fictitious) and personal anecdotes (either serious or humorous) that help to place students’ learning in context. I remember once of my PGCE mentors starting a lesson on urban land use models by telling a (made up) story of her car breaking down on the edge of town while driving in to work, and having to walk the rest of the journey in to the centrally-located school, describing how the urban landscape changed along the way. I have a colleague who can tell of spending a night camping on the slopes of an active volcano. One of my favourite stories, when trying to impress upon students the importance of learning how to read maps for themselves, is of how my sister’s borrowed SatNav kept telling her that the road on which she was driving, on her way back from visiting friends in Bristol to her house in Melton Mowbray, did not exist, and that she should turn back. That road was the A607 from Leicester to Grantham.

This can, of course, lead in to a much more overtly narrative approach to teaching, but therein perhaps lies another post.

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About carljphillips

Geography teacher. PhD in cultural/historical geography (Nott'm., 2006). SF/F genre fiction fan. Liverpool FC supporter. Libertarian. Humanist. Etc. I blog about the theory and practice of Geography teaching, and teaching in general.
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