In this series of blog posts, I reflect on how my teaching has evolved since my time as trainee. Last week I wrote about behaviour. This week…
Everyone seems to have an opinion on how much time a teacher should spend talking each lesson. I’ve heard of countless trainee teachers receiving feedback after lesson observations which goes something like: ‘You were talking for a significant part of the lesson… let’s consider ways we can reduce the amount of teacher-talk’. Rarely, is the feedback the other way around: ‘You didn’t talk enough – you should be explaining more!’ – not a phrase I’ve heard often. In my own training, I found some notes I made from a session which read: ‘Less direct instruction; more activities which are student-led’. ‘Put instructions everywhere (talking minimum) and make activities self-explanatory’.
Equally, I’ve been encouraged to use lots of modelling and explanations – clear examples of teacher-led guidance. So it is no surprise that I was quite conflicted for quite some time in my teaching. On one hand, I really wanted my pupils to just get on with work miraculously, independently and without my help. I desperately wanted to be the much praised ‘guide on the side’. On the other hand, I knew that explaining was one of my strengths and I was sure it was effective pedagogy for communicating key scientific ideas.
Now, I’ve never aimed to eliminate my teacher talk completely, but I did try and reduce it where I thought I would let pupils do the thinking – even if it was complete guesswork – for themselves.
My current position
After much fluctuation, I have settled on a lesson format that I am happy with. Currently, in a typical lesson, my pupils come in and answer a recap quiz. This retrieval practice helps embed fundamental facts into their long-term memory. We then proceed read a text which explicitly contains the key knowledge I want them to understand. At parts of the text that I feel require further explanation, I will stand at the front and give explanations while illustrating (dual-coding) and elaborating my points on the board . I intersperse reading with lots of questioning, quizzing and comprehension tasks. Pupils usually work individually, occasionally supporting each other when stuck. After each task, all pupils correct their own work in green pen in response to my feedback. Where appropriate, I will deconstruct model answers on the visualiser, explicitly telling pupils what makes the writing excellent or do worked examples for calculations.
The benefits of this format are numerous: all my planning time is devoted to content and explanation-planning, not activities; resources are simplified; pupils’ recall improves; reduces marking; improves pupils reading; exposes pupils to quality scientific texts etc.
My prior position
However that is not at all how I first thought about teaching. My maxim when planning lessons prior to this was: instead of me telling them, how can they learn this fact/concept/word themselves? I would spend ages thinking of ways to plan an activity where pupils discover, learn from each other, find patterns and make links to deduce the fundamentals I wanted them to know. For example, I would plan lessons with countless slides, revealing information one slide at a time, interspersed with questions where pupils would work out the main message was. Note that I am still talking a lot, but I was under the illusion that my pupils were doing all of the thinking. All it really did was make understanding a concept difficult for someone who kept forgetting key information from an earlier slide.
Luckily, my department identified the key problem. Lessons which are a million slides long were difficult to plan and effortful for teachers to modify for their classes, especially as we were moving to centralised schemes of work. In a bid to eliminate this problem, but also, to reduce the reliance on the teacher for being the only source of information, we decided to go for the 5-slide-rule. All lessons should be kept to as close as 5 slides as possible. All other key information should be on resources handed out to pupils.
This was fantastic for planning and reaped rewards in that pupils could now refer back to information that used to be whizzed away before they had a thorough chance to process information. However, a mistake I made was then to reduce the explanations I would give, assuming pupils could do this independently from the resource.
At around the same time, I also decided to change my seating layout. Instead of pupils facing the front (image a), I shifted the desks so that I had 4 squares of 8 pupils in my room (1 square depicted in image b). It was designed to promote pupil discussion so that they could work things out through discussion and construct knowledge (social constructivist theory). I actually had pupils with their backs facing me, since I was going to facilitate rather than teach! They would turn around for instructions and feedback, and turn back for group work.
I don’t think this was hugely unsuccessful – my pupils were learning and developing oracy. However, it was far less efficient than the current pedagogy I use.
The turning point for me was learning about two key ideas: make the implicit explicit (from David Didau’s brilliant book on literacy) and secondly learning about the teaching and learning cycle. The first idea states that teachers must make everything very explicit to pupils – we cannot assume that they have grasped things automatically. For me this was clear direction to explain from the front and break things down for my pupils. The second (teaching and learning cycle) is an idea that states that teaching happens in a sequence: we need to explicitly teach pupils content, deconstruct exemplar answers and then get them to practice – together first (co-construction) and gradually more independently. This cycle clearly shows the majority of teaching time to be teacher-led with significant direct instruction.
Finally, I shifted my tables back to face me. I scrapped lots of activities where pupils faff around constructing knowledge where they would often make mistakes, and instead use the straightforward strategy of telling them directly instead. I focus on getting pupils practicing explanations, definitions and making science explicit. This is well exemplified by pupils writing conclusions in science. I would never have made this explicit before (from the onset) – I would have asked my pupils what they thought, and maybe given the chance to look at model answers and come up with suggestions. Now, I just tell them that this is how it should be done. Then I show them a model answer and highlight key features. Then they have a go and I give them feedback. Much more efficient. Much more useful. And little room for misconceptions:
The use of comprehension rather than other resources and activities have been inspired by Olivia Dyer who argues that teacher planning should focus on delivery of high-quality content rather than activities; and Katie Ashford, who explains the benefits of increasing the number of words and quality of texts pupils read every day. The more our pupils read and the more challenging their content, the more we are educating them in our academic disciplines. Reading such texts requires lots of teacher talk and explanation to support pupil understanding. This is the type of teacher talk that is invaluable for our pupils, helping them access texts beyond their comfort zone.
Teachers are experts; pupils are novices. Experts should talk to novices and explain to them explicitly, the knowledge that will move them forward.
That’s enough of me talking.
Next week’s post is on questioning. Who’s looking forward to it?