Why prescribing the percentage of teacher talk  does not impact on learning

This short blog is in response to an interesting debate on Twitter about the percentage of a lesson we are told should be taken up with ‘teacher talk’.

There are two figures that are being discussed. One is that of the talking in a lesson, 20% should be from the teacher and 80% from the children. This number appears to be one of those plucked at random because it sounds good. The other number 90% as the percentage of the lesson taken up by the teacher talking which is taken from education systems ranked at the top of PISA ‘global’ league tables.  Prescribing either figure as a generic percentage hides the importance of the quality of talk. For me, quality is about a teacher’s ability to use clear concise instruction, modelling, questioning and feedback not about percentages. Focussing on improving those elements will impact on children’s learning. Part of that focus needs to be ensuring teachers know what the data tells us about effective teaching and learning at different ages but expertise rests on a much wider understanding.  

I’m going to use two sporting analogies so if I haven’t lost people already, I will now. 

1) In 2008 England’s cricket team went to India filled with confidence because the English Cricket Board had worked out statistically how to win matches. They knew the scores they would need to get,the percentage of games they would win based on different scores and how those scores should be broken down over the course of a game. They lost every match. On the radio today one of the players, Graham Swann, was asked how they had lost so badly. He said that the team were “clueless” about how to win matches. Having the percentages at their finger tips was no replacement for the combination of the high levels of skill needed to win. 

2) For the last few years, Brentford FC have based their football on mathematical modelling. Watching them play is always entertaining because the statistical analysis leads them to do unusual things but they are still a mid-table team because a mathematical model cannot fully compensate for having relatively less skilful players. 

Data is important but can only take teachers so far. The EEF website is fascinating and the research well-presented but knowing what the evidence indicates cannot compensate for a lack of subject knowledge and pedagogical skill. Prescribing percentages will not determine the impact of teaching; only the quality of teaching will do that. Based on Alexander’s excellent book “Culture and Pedagogy”, if children talking more than teachers were important, US public schools would do better. If teachers talking for a high percentage of a lesson were key, Russia and France would have world beating education systems. 

Teachers need expertise including in how to use evidence and how to respond flexibly in the face of a significant range of variables. That range of variables is dependent on complex elements that contribute to a society’s culture. Through routines, rituals and branding we can try and create mini cultures within schools but, across the system, we need teachers who are expert in what they do. At the heart of that expertise is how to use talk in the classroom. An expert teacher saying relatively little will have a greater impact than an inexpert teacher talking at length. 

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