One of the recurring issues on educational Twitter feeds is the causes of, and implications for, any criticism of the time teachers spend talking.The frequency with which the debate reoccurs has led me to write this post based on the obvious point that,when teachers talk, it is quality not quantity that matters.
Whether at the hands of inspectors or Senior Leaders, negative comments about the length of introductions/whole class teaching are a potential threat to the ability of teachers to instruct, explain, question and model new concepts. For that reason, discussion about teacher talk is often framed in an ideological debate about ‘chalk and talk’ traditional teaching methods. The purpose of the discussion appears to be the promotion of direct instruction as a strategy that is under threat. Tweets are often expressed in terms of surprise and/or indignation especially since OfSTED’s current framework does not inc!ude any pedagogical judgement with reference to time spent talking. One of the reasons why the issue reoccurs is that negative comments about the time teachers talk share the same roots as the ideology still driving wider eduction policy because the claim to base the judgement of someone’s teaching solely on scientifically measureable evidence offers both the inspectorate and policymakers protection from accusations of fallibility. Therefore the measurement of teacher talk by time can be seen in the context of other elements of reform such as the use of randomly controlled trials and the EEF toolkit. The problem with the demand for quantitative evidence to support any aspect of pedagogy is that teaching is too complex a process to be solely judged by that which is easily measured, explained, held accountable, commodified, marketed and sold. Evidence-based practice is too important to be reduced to the empirical. The success of teaching generally and teacher talk specifically rests on quality not quantity. It is an interesting reflection on how educational reforms have inadvertently damaged teaching that we ever allowed judgements to be made using a stopwatch.
The effectiveness of what I say as a teacher rests on three factors: how well I know the subject; how well I know the learners and my ability to break the subject down in order to make it accessible to those learners. If I do not know my subject inside out and if I do not know the learners, I can talk for 10 minutes or three hours and I may achieve nothing. On the other hand, if I know the subject and know the learners, I can judge the instructuon , the questioning, the explanation and the modelling to maximise the time available. The time will vary depending on subject and learners which is why setting a limit was and is a nonsense. The judgement as to what to explain, ask and instruct is part of what makes me a professional.
The criticism that a teacher has spoken for too long is often an inadequate shorthand for what is in reality a lack of clarity in the teacher’s talk and/or preparation. When teaching a class of 30, the following undermine learning:”winging it”; waffle; a monotone voice; poorly phrased questions, instructions or explanations; spoonfeeding and lack of structure. All of those can involve a teacher speaking for too long a period of time. Those who observe teaching need to ensure they feedback with precision as to the exact nature of the issue.
What we say in front of a child, a group, a class or a whole school needs to be carefully thought through based on a high level of subject knowledge. Instructions, questions and explanations need to be planned by the teacher anticipating what a learner in that class/of that age will hear. Each instruction essential for understanding, or question necessary for development of thought, needs to be mentally planned, edited and replanned. This is a mental process that can be learned and refined. If the instruction is not essential, it should not be said. If the question is not going to support learning, it should not be asked (or not asked in that form). Poorly framed instructions, explanations or models lead to confusion; poorly constructed questions often lead to silence and frustration. When I reflect on a lesson, I should not need an observer to feedback based on a stopwatch, the quality of children’s response is a far more useful indicator. There may have been a range of factors involved in the learners’ understanding (including time of day, incidents at playtime etc) but I know what I said and what I asked and on that basis I, or an observer, can reflect on the effectiveness of my teaching.