Dealing with ramblers by @bennewmark

Toby French’s work has really had an impact on my recent teaching.( Toby advocates challenging students with statements instead of questions to help them develop better justifications when evaluating. For me it has been really effective and, as a result, students have been talking much more in my lessons.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Ben Newmark and published with kind permission.

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Some students are better at this than others. Amina, in my top set Year 9 class, has grasped this quickly and makes good, insightful points concisely and clearly. I often deliberately ask her to contribute last as her arguments are often so convincing that some of her weaker classmates unthinkingly adopt them as their own. Managed sensibly she’s a real asset to the group, especially if the class discussion becomes convoluted.

Billy thinks as he speaks and takes longer to get to the point. Listening to him is like watching a plane circling an airport before landing; he’ll get there but it takes a while and any interruptions throw him right off. When he speaks my job is to make sure the rest of the class listens carefully so he feels supported while he orders and works through his thoughts. Listening to Billy speak is good for weaker students in the group as they are able to follow his logic and see the steps he took to reach his often profound final conclusion.

Cameron is much more problematic. He likes to talk and likes others to listen, but isn’t really concerned about reaching a point at all. His goal is simply that others listen to him for as long as possible. Listening to Cameron speak is often tortuous. He uses irrelevant examples and makes silly comparisons to computer games and sport, mixed in with snippets of historical information he’s picked up from the TV and YouTube. Cameron is a rambler. In full flow he sounds a little like this;

I think the reason for what Hitler wanted to change is that it’s a bit like Assassin’s Creed when you’re like a pirate getting stuff ‘cos he wanted stuff too and he was on drugs ‘cos of the Illuminati and he wanted to hurt the Jews ‘cos one kicked a dog and he liked dogs ‘cos he was a vegetarian, right? And..”

Asking Cameron to clarify usually doesn’t help much as this just gives him a mandate to talk for even longer but something must change because he’s wasting his own time and that of everyone else in the room.

Ignoring Cameron’s increasingly frantic waving hand might allow others to improve faster but is unfair.  His right to learn is important and ignoring his problem means he’ll fail to develop good oracy, which will affect his ability to write.

I’ve taught a fair few ramblers over my career and have developed some strategies that seem to work. I’ll be employing them all with Cameron and would love to hear any more suggestions in the comments below.

1.  Don’t encourage rambling.

This is harder than it sounds. It can feel rude to interrupt even when the student is babbling utter rubbish. But do remember it isn’t your job to listen to children to talk about whatever they want to. As long as it is supported with other strategies there’s nothing wrong with a firm “That’s enough now. We need to move on.” And whatever you do don’t praise rambling. “That’s interesting” will encourage other students to talk off topic. Your problem will spread.

2.  Get ramblers to write before speaking.

Writing provides structure and many students do tend to think more deeply when committing their ideas to paper. Check the answer after they’ve written it. If it’s off topic tell the student why and give them help to answer more directly. Don’t let them contribute until they’ve written something worth sharing. Be honest about why you are asking them to do it if they ask, and do it privately. “Cameron, I’m getting you to write this down first because you don’t stick to the point when you give answers out loud.”

3.  Stop the ramblers when they start rambling.

Many ramblers do start on topic but move off. Stop them when they do and explain to them clearly where it happened. The rambler will usually realise they would have been allowed to talk longer if they’d stayed on topic, which is motivating to them. “The first part of what you said was great because it mentioned one of the Nazis 25 points but I’m stopping you now because you’ve stopped talking about what Hitler wanted to change.

4.  Get ramblers listening to others in the class.

I think a lot of rambling happens when a child gets fixated on a point personally very important to them. This occupies all their attention and means they don’t listen to what anyone else is saying and so don’t know others are not rambling. Promote listening by insisting that the rambler relates their point to something said earlier in the discussion. “Cameron, do you agree with what Amina said about the Treaty of Versailles?”

5.  Praise non-rambling answers properly.

Make it clear what the praise is for and demonstrate you have listened hard. This should encourage the reforming rambler to be clearer. “Cameron that was a great answer because you clearly explained that Hitler wanted to reoccupy German land taken in the Treaty of Versailles. When you’ve got an answer as good as that one put your hand up and I’d be glad to take your point.”

Ben is Head of Humanities Faculty and Teacher of History in Leicester.

Image source: Via Number 10 on Flickr under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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