When teachers teach well, they talk less. When instructions are clear, students settle quickly to the tasks given to them, and they don’t need to be repeated. When explanations are clear, they are concise; students listen better because they know they are learning.
When things aren’t going well, teachers speak more. Instructions have to be repeated. Explanations go on longer and are complicated by students interrupting because they don’t understand. This confuses other students and the teacher and extends the time students have to listen. As instructions and explanations lengthen, students switch off, and more talking is necessary to bring back focus. A vicious cycle is created.
Over the past year, I’ve been trying to talk less in lessons, and students are learning faster. This blog is a summary of why I’ve found this successful.
Instructional talk: The problem
Children in school are told what to do a lot. The moment they walk through the door, they’re told to check their uniforms (take off your coat and tuck in your shirt). On the way to registration, they are given instructions on the side of the corridor to walk on (on the left) and on the volume of their conversations (don’t shout). In form, they are given more instructions (sit down and get your planner and equipment out), then more in their first lesson (write down the date and title and then read the task on the board), then more in their second (write down your homework), more at break (don’t eat on the corridors), more at lunch (line up in a single file in the dinner queue) and so on. Many of these instructions are repeated many times each day.
I think repeating instructions too often lessens their impact on them and creates an impression that children don’t need to follow them unless asked to explicitly. Logically then, children won’t do them unless we ask, which means we have to ask more often. It’s exhausting, and I’m too busy to be exhausted. So here’s how I’ve tried to change things.
Create routines and confidently expect students to follow them without being asked to. If students know that you expect them to write down the date and title at the beginning of your lesson, then don’t tell them to do it, but challenge those that don’t (“Josh, that’s a warning. You’ve been here two minutes, and you haven’t started writing the date yet”.) This is time-consuming and tiring to begin with but worth the effort as, with time and persistence, students start doing it automatically.
I’ve found this works with learning tasks very well. A month or so ago, I told a Year 7 class that when we read as a class, I expect everyone to scan the text so they can seamlessly continue if I choose them to continue reading aloud. To start with, it was tiring, “Sam, that’s a C1. You were looking out the window while Macey was reading,” but it has been worth it. Now reading with the class is much easier. Everyone concentrates, everyone learns, and when the students are asked to complete a task, they are more confident because they are more knowledgeable about the content.
I’ve also found that the less I instruct, the better the class listens when I do. Now, when I give an instruction, it is seen as more important because I’m not constantly bombarding students with requests. I’m clearer, and I feel less of a nag.
Clear explanations of ideas and concepts are better when they are shorter. I’ve found the key to this is subject knowledge. When classes find concepts difficult to understand, it’s usually because the teacher doesn’t understand them as well as they should; this leads to hesitation, deviation and repetition, which turns children off immediately and, worse, makes them less willing to listen carefully in the future. (“Um, and this bit is more important than what I said before even though I said that was really important because, well, we need to go back and look at what I said before. Taylor! Why aren’t you listening!”)
The main reason I’ve got better at this recently has been making YouTube revision videos for my GCSE classes. When I first started these, I wasn’t always clear and had a tendency to ramble; students in my class soon picked up on this, and one particularly helpful student told me that if I couldn’t explain something in less than ten minutes, the video was useless. It was acting on her feedback that led to the creation of the first video I am still proud of. (On Hitler becoming Chancellor in 1933, if anyone’s interested)
Now when I’m explaining in lessons, I’m clearer and, perhaps just as importantly, I’m more aware of when I’m not and ready to stop and admit it. I’m finding that children in my classes are now more engaged in my explanations because they know I am usually clear, and they learn from listening.
I encourage other teachers to get themselves videoed explaining content, even if it’s only for them to watch back.
I won’t bang on. I’m trying not to talk as much. Less is more.
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Ben Newmark and published with kind permission.