Talk-Less Teaching: Moving from Takeaway to Masterchef

Right, let’s get one thing straight: reduced teacher-talk is not desirable in essence. It’s only desirable to reduce teacher-talk when it’s getting in the way of learners making the best progress that they can. Teacher-talk should only be viewed negatively if it’s of poor quality or if it’s impeding pupil progress.

So when and why might teacher talk impede - rather than enhance - learning?
 

Most teachers have experienced that utter sense of exhaustion that can descend at the end of a busy day in the classroom – that moment when the last learner exits the room and we sink dejectedly into our chair, nursing a sore throat. It’s a moment that should be filled with a warm feeling of satisfaction for a job well done, but often the overriding thought that creeps naggingly into our brain is: ‘Hold on … did I just do almost all of the work back there? Did I just bust a gut for a whole hour only to get my pupils to do a tiny bit of work?’ This realisation is then usually followed by a further insidious thought: ‘What if it turns out that some of them only looked like they were listening? What if I take their books in and it turns out I just wasted all that time?’ 

Nevertheless, delivering learning primarily through teacher-talk can still look like the easiest option for a busy teacher. After all, it usually requires the least planning (assuming the teacher’s subject knowledge is good).

It’s hardly surprising then that, with so much work to get through, the busy teacher can often find themselves over-relying on teacher-talk as the quickest way to impart learning. Our anxiety to ‘get through the syllabus’ is usually the overriding reason why our automatic talk buttons get stuck in the ‘on’ position. When there’s a whole lot of crucial content to cover, our default method for conveying information and skills to our learners is to talk … and talk … and talk. It’s a natural human instinct: what do most of us do when we’re anxious or under pressure? We talk – ten to the dozen. And, let’s face it: we teachers are under huge amounts of pressure most of the time…

To be clear, the commonly experienced ‘lecture laryngitis’ that results from talking too much to our classes isn’t necessarily a sign of an uninspiring teacher who doesn’t care about making learning intriguing and exciting. In fact, it’s far more likely to be a symptom of that understandable fear that if we talk less in lessons, it will be impossible to get across all the vital information needed by learners to succeed! We know that independent learning is a worthy concept in itself, but we can still feel that we’re stuck in an impossible bind between building independent learning skills, and cramming the content necessary to get the results on which we (and our learners) are ultimately judged. The upshot? We are still at risk of allowing lessons to be dominated by the sound of our own voices. 

But there’s another, even bigger problem. 

While it’s clear to see how a lot of passive listening can automatically impede progress and frustrate the learner, it’s also worth pointing out that learners will sometimes prefer to be passive if they possibly can! Many teachers will be familiar with teenagers who exclaim: ‘Sir, can you just tell us the information we need to know and we’ll take notes? We don’t want to have to do anything!’ Of course, these teenagers would prefer to take the easy route, the passive route, the route that requires them to do no thinking whatsoever. It’s a perfectly understandable human reaction. I mean, let’s be honest, many of us may at some point have headed off to a professional development course thinking, ‘I hope it’s not the kind of course where I’ll have to do stuff … I hope I’ll just be able to go unnoticed and have a relatively relaxing day.’ 

What we need to remember in this scenario is that while some of our learners might prefer to be passive in every lesson, it’s important that we don’t allow them to dictate to us how we teach. As the educational experts, we know that if they sit passively taking notes, do little thinking for themselves, ask no questions and make no attempts to develop their learning further or challenge themselves, then it’s highly unlikely that they will achieve their potential – not just in the upcoming exam, but in life too!

Of course, it’ll sometimes be necessary for learners to be passive recipients of their learning, but if they come to expect their schooling to take this form on a daily basis then they will become experts in the takeaway approach and never aspire to MasterChef status.
 



What we need is to feel confident in the truth that we can foster a classroom culture of independent thinking and improve progress and performance – yes, in tests too – by using Talk-Less Teaching techniques which allow learning to go far deeper than it does when it’s mostly administered aurally. What we need are techniques which protect against the potential for information to go ‘in one ear and out the other’ and which intrinsically motivate learners to learn. What we need is a vast bank of exciting, engaging, practical ways to allow learners to access and understand complex topics and skills without relentlessly bending their ears.

And that, my dear teacher friends, is what Talk-Less Teaching is all about: – a way of teaching that engages and involves every learner, offers a variety of experiences in the classroom and has a demonstrable impact on the quality of lessons and on pupil progress. Talk-less teaching can improve outcomes for learners from nursery to university. Talk-less teaching shows you how to foster active and independent learning without compromising exam results or knowledge acquisition. It’s all about making sure we have realistic, practical ways to help learners understand difficult concepts and learn new skills without making the poor dears listen incessantly to the sound of our voices, and to raise attainment without resorting to mind-numbing and formulaic teaching-to-the-test. 

But, actually, Talk-Less Teaching is much more than that. From the thousands of teachers with whom I’ve worked, one response, in particular, has chimed out above all others: Talk-Less Teaching makes teaching irresistible. It doesn’t just put the delight back into the learners’ experience, it makes the act of teaching thoroughly enjoyable too. 
 

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Isabella Wallace is a Veema Associate Consultant and author of the best-selling teaching guides, “Pimp Your Lesson!”, “Talk-Less Teaching”, and the new “Best of the Best” Classroom Guides for Teachers.  An experienced and award-winning educator, she is known for her highly interactive, engaging training and presents internationally on outstanding teaching and learning.

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