Thoughts on the problem of talking in class

Posted on 19th September 2014

Earlier this month, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan wrote to teaching unions expressing concern at what she considered to be unnecessary work imposed on teachers that takes them away from the classroom.  This raises interesting questions: whilst it is undoubtedly true that many administrative tasks demanded of teachers do little if anything to inform their effectiveness in the classroom, it is wrong to conclude that time spent away from the classroom is unimportant or, conversely, that time spent in the classroom necessarily results in valuable learning for students.

A case in point is the subject of talking in class – not the perennial teachers’ bugbear of the kids who won’t pipe down and listen, but of teachers who themselves talk too much. Professor John Hattie of the University of Melbourne proposes that when teachers stop talking, and instead engage closely and listen, ‘deep learning’ takes place. Kimberley Mitchell of Chief Sealth High School in Seattle advocates teachers slowing down, asking questions and talking less, and responding neutrally to correct answers as she says that students take more risks when they don’t know exactly what their teacher wants.  This analysis has proven controversial, which she ascribes to political differences around testing and curricula – something we know plenty about in Bedales schools.

With a focus on the UK, my judgement is that a listening approach is deemed appropriate for younger EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) and Key Stage One pupils who, through a highly kinaesthetic and interactive approach, are encouraged to explore and verbalise their knowledge and ideas. Much of the work in primary schools also encourages group work, discussion and peer-to-peer marking. So far, so good.

However, some teachers, particularly those new to the profession, find it difficult to effectively hand over control to those whose voices really matter. And it is perhaps telling that those teachers who do ‘let go’ invariably have already carved an open environment for pupils to explore through their careful pre-planning of the lesson.

Thus, our attention is directed to the wider institutional context in which teachers practise, rather than simply what happens in the classroom – especially important at the stage in a young person’s education when a more prescriptive curriculum kicks in.
Under conventional educational prescription, Key Stage 3 and 4 increase the pressure on teachers to deliver facts for exams, encouraging a reversion to ‘chalk and talk’ or tasks that cut out the valuable discursive elements prevalent in the learning of younger students. We can only speculate as to the effects of such approaches on young people’s understandings of what learning means and should look like as they enter society, and the value they come to place on taking the time to think and discuss. It need not be like this, and indeed should not be.

Nicky Morgan has correctly identified that teachers should not be burdened with tasks that do not contribute to their practise; however, this is not enough. Teaching for ‘deep learning’ requires that teachers are supported by their schools in such endeavours and, in turn, that schools are supported by political institutions. For example, any teacher required to sit through staff meetings, contributing little, and with a view to compliance with objectives predefined by the school’s management or governing body is unlikely to be able to embrace the requirements of ‘deep’ learning. Similarly, a performance table culture is unlikely to encourage anything beyond lip service to notions of innovation within schools. Alternatively, when schools are freed from over-prescription, and where teachers are given time for planning, and encouraged to discuss and experiment rigorously with their practise, the culture of teachers’ professional lives in schools can begin properly to support what is increasingly considered to be best practice in the classroom.

Kathy Misson

Deputy Head, Academic

Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst