Are We Talking Too Much in Our Classrooms and Our Families?

Last fall, I observed four high school classrooms in a single day. I saw four teachers offering instruction to four groups of students on four different subjects. After the first class, I made an observation and came up with an anecdotal hypothesis that I decided to test in the next three classrooms.

I took my phone out and opened up the stopwatch app on it. Then, I clocked the number of minutes each faculty member consumed talking. Later I calculated the number of minutes students got to talk. Can you guess what I discovered?

It was revealing.

Teachers talked slightly more than 75 percent of the time. They took up about 38 minutes of a 50-minute class period, leaving just 12 minutes for students to weigh in. I later found research in 2012 from Australian educator John Hatte, who collated data on classroom discussion and discovered that teachers actually spoke 89 percent of the time. Can you imagine what that does to listeners?

Our Quandary

Teachers today are in a quandary. They know they need to raise the level of student engagement in their classroom, but they also know they’ve must deliver the curriculum to enable students to score well on standardized tests. And the quickest way to get that lesson plan across—is to just talk.

According to Catherine Gewertz from Education Week, “Most educators agree that it’s important for teachers to get students talking about what they’re learning. Doing so can get students more involved and interested in what they’re studying and help them understand it better. It can also yield valuable insight into what students need, and improve achievement.”

Yet many of us became teachers or leaders because WE love to talk; we have a passion for explaining things to others. Our egos are enriched. We feel satisfied, and we feel we have a better chance at enabling students to memorize the information for exams. This is definitely true for me. I began teaching in 1979 and loved the act of dissecting an idea and explaining the not-so-obvious ramifications to my students. It worked for a while but eventually, even the students who enjoyed my lectures became disengaged.

Perhaps Winston Churchill’s graphic quip can help us: “A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.” 

Two Simple Tools to Employ

Allow me to remind you of two easy-to-manage tools to raise engagement both at home and in the classroom. Why not return to these elements this year?

1. Offer a picture.

When we understand how our brains work, we see that utilizing a picture (on a screen, in a book or on a poster) lights up parts of students’ brains that don’t engage as well with mere words and lectures. Once we do this, we organically enlist students to weigh in. Have we not said for years: “Pictures are worth a thousand words?” What if you chose a photo from a current event that corresponds to the subject you must teach? What if you found an image that sparked layers of discovery regarding something you want students to learn? If you need a jump start, we created: Habitudes—Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes. 

2. Ask open-ended questions.

My observations reveal that faculty tend to ask closed questions about remembering past information from a textbook or class. In fact, “One study tracked middle and high school students and found their engagement declined the most when their teachers were talking. The problem is, others show that most of teachers’ questions seek lower-order responses like factual recall,” reports EdWeek. We must think more deeply about offering deeper reflective questions, using “why” and “how” not just “what.” We should begin with lighter questions about what students think about people in general before moving deeper into personal application. This will take time, but it’s worth it.

At this point, you’re a listener, not a primary talker who joins in their discussion. It’s a shift in mindset on our part.

My Own Experience

When I’ve done this with students in a classroom or workshop, I have almost always learned something from them. When I stopped merely explaining a concept and allowed them to offer their thoughts, it was insightful.

As my own two children were growing up, I noticed I was explaining “life” at the dinner table, and I did most of the talking. When I shifted and began using Habitudes (images), I immediately had my kids’ attention and their thoughts. I began asking questions and taught through my questions, as I joined into THEIR conversation.

Are We Talking Too Much in Our Classrooms and Our Families?