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Tim Elmore

On Leading the Next Generation

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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.

3 Comments

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  2. Kriss Meeker on January 29, 2020 at 1:42 pm

    I am an educator and I am in total agreement with you. Teachers need to become facilitators, not lecturers. Some days I don’t even have to speak to my kids except to greet them as they come in. They know where their assignment/project for the day is, and they come in, and can get to work immediately. If they have a question, I am available, but they are doing the work, not me!!!! My work comes before class, preparing a lesson that they can discover a concept on their own. At times, I do have to spend a few extra minutes explaining something, or walking through some problems with them, but, for the most part, I have ways they can do it on their own. And, I have found, they would much rather hear it, see it, experience it from someone other then me!!!! I think one of the greatest compliments I received was from one of my students who asked me one day, “Ms. Meeker, are you bored?” I laughed, and told her not really. She replied, “Well, you’re not doing the work, we are.” BINGO!!! That’s what I want to hear every day!!!!

  3. Peter C on January 30, 2020 at 4:22 am

    I do a ton of work with teachers around their talk moves. Asking good questions is intuitive; what’s not so much is, as Susan Scott says, “embracing the sweet sound of silence”’so that students can think, then talk. Peter Johnston’s works, Choice Words and Opening Minds give insight into how to do it well. Bottom line; for those of us who teach, these are habits that are unintentionally built; and thankfully, may be intentionally changed.

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