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Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

05.08.19Department of Pet Peeves: Vilifying ‘Teacher Talk’

Image result for taped mouth
Bad advice…

Forgive me but I have to scratch an itch. One phrase I often hear in the discourse about teaching is “teacher talk”- it almost always used as a pejorative, often by teachers themselves. You’re supposed to know better than to do it.

It’s not just that this view point is hugely simplistic–surely a teacher speaking, perhaps for several minutes at a time, does inherently limit student voices. Surely there’s benefit to students learning to listen to an expert in their area of study with as much intention as they speak about things they are learning about. But also, a good teacher draws her students out with her words inviting them into conversation and or sharing knowledge that enriches conversations, so certainly there are situations (daily) where teachers talking would not prevent but support students having more-and more of value–to say.

Claiming that ‘teacher talk’ is bad also flies in the face of science–carefully designed direct instruction, ie a teacher talking, is pretty clearly one of the best ways to ensure that novices get the background knowledge they need to engage in critical thinking. A good discussion later happens because of the knowledge disseminated first.

It’s also anti-intellectual. If you really don’t think you have any knowledge to impart that students can’t infer on their own in a 45 minute lesson, perhaps you’re in the wrong job. And no wonder teaching is too often perceived as low-status work. Teachers themselves constantly demean the value of their own voices.

Look, can you over-talk in a classroom? Of course. Can you do the talking part wrong? Yes. Have I been in, and been frustrated by, classrooms that do? Of course. But let’s not allow ourselves to slide into reducto ad absurdum of making ‘teacher talk’ a bad word. The solution to poor execution is better execution, not the dismissal of the method out of hand.

There’s a section on this in TLAC 2.0. I’ve excerpted it below in case you want to scratch the same itch

Somehow, though, teachers have been convinced that “teacher talk” is the ultimate pejorative. Of course you can do too much of it, but you also can’t do much without at least some of it. Daisy Christodoulou points out in her outstanding and important book Seven Myths About Education that highly non-teacher-centered activities (for example, projects and Socratic seminars and other forms of “active learning”) are devoid of rigor unless first informed by extensive background knowledge. Direct instruction, when it provides facts, knowledge, and skills that are later practiced, applied, and reflected on, builds the foundation that makes other forms of instruction possible. And as Dylan Wiliam has astutely pointed out, more teacher words are not necessarily worse. In school systems of Japan and Hong Kong, for example, a greater proportion of the words in the average classroom are spoken by the teacher than in the United States. Let us respect the power of what a teacher can do enough to accept that a teacher talking to a class about content is not inherently bad.

Effective teachers include direct instruction regularly in their lessons. Do they also pepper it with engagement strategies to involve students—brief questions to ensure involvement or to check for understanding, perhaps even a Turn and Talk? Yes. Do they use it for manageable periods of time before asking students to practice and apply what they’ve learned? Also yes. But they often use it frequently. The solution to poor execution is better execution, not the dismissal of the method out of hand.