10 strategies for ‘talk-better’ teaching

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Image: @jasonramasami

Teacher talk gets a bad press. In recent years there has been a powerful movement promoting ‘talk-less’ teaching. Even though there is a modicum of truth in the observation that some teacher talk is poorly planned and unfocused with a tendency to overrun, a carefully crafted explanation is simply the clearest and quickest way to convey new ideas. During my career, talk-based pedagogic principles like ‘explanation’ and ‘modelling’ have played second fiddle to other generic strategies such as ‘questioning’ and ‘feedback’ as the focus for CPD. Of course, how we explain is mostly bound up in the content we are teaching and our knowledge of the topic; nevertheless, I believe there are some generic strategies that helpfully aid and supplement high-quality teacher-talk.

For me, there are three features found in the best teacher talk:

• New knowledge is linked to existing knowledge;
• Ideas are introduced in clear steps;
• Explanations make abstract ideas simple and concrete in the listener’s mind.

Here are ten simple strategies that I find very useful.

1. Do the work first. While strong knowledge of the content you are preparing to teach is a crucial starting point, it is not always enough. By trialling tasks before the students tackle them, you will be able to guide them past any hidden icebergs that could obstruct understanding. Granted, there is no need or time to do this with every task, so the best approach is to  pinpoint the harder tasks and problems. It is an especially useful strategy for the first time you teach a new topic, but it also helps you to hone and master your explanation of those you are already familiar with. I have found that this approach leads to focussed and thorough explanations (and questioning), and is a far more effective use of planning time than creating  slide show presentations.

2. Develop the strands. My best explanations are those that are sharply focused on the sweet spot between what students already know and what they need to know. Before explaining a new concept, start by ascertaining the class’ prior knowledge. You can do this by asking them to list what they already know,  conducting a round of whole-class questioning or completing a short list of questions or problems based on the content from previous lessons. Be sure to then pool all this knowledge. You can then mould your explanations around these shared ideas. Begin by filling gaps and clearing up the misconceptions the class already hold and then build in the new learning by taking up and extending upon the strands the students have introduced.

“Now that we all know that Sherlock Holmes was a Victorian private detective with very particular personal habits, let’s consider why Conan-Doyle’s character would have appealed to a Victorian audience…”

3. Tell stories. Daniel Willingham has written that stories are ‘psychologically privileged’. They are such wonderful resources because, as a species, we are hard-wired to attend to and remember narrative, perhaps more than any other form of imput. Stories also make for a linguistically and emotionally rich classroom. Many teachers are highly skilled at reconfiguring abstract concepts as narratives and stories for students to remember. Another useful way to use storytelling is through personal anecdotes closely linked to your learning point. I have found that my students champ at the bit for any autobiographical tidbit I send their way, even if I sometimes employ a little artistic licence in the name of education! Another strategy is to tell stories of your past students and how they overcame difficulties or how they made avoidable mistakes. Such stories offer salutary lessons from the past for your present charges.

4. Use analogies. I have written about the humble analogy before – here. Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Made to Stick,  provide an excellent example of why analogy is so effective. Consider the two ways we could describe a pomelo to someone. We could say that a pomelo has sweet white flesh, is up to 25 cm in diameter and is the largest of the citrus fruits. Or we could say that it looks like a large grapefruit. The second description, the analogy, is easier to imagine because it builds upon what our listener already knows. This simple, easily-imagined description provides a concrete platform upon which more abstract details can be constructed later. Find the best analogies and cherish them – they are wonderful resources.

5. Bring the room to life. Many explanations are created in the moment in response to the unforeseen difficulties and questions that arise in any lesson. Making associative links to your immediate environment can really help with improvisation. Classroom objects, the students themselves and shared school experiences are so useful because they are a common currency, understood by all.

Let’s say you are teaching a new word: conscience. You start by sharing the dictionary definition: conscience is an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment that assists in distinguishing right from wrong. Quickly, you realise by the nonplussed looks on your students’ faces that you have talked yourself into a cul-de-sac… so you improvise a little scenario:

“Let’s imagine that I am very hungry; I have missed breakfast this morning. I am walking past Dexter’s desk when I notice a Mars Bar has fallen out of his bag. Dexter’s back is turned; he’ll never realise it was me. I go to pick it up and at the last moment I stop myself. My conscience has stepped in…”*

6. Frontload your sentences. When introducing a new idea, avoid starting your sentences with dependent clauses such as ‘in spite of the fact’ or ‘contrary to popular opinion.’ Instead, frontload your sentences with the main item you wish to be learnt:

“An adverb is…”

“Photosynthesis is the process by which…”

“Approximately 10 million people died in…”

The use of simple sentences creates extra clarity and concision. Nevertheless, you will need to model academic spoken language too, so once your class have a secure understanding of the topic you will need to gradually increase the linguistic complexity of your delivery.

7. Model live. Show students how to solve problems and complete tasks by modelling them. Talk them through the key procedures in incremental steps and, just as importantly, talk them through your decision-making processes as an expert. Allow students to participate in the process gradually so that you can begin to guide their thinking before they have a go independently later on. In particular, live modelling is an underused but highly effective means of teaching writing. It can feel messy, slow and frustrating, and puts you under a good deal of pressure. The security blanket of using pre-written exemplars might be removed, but to put the writing process under the spotlight can have a  huge effect on those students who struggle to take on the thinking processes of a competent writer.

8. Use triple exemplars. Okay, so this is not technically a ‘teacher talk’ strategy, but it is so effective that it justifies inclusion. Show students three examples of excellent  – but very different – responses to the same task. It might be three opening paragraphs to crime stories, three pieces of artwork or three exam answers. Get students to consider why each is successful in its own right, but also the qualities common to all three. It is particularly effective in helping students to understand that quality tends to have both convergent and divergent elements.

9. Use the board. The best explanations are often responsive, interactive and peppered with questions. Over-detailed slide-shows zealously adhered to regardless of whether the students are keeping up or not can be deeply damaging. Keep slide-shows simple and make sure you have board-space to write on. Your notes, squiggles, arrows and diagrams are an open, incremental narrative. They have been produced bit by bit and so not only do they model your thinking processes, but they also allow students to look back at previous steps if they lose track, zone out for a moment or two, forget something or cannot hold everything at once in their working memories.

10. Try again. If your students do not understand the first time, what do you do? Do you blame them for lack of comprehension or do you start again, this time trying a slightly different tack? Tenacity and relentlessness are absolutely key, as is having a range of alternative strategies up your sleeve at any one time. Sometimes your explanation will not get through to your students. That’s normal. However, rather than giving up and blaming the student for lack of understanding, I have found that by going away and mulling it over, or seeking out a colleague’s advice, there is almost always a solution out there. Somewhere.

The best explainers never give up.

*

These strategies are just the tip of the iceberg – and what a great iceberg it is! Teacher talk is an exciting and inventive area of pedagogy.

Let’s not talk less, but talk better.

*This incident really happened in a lesson a couple of weeks ago. In a subsequent lesson, a student set up a trap for me by tying a Mars Bar wrapper to his bag and leaving it in a prominent position in the hope I would take the bait! Obviously, he had little faith in the strength of my moral compass!
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Analogy: the trusty servant of teacher talk

The_Trusty_Servant

Analogy is the bread and butter of teacher explanation. How better to clarify a new and abstract concept than by comparing it to an idea already (you hope) securely fastened in your listeners’ knowledge?

The analogy, however, is not just a linguistic trick; it is built upon sound cognitive principles too. Take cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, for instance:

“We understand new things in the context of what we know, and most of what we know is concrete.”

Inference is the bedfellow of analogy. If I described, say, the human long-term memory as being the brain’s internal hard-drive, you would I hope infer that this is the place we store hard-and-fast memories. For an analogy to work, such inferential links must be made. However, we have to proceed with caution. If our listener has no notion of the inner workings of a computer then our analogy will not only fail, but will also confound understanding even more. Knowing what our students know and understand is important here.

Thinking up analogies, both in advance and on-the-spot, is one of the joys of teaching. Below is an attempt to categorise some of my favourite strategies using examples from my English teaching.

The everyday life analogy. The computer example above is a classic version of this. Take an unremarkable, well-know object, process or scenario to help exemplify a less familiar or more abstract idea:

 “Using the same sentence structure repetitively is the writing equivalent of munching on boiled cauliflower, and nothing else, for the rest of your life.”

The prior learning analogy. This is so useful because not only does it ‘pin’ the new knowledge to something that we can cautiously trust they already know, but it consolidates learning from previous lessons. On a simple level it might be, “A verse is a paragraph in poetry.” However, comparisons across texts can be very fruitful: “Eva Smith is the Curley’s Wife of An Inspector Calls: a woman destroyed, objectified and marginalised by a patriarchal world.” It kills two birds with one stone.

The analogous story. It always fascinates me the way students respond to stories about my life, even if the truth is often contorted in the interests of learning! A sudden alertness becomes almost palpable as soon as I begin. One of my favourites is used in my teaching of The Merchant of Venice. To emphasise the cruelty of Shylock’s courtroom humiliation, I tell my students about my mate Dave. “When Dave was a teenager he carried a torch for a girl at school. One day, with this girl looking on, Dave played the most exquisite pool shot I have ever witnessed, deliberately sinking two balls in one go. His bubble was quickly burst, however, when it was pointed out that his jumper, emblazoned with a huge logo, was on back-to-front. Humiliation is all the more cruel when we believe we have finally triumphed.” The story may sound insignificant, yet teenagers seem to tap into Dave’s shame remarkably easily.

The immediate environment analogy. It’s difficult to misunderstand a concept if it can be likened to something immediately visible or tangible. Such analogies can be prepared for by bringing in an unexpected object or using an image; however there’s something magical about transforming a students’ perception of where they are through words. “Imagine the windows of this room were bricked over and all we had left were the tiny square ones up there,” I use to emphasise the claustrophobic bunkhouse of Of Mice and Men. This week when teaching the poem ‘Mametz Wood’, which features the unearthing of the skeletons of forgotten First World War soldiers, I asked my students to imagine what voices of the past might be lurking unheard a mere couple of metres under the classroom carpet…

The extended metaphor. My friend Gavin McCusker makes a link between writing and painting, describing the writer’s box of tricks as the ‘writer’s palette’. The process of redrafting work becomes like adding extra layers of detail to artwork. I often describe writing an essay like building a house: the introduction the foundations, the paragraphs the rooms, the doorways the links between paragraphs, the roof the conclusion…

The celebrity analogy. The efforts of sports stars are ripe pickings for emphasising an ethic of effort, practise and resilience. To the student who grumbles because you ask them to write for a decent period of time most lessons: “Do you think Gareth Bale could score a goal like he did last weekend by sitting down and listening to his coach or watching videos of others taking free kicks? He needs to practise every day to become that good.” I find the more relevant and recent the analogy, the more effective it is. Any reference to Pele tends to leave my class scratching their heads.

The spontaneous analogy.

Segue to a secondary classroom. The male teacher is taking the register.

Teacher: Smith?

Smith: Yes, miss. (Smith blushes beetroot.)

Teacher: Not to worry, Smith. Jones?

Jones: Yes… miss. (Jones is attempting to stifle a giggle.)

Teacher: (raising eyebrows, glancing disparagingly at Jones and speaking in withering tone) Even more inevitable than the death of Lennie in the final chapter of Of Mice and Men, Jones…

If we keep on the lookout for opportunities to drop in a useful analogy, we will find them. Even better if our students learn to do so too.

Analogy as a question. Sometimes it’s useful to hang an analogy in the air to help students solve a problem; it seems to spur curiosity. When teaching the Ted Hughes’ poem Hawk Roosting, we discuss the traits of dictators and despots – Hitler and Pol Pot, for instance. I then ask the question: “How does the hawk in the poem embody the characteristics of this kind of leadership?” When they read the poem, they have a reference point to build their understanding around.

The risqué analogy. Let’s face it, there are certain topics of conversation that teenagers find extremely memorable (and adults too!). Although potentially hazardous, this strategy offers rich spoils for learning. It goes without saying that one needs to tread carefully with the risque analogy. Here’s one – not a great example to be fair – that is repeatable. When recently studying war poetry, I asked Y10 students to consider the single sperm that produced each of us. “Beating millions to the prize, this sperm was insanely fortunate. In an opposing way, the soldier on the battlefield, one man picked from the millions, is disposable cannon fodder, just like those other sperms that were wasted along the way to your birth.”

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I find inventing analogies to be one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. It helps me to model an inventive approach to language as well as adding to the richness of classroom dialogue. One of the ultimate goals of teaching, I think, is to get students to make the connections for themselves.

Further reading:

I really enjoyed this post by Mark Miller about how understanding metaphor is a threshold concept in English.

This by Chip & Dan Heath on ‘sticky’ ideas is a must read.