Teacher talk: ‘Just tell them’

The traditionalists always have a deceptively simple remedy for the complex social interactions that make up classrooms in state education.

The latest relates to their favourite topic – knowledge. On social media, they bemoan the existence of classrooms in which “the person who knows the most, talks the least.” They run polls about the percentage of time taken up by teacher talk in lessons, implying that anything below 70% is a dereliction of a teacher’s duty. Some are much blunter, using the hashtag #justtellthem.

Just tell them? This would be laughable if it wasn’t for the financial cuts being imposed on state schools. There is a danger that such a message might gain ground because it is seen to reduce costs. If ‘just telling them’ is a legitimate pedagogy, then why not have one teacher just tell 40 students in a classroom or 60 in the canteen or even two hundred in the sports hall?

Of course, equating learning to the direct transfer of knowledge fails to address the issue of what students are learning. In the simplistic world of the traditionalist, students learn the content of teacher talk. However, students also learn through the form of talk. Indeed, the form might be far more influential than the content. From lessons in which teacher talk predominates, children learn that their ‘proper place’ is to listen to their ‘betters’; they learn that their opinion or understanding is not valued; and they learn that passive conformity is the way to achieve approbation.

It is embarrassing that we need to spell out why student talk is important. It allows for the assessment of  students’ understanding, enabling the teacher to plan or change the course of a lesson and evaluate the lesson’s success. Students learn – and learn from each other – how to explain, debate and dispute in constructive and critical ways. In progressive classrooms, students also pose questions, explore ideas and participate in directing the lesson.

So, should the person who “knows the most” talk for most of the time? Maybe, on occasions. Students might need direction from the teacher or subject knowledge to pursue a project or inquiry. But, it is inherently undemocratic for the teacher to dominate classroom talk.

Moreover, there is a danger that teacher talk reinforces low self-esteem that develops outside school. Through social interactions with authority figures, students, particularly those on free school meals, might already consider themselves inferior. Teacher talk has the insidious effect of compounding that feeling of inferiority.

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2 thoughts on “Teacher talk: ‘Just tell them’”

  1. I would like to suggest, politely, that it is’ undemocratic’ for children to have to ‘learn from each other’ when someone in the room is being paid to teach them. They can learn from each other outside the classroom (try stopping them!) In the classroom, they can learn the most from the person in the room who knows the most – which is usually the teacher.

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  2. Who said education was democratic? Who said children should not give input to a lesson? I notice you say ‘subject knowledge’ might be needed for an enquiry and this is indeed true – but if you just acquire it as ‘information’ it won’t stay as part of your knowledge base; and you won’t be able to use it to question other information you might come across so you won’t recognise relevant or factually correct information from the irrelevant and non-factual.

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