Monday 14 September 2015

Teacher talking time

A few years ago, as a way to mix up the usual observation procedure, I agreed to be videotaped giving a lesson. I then had to write up a reflection on the lesson - what I thought had worked, what hadn't. If you've never tried it, I'd highly recommend the process, as I found it gave me a clear sense of my role in the classroom. What struck me most of all is that, apart from brief explanations to set up the activities, I said almost nothing. When I watched it back, I was pleased with this silence on my part. I thought it good practice. I saw my role as something like instigator/observer, and as such too much teacher talk time (TTT) wouldn't be a good thing. But I worry that I, and perhaps other teachers like me, might have gone a bit too far and developed a bit of a paranoia about TTT.

Like most teachers, one of the first things I was told starting out was to keep teacher talking time (TTT) to a minimum. It makes sense - if the students' goal is to speak English then they need the chance to do so. Also, it can be helpful in curtailing that innate tendency to waffle that us teachers suffer from (we've all been to conferences and talks!). On top of that, TTT is one of the easiest things to point out in a lesson observation. Hence, it is also one of the easiest things to make sure and avoid in a lesson observation. And if you look online, there are lots of suggestions on how to cut TTT (in fairness, other websites also offer a more benign view of TTT).

There are many instances of TTT which are a bit of a waste of time:
  • long winded explanations of grammar
  • random, off topic musings
  • details of your upcoming birthday (to be followed by feigned surprise and mild protestations when they remember)
  • explanations of very culturally specific vocabulary that may be of more interest to you than your students
  • whatever the teacher version of mansplaining is.
But there are also a lot of things that fear of TTT have led me to do in class which frankly are a bit daft:
  • Not answering a direct question about the meaning of a word from a student. Instead saying "What do you think it means?"
  • Not offering any form of opinion in open classroom discussions about a topic when perhaps this may have been of interest to students. 
I think the first one is daft because it would annoy me if someone did this to me. And it's phoney. The student is asking me to share knowledge that I possess. They are not asking me what to think. It's a genuine act of communication. (Apologies if I'm the only person who has responded to a student in this way - I'm, perhaps falsely, assuming that every teacher, at some point, has done the same things that I have done).

The second one is a bit more interesting. My rationale previously was that I didn't want my opinions to get in the way in classroom discussions. I also didn't want to get sucked into a discussion and end up sermonising. But students repeatedly asked my opinion in these situations. They seemed to want to know what I thought. Sometimes I would deflect, but other times I would state an opinion or a perspective that hadn't been considered in the discussion. And I always felt a bit ashamed afterwards - I talked too much!

I'm a little less sure now. I've been reading Seven Myths about Education by Daisy Christodoulou, in which she challenges the perception that teacher talk time should be minimised. Her point is that, in the UK, current teaching orthodoxy is suspicious of teacher led instruction and favours student discovery. She worries that this simply leads to reinforcement of what students already know without really providing them with new knowledge. In the language classroom, I wonder is there a similar thing going on. By focussing so much on student practice (with the underlying belief that they will learn simply by doing), is there a danger that something similar is happening, or could happen, in ELT/EAP. 

In what looks like a very good talk which I didn't get the chance to see (slides here), Steve Kirk* talks about this teacher talk time business in relation to EAP and looks at how group discussion exercises (often the ideal way to avoid TTT) don't often lead to much knowledge building unless the teacher gets involved somehow (to be fair, I'm interpreting a bit here from the slides so am very welcome to correction). There is some good reading here at Demand High ELT in a similar vein which I found through Steve's blog

If anything, I hope this post illustrates how waffly a teacher like me can be if unrestrained. So some level of TTT minimisation is appropriate. However, there is scope for a more nuanced understanding of TTT (especially among teachers like me who have come to EAP via ELT), one that doesn't view it as that which must be avoided. 

With that in mind, my question would be - in the EAP classroom, what constitutes good TTT?

*After writing this post, I contacted Steve and he was kind enough to explain his slides in more detail. I've included his comments below as I found them very helpful in understanding his talk and he also offered some interesting thoughts regarding ways in which TTT could positively contribute to the EAP classroom.

"The main drive of my talk was that TTT focuses only on form (too much / too little) and that instead we should be focusing on function - i.e., what purpose the talk serves. Teacher intervention to raise the intellectual challenge of a seminar, for instance, is a learning oriented decision - ergo, good talk. A teacher talking for ten minutes about their own struggles as a PG student can give their class deeply valuable insights into the road ahead - ergo, good talk. The model I offer later in the slides provides a less binary more granular way of thinking about teacher talk - from fully teacher fronted input, through modelling and scaffolding to fully autonomous student practice. It draws on the cognitive apprenticeship model of teaching and learning. My presentation in a star type shape rather than the CA linear sequence is to suggest that as EAP teachers working with adults we may shift within a lesson or task sequence between any of these and back, depending on who's in the room and how they actually respond to tasks etc. You set students off (traditionally 'student centred') roam and discover they don't really get it. you pull back, model an example together with Ss, coaxing and prodding but leading them (modelling/scaffolding)...and then you say "right, now do the same with the other questions (or whatever) (back to STT - or rather to autonomous practice ). We need to reclaim the idea of ∗teaching∗. We are not just 'co-learners' or 'facilitators of learning'. We TEACH. ..and need to make more visible what that looks like. I found that the ideas from CA (interesting article on Cognitive Apprenticeship here) gave me refined ways to think about this. It's really helped me see through to what teachers actually do to make learning happen."

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