I have stolen this catchy title from the eminently likeable Mike Cladingbowl, OFSTED’s Director of Schools. You heard me right – top inspector praised for his sage words about teaching and learning. Here they are for your delectation:
“What about teachers’ subject knowledge, the children’s sense of routine, the ability to turn direction mid-sentence, a common sense approach to differentiation, the sense of humour, the infectiousness of the explanation? I see too little of this kind of comment about teaching.”
Ah, he knows what he is talking about I hear you say. Stripped of corporate jargon, he manages to describe teaching in a way that the vast bulk of OFSTED reports fail to do: he describes the act of teaching with wisdom and sensitive insight. Common sense and humour; routine balanced with flexibility, and more. Of course, this degree of complexity described goes beyond the easy response of a nice, neat data capture. Cladingbowl indirectly encapsulates why lesson observation data is deeply flawed.The craft is so subtle, and often invisible, to all but the most skilled observers.
For too long, it has been the fearful response of schools to OFSTED pronouncements that has curdled our milk of classroom practice. I have criticised before the pervasive whispers of ‘talk less teaching‘, with the attendant professional development courses that litter the teacher-sphere.
Here, alongside Mike Cladingbowl, I want to reject the curdled notion of ‘talk less teaching‘ and herald the power of ‘talk better teaching‘.
Few areas of pedagogy have the ‘low effort, high impact‘ capacity of teacher explanations. They are the glue that holds learning together. In response to a TIMMS study of a maths teaching, Dylan Wiliam noted that in US classrooms, which are similar to our UK classrooms, there were 8 teacher words for every students word whereas in Hong Kong the ratio for teachers was double that of US teachers. He went on to state:
“Obviously, speaking is good for the speaker, but when you have whole class discussions, a lot of the time, what students are listening to is other students, who don’t generally know as much about the topic as the teacher. When you look at things from this perspective, it is easy to see why teacher talk is so important.”
It is a simple, but potent truth. Wiliam is not saying students should be struck dumb into silence throughout their lessons. An engaging dialogue between their peers can help students move their understanding forward, but, once more, it is the teacher who must lead and decipher what peer feedback is useful and when to intervene as the expert. As Graham Nuthall’s brilliant research found, student feedback given to one another is very often flawed. Teachers therefore need to confidently assert their expertise and lead from the front.
Too many teachers have had their confidence to plant their feet in the centre of the room and give a great explanation neutered. Notions (or interpretations of supposed OFSTED dictums) of pace, independent learning and ‘talk less teaching‘ have pushed some teachers towards relegating themselves to the side and not the centre. We need to replenish teacher confidence and ignore the flawed notion of ‘talk less teaching‘ and focus on ‘talk better teaching‘.
With that in mind, I have designed what I hope is a helpful explanation diagram – a guide to the key components of a great explanation:
My ‘Explanations: Top Ten Tips‘ elaborates in detail on most of the steps of my diagram – see here.
Recently, at the NTEN ResearchEd event at Huntington School, I talked about the importance of gesture and I talked through each element of my diagram. See the video here, with the explanation focus beginning at around the 27 minute mark:
We should take the time to construct infectious explanations safe in the confident knowledge that ‘talk less teaching‘ is a wholly flawed notion.
It is time to focus on ‘talk better teaching‘ and infectious explanations.
Useful related reading:
There have been some great blogs written on effective explanations and I have endeavoured to link them here.
This Zoe Elder blog has a great series of tips for effective explanations, with a very useful explanation observation tool – see here.
The excellent @Turnford blog has written a perceptive post on ‘Great Teacher Talk’ (I sourced the Dylan Wiliam quote from here) – see here.
Tom Boulter has written a perceptive blog on the ‘Top Five Ways to Explain…Badly’ – see here.
Undoubtedly, my favourite chapter of my book for English teachers is on explanations and teacher talk. I think it is very useful. My book, ‘Teach Now! English: Becoming a Great English Teacher’ is available here.