It’s a common enough classroom scene. The children are working away, and the teacher buzzes rapidly from pupil to pupil, group to group asking questions, prompting and explaining. At the end, they are exhausted, but they have done all the things a good teacher is meant to do …. right?
It’s often that our early years colleagues are the best at identifying what is missing here. In this case, and very commonly in our classrooms, there is a lack of ‘noticing’. Ask what makes great teaching, and you will often get reference to quality questioning or effective modelling and while both are important, we seldom identify skilled listening and observing as essential teaching skills.
In an early years setting, skilled teachers understand the risks of too much teacher talk. At worst, teachers can dominate children’s play and therefore derail learning through over-scaffolding. When you join children at the sand tray, what is often the first thing that happens? Children stop building their sand-city and turn their faces to you, even more so if you are talking. That is not to say teachers don’t have an important, active role in continuous provision, but unless you take the time to understand what learning is already happening, and where your prompts/ questions/ modelling are going to have the most impact, there’s a high chance that you will a) be a distracter or dominator and b) fail to see where else in the setting you may be needed to support and challenge. The same applies in other key stages.
How much is too much?
Teachers talk around between 70 and 80 percent of the time on average (Hattie; 2012), with some studies putting the number even higher. That’s huge! We need to consciously try and bring that figure down, not because teacher talk is bad – it is a vital tool for learning – but because listening and observing is also really important and it’s very hard to do both! I see it as a spectrum:
We don’t want to be at either end of the spectrum, but most of us are too far up the talking end and we need to shift this. Reframing “I talk too much” as “I want to listen and observe more” is one way to get us to consider the purpose of closing our mouths a little more.
This links directly with the work of researchers and educators such as John Hattie, Dylan William and Shirley Clarke on responsive teaching and formative teaching.
“Formative assessment is complex,” Clarke explains, “because it involves all the minute-by-minute information-gathering, from so many sources, all the time; me listening to what you’re saying, and then me interpreting that and thinking, ‘What do I do next?’ “The guiding force during lessons is, ‘I’ve got to get as much information from them as I can,’ because most of the time, children keep it all in. (TES Magazine, 30th March 2021)
I think responsive teaching can be even easier than this, and can be summarised into two steps:
- Notice stuff
- Do something about it!
In this blog, I’m focusing on the first part, trying to emphasise the point that if we don’t create space for ‘noticing’ we can’t effectively do the second part.
Becoming a good noticer
There are countless sources of information for teachers, including tests (I noticed that most of my children got number 7 wrong) and set tasks (I noticed that many children are struggling to keep their ruler steady when ruling those lines) but one of our best sources is pupil talk. The positives of partner talk are many and varied, but one underrated benefit is that it gives us a window into a pupil’s brain… but only if we listen. It allows us to gauge a pupil’s confidence in an area, or where they have a creative take on a question. It allows us to notice when learning is secure, or there is a misconception that needs addressing. Jerome Bruner said that “good teaching is forever being on the cutting edge of a child’s competence” – something which is going to take careful noticing to achieve.
- Before you prompt, model, question or explain, listen first. Do these partners need your input or are they having a useful struggle?
- If you are stopping children, use the sentence starter “I noticed…” “I heard …” or “I saw…”
- When listening to partner talk, look elsewhere. You might need to use a phrase like “don’t tell me, talk to your learning partner. I’m just listening” to encourage children not to engage you in their discussion.
- Film yourself and watch it back to estimate your own balance of talk to listening and observing.
- Think about your movement around the classroom. Avoid the trap of just listening to the children closest to you.
- If you are a leader, emphasise and give feedback on listening and observing. Teachers will often become even more ‘talky’ when there is someone else in the room!
BDSIP School Improvement Partner
Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers; Routledge
(2021) Why we’re getting formative assessment wrong, TES Magazine, (30th March 2021)