TALK TOOLKITS OF TEACHERS AND CHILDREN
The idea of talk as a ‘tool’ for use in learning originated in the early twentieth century in the writings of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky realised that we use tools to think – that is, that words and speech are metaphorical tools put to use to develop and communicate understanding. We can take this idea – that language acts as a ‘set of tools’ – to analyse the ‘talk toolkit’ of teachers. For teachers, talk is really the main tool of the trade. But what talk tools are effective in terms of teaching and learning? It is evident to any classroom observer that some teacher talk is of immense benefit for learners, and some is a hopeless waste of time.
The next section offers examples of talk from primary classrooms, so that we can consider what is more, or less, effective in terms of teaching and learning. Before reflecting on these snippets from classroom life, it’s important to note that although it is very easy to point out how to teach, it is very difficult to actually do it. Yet most teachers are extremely good at their job. Their creativity, commitment and enthusiasm help children to learn day after day in schools. Such expertise is generated over time as teachers constantly reflect on their practice; self evaluation (often rather negative!) is a characteristic of the profession. The examples from classrooms included here are intended to contribute to developing practice. I offer no support to those who blame teachers for the ills of the education system in general, or children’s problems and difficulties with learning in particular.
The teacher’s toolkit: some ineffective talk
Transcript 1: Triangles is an example of a teacher (T) at work. Year 3 children are seated on a carpet around the teacher in a low chair. The Learning Intention for the lesson is: ‘To use everyday language to describe features of familiar 3-D shapes’. We can consider what talk tools this teacher is using, and to what effect.
Transcript 1: Triangles
T : Right, OK. You guys. I wonder who, um, can anybody tell me what we did in Numeracy last week? (five hands go up)
T : Blake?
Blake : Traditional tales?
T : No, listen, numeracy. Numbers. What did we do? Anyone? (still the same hands up) Come on, you were all there. Polly? (Polly does not have her hand up)
Polly : Triangles?
T : Right! Shape is what we were doing, 2-D shapes, and last week we looked at triangles. What is important about a triangle? (few hands are up) Tamar sit on your bottom. Triangles you remember – we drew some and looked around the school. Gilliam you are listening today, you tell us (Gilliam does not have her hand up) – triangles (draws a triangle in the air with her hands; other children wave and make ‘I am bursting to tell you’ noises) . . .
Gilliam : (pause) The end of the Toblerone box?
T : Yes, right, that is the shape. Yes. But what do we know about them? Ria?
R : Three sides.
T : (not entirely satisfied) Ye–es, three sides. Anything else?
R : Three angles.
T : Not you Ria, let’s give everyone a chance. Tamar. On your bottom. William?
W : Three sides and three angles, the same?
T : OK, well, OK. Three sides and three angles, but maybe not always the same, for a triangle. Remember? OK. (moves on to questions about a square)
This sort of talk is a complete waste of time in terms of learning. Why is it a waste of time? The answer is not simple, but is worth teasing out, because this sort of talk is universal in classrooms. It is well meaning, and the children seem to be joining in. But it is really pointless.
To find out why it is so futile, first we can look at some of the talk tools the teacher uses:
1. A brief marker to indicate that the lesson has begun.
3. Reformulations – repeating and refining children’s answers to fit the story of the lesson.
4. Recapitulations – repetitions and reminders about previous learning.
5. Commands to do with behaviour.
6. Feedback on responses.
In short, the teacher orchestrates the class talk. The questions are meant to engage children by appealing to their memories and their willingness to contribute. The teacher asks five questions, all of which are uninteresting. Some children contribute to the conversation. Most do not. Those that recall the last lesson learn nothing from this conversation; those that do not, learning nothing also. This would not be a problem if this sort of talk was infrequent, but such sessions can go on for ten or 15 minutes at a time, three or four times a day. The best we can say is that a few children are using key vocabulary.
The teacher constantly uses talk to deal with behaviour, such as putting up hands to bid for turns, or to show ‘listening’, or not sitting nicely. Primary children are often praised for ‘sitting beautifully’, and really you do wonder quite why this particular skill attracts such approval. Of course it is because those who are sitting beautifully are quiet and still, making the tedious question-and-answer routine seem more fluent and important. But those who conduct a sort of personal mini-riot in the form of shuffling, playing with shoelaces, drifting off into a dream or – heaven forbid – kneeling up, know what to expect. ‘On your bottoms!’ I think this phrase should be banned, along with ‘sitting beautifully’, ‘I wonder who is going to tell me . . .’ and ‘I should be able to see more hands than that!’
Some of the ‘rules’ that govern this sort of classroom talk are:
1. The teacher talks, asking ‘teacher’s questions’ – to which she already has an answer in mind.
2. The children listen, or appear to, and speak when invited.
3. Only some ideas are acceptable, and the teacher knows which.
4. ‘Hands up’ signals a willingness to answer (strange variations are becoming more common as teachers try to move away from ‘hands up’ but to be honest, ‘thinking thumbs’ or other signals all have the same function).
5. ‘Calling out’ is not allowed, except sometimes when a teacher is looking for a particular response and hears it said.
6. The teacher provides no straightforward information or explanation without crossquestioning the children.
These esoteric rules, not found in any other social setting, are learned rapidly when children enter school. This class can be seen to know them quite well. We can identify some time-wasting features of the talk:
T : Can anybody tell me what we did in Numeracy last week?
By asking the children to think back, the teacher tries to contextualise future learning. The question is a typical ‘teacher’s question’ – that is, a question to which the teacher already knows the answer. Most ignore it. It is not interesting. The idea of guessing what is in the teacher’s mind has little appeal; someone else will play the game. And last week is a very long time ago.
Blake : Traditional tales?
T : No, listen, numeracy. Numbers.
Blake offers an idea of something that happened last week – the wrong thing. The problem of defining numeracy as ‘numbers’ does not help children who are thinking of triangular shapes as maybe having points or lines or colours.
T : Come on, you were all there. Polly? (Polly does not have her hand up)
Polly : Triangles?
Teachers often choose those children not waving their hands about. This may be to check who is paying attention, to bring up short someone who is misbehaving, or sometimes to choose a child who will reliably have the right answer. Children learn to put up their hands if they don’t know the answer. Some children always put up their hands; others never do.
T : Tamar sit on your bottom.
It is worryingly common to hear teachers say this to children. Why is Tamar wriggling about, or kneeling up? She is likely to be bored. What else could she be doing to learn about shapes? How long have the children been sitting on the floor? And do we think it is a good idea to comment regularly on children’s bottoms in learning situations?!
Gilliam: The end of the Toblerone box?
Instead of asking Gilliam to elaborate on this useful idea, the teacher rejects it as not quite what she has in mind. The children must keep guessing what she is thinking.
R : Three angles.
T : Not you Ria, let’s give everyone a chance.
Ria has contravened the rule that when invited, a single answer is required. To say more is tempting once you have broken the barrier and spoken, but here the teacher reminds the class that it is not only knowledge that is important, but ‘giving everyone a chance’. She is assuming that her questions will engage their thinking. It has not.
W: Three sides and three angles, the same?
T: OK, well, OK. Three sides and three angles, but maybe not always the same, for a triangle.
What does William mean by ‘the same’? The teacher assumes that he thinks the angles or sides measure the same and gives him half-hearted feedback. But maybe he meant that the number, three, is the same. We will never know.
I suggest that a better start to this lesson would be for the teacher to hold up a triangle and say to the children:
Last week we looked at triangles – here is one – it has three sides and three angles. We looked at squares and rectangles too. Think on your own or with the person next to you; what’s the difference between a triangle and a square? Think what you can say that will help us all to remember.
The children can share ideas. (Astonishingly I have seen some classes do so for as little as ten seconds before being stopped.) They can then offer suggestions – and they can be asked by name, avoiding the hands-up problems – and the teacher can go on to introduce the cubes and pyramids that are the lesson focus. That did not happen for some time in the lesson transcribed. And then instead of pointing out key features (such as six faces, 12 edges, six corners) the children had to carry on guessing what the teacher wanted them to know. Such questioning is very frustrating to watch, and for children, must be endlessly tedious and hard to understand. Why do we never tell children things? I think they would like us to.
It is the questions that are the problem. Teachers’ questions proliferated in an age when there was a shift from didactic teacher talk in silent rooms, to trying to involve children a little more. Now, it is almost revolutionary to suggest that a teacher should clearly explain something to children, without asking a lot of questions along the way. But the questions have become less and less useful, more and more leaden and heavy, and are now millstones hung around teachers’ necks, passed on to every new generation of education students. This is how to teach – we must involve the children, and that means: ask them some questions! We must string them along, allowing them to think they are smart and know the answers! We must make them interact with us by offering some of them an occasional chance to give a one-word answer. We must never tell them anything because they really must discover it for themselves!
But this is not teaching. Children discover nothing by playing this guessing game. The questions are not authentic. Teachers’ questions allow teachers to pull out of children words that the class needs to hear. Teachers’ questions do have their uses – questions such as ‘What is this called?’ ‘What is the difference between 12 and seven?’ – will elicit answers for all to hear, and help identify those who know and those who don’t. But often, episodes of interminable questions leave the class and the teacher quite baffled by one another, and do not help children to understand anything. New teachers copy those who have had years of practice at handling children this way. Children, having little choice, rapidly learn the rules. (Those who will not play along can be seen sitting around the fringes of the carpet in whole class sessions – with the Teaching Assistant, at the teacher’s knee – carefully staying very quiet, or creating their own minor rumpus.) It seems that teaching and learning proceed through such conversations. But if we are honest, it does not.