**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)***Comment**

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.

2.
Questions.

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.

(Lynne Breeze)