The death of teaching: It’s good to talk

Written by: Joel Wirth | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Continuing his series, Joel Wirth looks at common classroom practices that we might consider changing in order to achieve better lessons and better teaching. Next up is how we manage classroom talk and discussion

That’s right! And what about the xylem... Anyone?

At least no hands were raised.

The conversation, or classroom discussion, or teacher input – call it what you will – had been ebbing and flowing around the classroom for six or seven minutes. It was an unremarkable recap of the previous lesson on respiration, which I’d also observed.

But just like last time, the students drifted off, their small lights of learning gently extinguished through sheer tedium.

Of the hundreds of lessons I’ve observed, failures to manage classroom talk are the most common features of the most unsuccessful lessons. Of the last 30 lessons I have seen, shortcomings in the teacher’s management of discussion/engagement of the whole class have been a feature in more than 20. Scale that up and there are many thousands of teachers who are getting this wrong.

Distilled from these experiences, here are the most common factors in mismanaged talk.

It’s good to talk

For it to be a true group discussion, everyone needs to be involved. But the most common error is the teacher playing tag-wrestling with individual students and mistaking their response for a collective response.

There isn’t always time to get the whiteboards or voting pads out to check that everyone’s engaged, but there are some things that everyone should be doing.

First, we must insist that students answer in a “stage voice” so that everyone can hear. I tell teachers to walk away from students as they are asking them a question.

By speaking over the heads of more pupils, it subtly ensures their involvement in the question and will subconsciously make the student answering raise their voice to reach you.

Next, we need to get out of the habit of giving “feedback” or reformulating the answers we receive. This needs to be the work of the group: “Thank you, Beth, does anyone have anything to add to that? Do you disagree with that, Ben? Could anyone paraphrase what Beth has just said?” Everyone is now a listener.

Are we cramping the students’ style?

Teenagers often amaze with their ability to suggest a complex answer in only four words (“It could be that”, “sort of”, etc.). They do this because, being teenagers, they are afraid of being publicly wrong. But teachers too often allow them to get away with it.

We must expect and encourage them to speak in full sentences in discussions to encourage them to explore their own intelligence. And by simply saying to a student, “what do you mean by that?” or “in what ways?”, we can reassure them that they are onto something and open up their thinking.

Guess the answer?

Are we actually playing “guess the answer in the teacher’s head”? Too many discussions inadvertently shut down really interesting responses which might open up more fertile discussion because the answer wasn’t the one the teacher was looking/hoping for.

Alternatively, a discussion ends abruptly once the teacher hears the word they were looking for despite a host of alternatives.

At its worst, this results in such gems as: “Thank you, Ella. I was actually looking for a word beginning with H. Anyone?”

Or the dreadful neglect of professional and intellectual duty embodied in a teacher who had asked for an example of a “violent delight” in Romeo and Juliet telling a student who had replied “The hatred that the two houses feel for each other” that no-one could take delight in violence or hatred.

An (old school) colleague of mine spoke of “chasing rabbits”. Once you set a question running, she believed, you have relinquished ownership of the answer. If a student’s reasonable response suggests we chase that rabbit in this particular direction, a teacher was professionally bound to follow.

In practice, this can get messy, but we should always be aware of the elasticity of young minds – that they will throw us answers which we’ve lost the ability to generate ourselves. Great plenaries are made of returning to these answers and peering into whichever hole the rabbit disappeared through.

Is there time?

Yes, it still happens. Despite everything we know. How many teachers are afraid of a thinking silence! For big questions, it is a minimum of 10 seconds, longer if possible. Big ideas need big thought and we should discourage students from saying the first thing that comes into their head. Such silences can be oppressive.

If you think so, a good technique is to ask the question – twice – then say: “I’m talking now only to give you all time to think of an answer to that question.”

Is Hermione Grainger taking over?

Some students are never short of an opinion. In class discussions, teachers often – and correctly in my view – operate a mix of hands and no-hands, allowing all students the right to express an opinion. But in most lessons there’s a student with lots to say. That student’s confidence needs to be protected. But they need help to be more discerning in their contributions.

Give them three tokens (plastic milk bottle tops work well) and take one away every time they make a contribution. Far from restricting them, this will help her to make discerning judgements about when to speak and will make her an even more reflective listener.

What about the quiet shy ones?

There are those students for whom the very notion of publishing their voice to the febrile air of the classroom is anathema. They need a role. They need to be the MC of the discourse. They need to be charged with listening, possibly documenting the thrust and counterthrust.

Periodically, we return to them for a summary of what’s been said and to ask them to judge the quality of the discussion, identifying good listening, etc.

Of course, there are some great things done by teachers in pursuit of deepened learning through talk.

The empty chair is perhaps the best example of this that I have seen. The teacher identified an empty chair in the room and brought it to the front of the class. The discussion continued as normal but when a student said something definite in response to an open-ended question, the teacher turned to the chair and asked the same student “what might this person want to say about that?” or “this person thinks something different: what might it be?”

At its most powerful, the empty chair becomes the silent voice that responds to any ethically or morally questionable contributions.

Rather than slapping such thoughts down (and thereby suggesting that such ideas are suppressed) the teacher points to the empty chair and asks the student “what would someone who disagrees with you say?”, seeding the counter-thought in the mind of the individual.

  • Joel Wirth is a former teacher and senior leader who now works as a consultant headteacher. You can read the previous articles in this SecEd series via


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