Review by James Theobald

8 Mar 2015, 19:00

Talk-Less Teaching: Practice, Participation and Progress

This book seems to be predicated on the idea that teachers can’t improve the quality of their talk, so they should just talk less. In my view, that means it has a very low opinion of teachers.

The authors ignore the evidence suggesting direct instruction can be highly effective and instead offer unsubstantiated assertions that suggest otherwise.

The confused and contradictory manner in which they justify the “talk-less” approach is quite something: we are told that learner behaviours in response to teacher talk dictates why we should talk less – as in, pupils see no relevance in the topic, don’t see it as accessible, etc. Yet, immediately after, the authors note that some pupils prefer passive learning and we are told that “it is important that we don’t allow them to dictate to us how we teach”.

The message therefore seems clear: we should talk less because the pupils prefer it… except for those who don’t, and we shouldn’t listen to them.

A similar justification states that “teacher-talk is often the easiest option”, but moments later we are told that teacher-talk is exhausting as teachers must “bust a gut” doing all of the work.

There seems a distinct ideology: they want teachers to talk less and they’ll justify this by any means. It’s just a shame they didn’t offer any evidence based on research to support this idea.

In place of evidence, then, is rhetoric. It isn’t long before teacher-talk is referred to as “lecture-based teaching”, as the authors work to polarise their “whizzy” approach to learning with that of passive “teacher-talk”, which, in this book, seems to be a caricature of direct instruction. Good teacher-talk is judicious and interactive. And a lot of evidence says that it is effective.

But the book’s greatest trick is in avoiding a thorough discussion or giving any comprehensive strategies on the transfer of knowledge and skills to pupils. Much of its suggested approaches start from a position whereby the pupils already know the stuff they are being assessed on and the teacher is just drawing it out of them with various strategies. Whilst it is all well and good to ask pupils to “compose a tableau using their bodies” in response to questions such as “What are the benefits of capitalism?” or “How can you represent imperialism?”, there is never a moment where the book tells us how we might teach pupils the complex concepts of capitalism or imperialism in the first place, much less teach them it using a “talk-less” approach.

I think the authors (or editor) noticed this glaring absence, as the penultimate chapter seems like an afterthought in which we are told we are going to learn how to “get that important information into their heads”. My relief at this was temporary, though, as after a brief nod to knowledge transfer (film your explanation and play the video on loop for the lesson), the chapter soon veers back into the comfort of the approaches we’ve been presented with so far.

That is not to say that there aren’t parts that may be useful. The section on streamlining marking, for example, is something that teachers should find helpful. The sad problem with this is that marking policies are often dictated by schools, meaning that ordinary teachers are often precluded from taking up these ideas.

If the penultimate chapter seems like an afterthought, the final chapter reads like an apology. Whilst throughout we are treated to the authors’ modest approvals of their own strategies – “heaven-sent solution”, “deliciously clever”, “genius technique” – they counterbalance this with a brief moment of endorsement for teacher-talk. It’s just a shame that it comes after 170 pages of denigrating it. And, as such, it seems disingenuous.

The good news for the publishers, though, is that the proxies for learning relied on here, despite largely being debunked by research, still proliferate in schools. So, while I have my doubts about efficacy for pupils, I’m certain they’ll find favour with those who like to see “whizzy” lessons.


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