Slow Teaching: Efficient Teacher Talk
20 Jan 2021
If you are anything like me, you have been asked to repeat yourself about a thousand times in this new online teaching world, and you are talking more than ever before. I am hoping sharing this chapter from my first book ‘Slow Teaching: Finding calm, clarity and impact in the classroom,’ (which somehow came out almost three years ago) might help make this exhausting process at bit easier!
The upshot of what I have to say is this: I am telling you to be a slow-speaking person. Seneca
The philosopher Seneca devoted the last three years of his life to exchanging a series of letters with Lucilius Junior. In one letter, young Lucilius makes the mistake of confessing his admiration for another philosopher, Serapio, saying that ‘his words tend to be tumbled out at a tremendous pace, pounded and driven along rather than poured out, for they come in a volume no one voice could cope with’. A horrified Seneca delivers an impressive rejection: ‘This copious and impetuous energy in a speaker is better suited to a hawker, than to someone who deals with a subject of serious importance and is also a teacher’. He continues to note the ‘great deal of futility and emptiness about this style of speaking, which has more noise about it than effectiveness’ (Seneca, 2003).
How much of Seneca’s advice is still relevant today? How many times are we asked to slow down or repeat ourselves when launching into quick instructions, or talking at the front of the class? How often do we return at the end of a working day exhausted, unable to draw up the vocal energy to communicate with our loved ones?
The Importance of Teacher Talk
For some time in education there would be audible gasps of shock if teacher talk dared to appear in a conversation about how best young people learn. The mere mention of the term Direct Instruction (the explicit teaching of a skill set) would lead to scoffed response about the danger of becoming a ‘sage on the stage’. Or there would be quips about being a didactic lecturer to a room full of ‘vaults’, as parodied by Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times: ‘Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else’ (Dickens, 1995).
Instead, facts and knowledge appeared to be rejected in the drive to silence the teacher. Myths about young peoples’ capacity to learn and retain information dominated: they could not possibly listen to more than two minutes of teacher talk at a time. Instead, ‘fast’ learning methods dominated: collaborative classroom strategies, enquiry-based learning and accelerated learning. The teacher facilitated such work, but to lead in this respect was to error. Ofsted and political agendas added fuel to the dousing of talk, promoting the ‘guide on the side’ approach to teaching and depicting real learning as ‘fun’ and ‘engaging’.
To provide the minimal instruction in the classroom, however, may be doing our students a disservice. As Richard E. Clark et al (2012) have noted ‘Decades of research clearly demonstrate that for novices (comprising virtually all students), direct, explicit instruction is more effective and more efficient than partial guidance.’ Expecting students to discover learning for themselves, without necessary input from teachers, leads to misconceptions that are left unchallenged.
Thankfully, we have come a long way from both the didacticism of Gradgrind and his Victorian ilk, and more modern progressive learning theories. Recent research such as the above from Richard E Clark, alongside the voices of dissenting teachers, has started to see more of a thoughtful approach. There is a movement away from muting teachers in the classroom to a much more meaningful dialogue: what exactly is efficient and effective teacher talk?
The Pace of Speech
Initially, our priority is to remember what Edward de Bono (1999) notes: ‘communication is always understood in the context and experience of the receiver – no matter what was intended’. In this respect, it is important to remember that young people find it challenging to process huge amounts of information. Their days involve moving between classrooms, and adapting to different subjects and methods of explaining. Lessons are most overwhelming for these learning ‘tourists’ when we fall into the ‘racing through content’ trap; that is, when we speak quickly and couple our verbal information with huge amounts of written slides on a PowerPoint.
When we deliver instructions, we often rush through it, requiring our students to work very hard to sustain their focus. It strains their working memories; that is, their capacity to retain additional information in their minds. Working memories are not yet fully formed in adolescence, meaning that students are more likely to forget aspects of instructions before the sequence of guidance has been completely presented to them.
As we are all too well aware, exerting additional effort is just not in some young peoples’ skill-set. If we want to develop their capacity to retain information and listen, then altering the speed of how we deliver this information is one of our starting points. It is also the first step in the masterful teacher skill of making complex ideas seem remarkably simple and easy to grasp.
There will, however, be times when we want to speed up what we are saying in the classroom, and to argue that we should always sustain a specific speed while speaking would be ludicrous. To maintain a repetitive drone would be a sure way to ensure inattentive and frustrated students. When we regale students with anecdotes, or wildly convey our enthusiasm for the beauty of a particular piece of poetry (just me?), we will want to speed up, to inject the sense of urgency and passion we feel. Speaking quickly at this point is important. We don’t need them to retain everything we are saying, but we want to make sure we are connecting with them emotionally and sustaining their attention.
Reflecting on Explanations
Reflecting on how we speak in our classrooms is a vital starting point. Patsy Rodenburg (2015) urges her readers to record a section of their speech to give them a clearer insight into how quickly they speak. As she points out, ‘Many fast or slow speakers are positively startled when they first hear the pace of their speech on tape… The person then begins to realise how hard it is for listeners to follow them’.
Ben Newmark, a history teacher who has written extensively on improving explanations and runs a YouTube revision website for his students, highlights that we are prone to the ‘illusory superiority’ – the belief that we communicate with more skill than, perhaps, we may have. He remembers how disconcerting recording his own explanations was: ‘I was no better than OK. I said “um” a lot. I overused the word “right”. I said everything was ‘a really important point’ (Newmark, 2017). Having this objective view of our own speech is vital and helps us to refine and improve our communication, particularly when it comes to explaining more demanding content.
Processing for Complex Material
A significant amount of what we do as educators is explain complex things to young people in the hope they will understand, recall and remember. These are the moments in which we need our students to grasp a troublesome concept, to recall a particular definition, or to be secure in a piece of knowledge. Chip and Dan Heath (2007) have suggested an interesting mnemonic to assist in securing knowledge – SUCCES: ‘simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and story’. A final element in ensuring knowledge can be both accessed and remembered, is the pace in which we deliver the material.
Usually, we deliver 130-170 words per minute at a natural conversational speed. When we want to introduce key ideas or explain challenging concepts that will be vital to the students’ understanding, it requires us to deliberately alter from our natural speed to a more measured pace.
An interesting example of this is Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. King’s delivery throughout was at around 100 words per minute. That, coupled with his use of repetition (more on that later), meant that the speech is among the most memorable in history. It was beautifully crafted for impact, delivered to achieve maximum purpose and had a memorable and resounding theme of unity.
Slowing down to achieve a similar impact in our explanations and instruction requires real confidence and preparation. It is challenging to think about both what we are saying and how we are saying it. It requires pre-planned explanations that encompass the slow rhythm and cadence of oratory.
Winston Churchill was arguably the greatest of slow preparers and certainly not the most natural of public speakers. As a child he suffered from a lisp and stammered, vowing that one of his ‘only ambition[s] was to be master of the spoken word’ (Leaming, 2011). For him, preparation was everything; he often wrote out his speeches word for word (apparently an hour for every minute!) and wrote endless drafts. For Churchill, ‘preparation is, if not the key to being a genius, then at least the key to sounding like a genius’ (Leaming, 2010).
To explain something well we need to have concrete and secure subject knowledge, as well as empathy in order to appreciate the misconceptions students might have. While we may not want to fully embrace Churchillian degrees of preparation, we do want to ensure that we have invested time in scripting out and practising our classroom talk. As Peps Mccrea (2017) states, ‘To improve the leanness of our communication, we must first get crystal clear about the idea we are trying to convey’.
We also need to make sure that the atmosphere in the room mirrors this calm and thoughtful approach when we want to deliver an explanation. Basic, but often forgotten, aspects of delivery are important. The first is explaining what we are about to say will be useful and vital for our students; rationalising why we need them to listen attentively. This is coupled with having the confidence to wait until we have the undivided attention from all the students in the room. We will need to actively teach and model to students how to listen appropriately: with eye contact and guiding them to have their hands free from any distractions essential. Slowing down what we say will then give impetus to the instruction; they will recognise that they have to carefully listen in order to ensure their understanding.
Achieving a More Measured Pace
One good technique to avoid speaking too quickly is to pick out key words to slow down on when speaking to the class. These might be essential subject- specific words or key points in the instruction – points we need our students to be completely clear on.
Then it is about becoming more mindful about how we are breathing when speaking at the front of the room. Often when we are tense and speaking quickly, our breathing speeds up. Slowing down our breathing will allow us to become more self-aware about the pace of our explanations. Learning to read the faces in the room while we deliver information will also assist us in recognising how we are using our voices. Our students become mirrors of our pace: if we see eyes glaze over, we are going too quickly; if we witness a sea of yawning, the likelihood is we are going too slowly.
The next step is about savouring and enunciating vowels and consonants in words, fully pronouncing vital words and elongating them in order to accentuate their meaning. Experimenting with how we can sustain the classes’ attention when we drop the pace is also important; again, we will be able to note when they are drifting.
Mastering the Pause
Writing without punctuation is remarkably difficult to follow, and speech without pauses inspires exactly the same emotions: frustration and confusion. The pause in a classroom is, therefore, our manner of punctuating clearly what we are saying for emphasis. Often, however, in our rush to convey information or secure the attention of young people, we miss out on opportunities for reflection. Valerie Coultas (2007) has highlighted teachers’ reluctance to pause, advising us ‘not [to] rush into speech. Less experienced teachers often fail to understand the importance of pauses and silence and the contribution these moments make to the classroom atmosphere’.
The first rationale for the pause is self-explanatory: it gives our students the chance to catch up with us in their cognitive processing. When a pause is well timed, it can ensure that they are following our points and gives them time to process content. A scan of the room, or a quick question-and-answer session, allows us to gather awareness of our students and informs us if we need to hold back, so as to ensure that they have all grasped the explanations or instructions.
The pause for emphasis on important words is another way to ensure that students can recognise that we are delivering important instructions. This might be a particularly troublesome topic or word that we want students to recall and remember.
Pausing can also embody confidence and composure: another passport to teacher gravitas. Achieving the required effect is simple: take a deep breath and inhale to three. This can be coupled with making the pause explicit for students, informing them that there will be a moment to allow them to think carefully about the content. At this stage we are also demonstrating to students that taking time to think is a vital part of developing understanding and independence in learning.
How we use the pitch of our voice when communicating with students also influences how attentive they are and how much they will remember. When considering using different pitches, there are two aspects to avoid: losing pitch volume towards the end of a sentence (falling off the line) and going down at the end of each sentence (dipping). To avoid this, it is important to sustain the vocal energy from start to finish in a sentence. If we visualise the last word in a sentence, we will also give it more energy and help give our voices more clarity.
It is also important to avoid vocal monotony: speaking at the same high nasal pitch. As teachers we can be guilty of this when we want to dominate the room and make sure that our students can hear nothing but our voices. One way to address this is to modify our tone often in our communication, thus energising our speaking.
There is a treasure trove of phrases used in the classroom that are redundant and repetitive. Repetition for emphasis has its place, but streamlining our teacher communication is also vitally important. My repetitive quirks are the following: OK, folks and listen. I know that I mindlessly repeat them in lessons (the ‘folks’ tally is particularly dangerous!) The more self-aware we are about our tendency to repeat such words, the more we can compress our language into its bare essentials and explain things clearly.
Eliminating fillers in our instructions is particularly important: we are striving to model excellent speaking for our students to mirror, so maintaining a formal and clear style of our own is important. Fillers serve to detract from the main purpose of speaking, meaning that it is easier to lose the thread of what is being explained. Instead of using fillers, getting into the habit of replacing them with a pause can help our students to follow content and model good speaking habits.
To return to our philosophers, Aristotle described learning by saying ‘it is frequent repetition that produces a natural tendency.’ We already seen our philosophical friends had some sage guidance, so repetition of key subject specific terminology is a useful starting point. To guide students on how to use subject-specific vocabulary well, we need to ensure that we are frequently repeating and reminding them of key phrases in our own instructions and explanations. This will require us to repeat definitions slowly and ask students to repeat these along with us; there is nothing like some unison whole-class chanting to help imbed an important fact or definition. Also useful is our own signposting of repetition: making it very clear that we have repeated something important. Our knowledge organisers are an excellent way for us to distil the essential points we need for a unit and ensure that students have grasped the important points.
Spaced repetition of content is another important way of ensuring students can retain information. Information must be recalled and repeated to ensure it is secure in our students’ long-term memory. This might require us to repeat explanations, skilfully altering the language we use to try to build in more familiarity for our students.
Humans have a tradition of oral storytelling for one reason: people are captivated and intrigued by the power of a story. It binds us together and builds relationships and intimacy. Daniel Willingham (2010) argues that stories have immense value in supporting memory. As he notes, ‘The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories – so much so that psychologists sometimes refer to stories as “psychologically privileged”’.
Instead of racing into delivering content immediately, considering how we could create intrigue and interest by building the content of a story may have significant impact in encouraging retention. Planning in advance how the story could be sculpted to encourage students’ interest will help to generate mystery around a topic. The story itself also needs to be sparse, as ‘formal work in laboratory settings has shown that people rate stories as less interesting if they include too much information, thus leaving no inferences for the listener to make’ (Willingham, 2010).
It is not just the story that can build more emotional engagement and interest for our students; an anecdote from our own experience can spark a similar hook that resonates with young people. Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby (2015) have described the humanising factor of this approach, stating that:
Some students find it difficult to believe that teachers are living, breathing human beings with personal lives beyond the classroom. Anecdotes from teachers’ lives fascinate them, especially if these titbits of information are drip-fed over time.
Deviating from the formal style of instruction by including an anecdote can breathe life and drama into a topic and engage students. It makes what we are teaching meaningful, bringing our students into our world and facilitating more positive relationships.
Curbing Teacher Talk
We have seen in this chapter that teacher talk is valuable, but only when it is streamlined and carefully employed. Importantly, at times it also needs to be stopped completely. There can be a tendency to provide an elaborate narration to all aspects of the classroom, to disjoint young people’s thinking by talking over them endlessly. Embracing silence and muting ourselves regularly can help to ensure that students are actively thinking, and can save teachers much needed energy. This is most obviously required when students are working independently. This is the time when they need to have ultimate focus, so as to be able translate the dialogue and instructions they have received into meaningful output. Rather than interrupting their thinking process by loudly delivering general corrections or instructions, at this point we are best served by letting them practise independently.
Quality explanations, instructions and the pace at which we speak are clearly all vital. However, how we employ these aspects of teaching needs to be carefully planned so that we involve the individuals who share our space with us. We are not on a stage delivering some magnificent soliloquy. Talk needs to be interactive, to engage our students, to check that they can understand exactly what we sharing with them. As Graham Nuthall (2007) notes, most students already know 50% of the information they are taught. Instruction by itself will not lead us to discover what students already know. Time to step tentatively into the murky and complex world of questioning…
Could your teacher talk be deliberately slowed down?
2. Are you aware of your breathing in the classroom and how this is impacting your ability to explain?
3. Could you embrace elements of the Churchillian preparation of your teacher talk?
4. Are you aware of how students are responding to the pace of your speech?
5. What could you do to employ the pause more effectively in the classroom?
6. Are you harnessing the power of slow storytelling and anecdotes in the classroom?
Thank you for reading, hope this chapter helps. ‘Slow Teaching’ is available here.