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MSPnet Blog: “Talking and teaching”

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posted March 19, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

In your projects, what role does classroom talk take, and who is doing the talking?  The typical story of STEM education’s evolution recounts an increasing emphasis on the social construction of knowledge — and that means, a lot of the time, talk, argumentation, negotiation, story-telling… A classic paper addresses the importance of “establishing the norms of scientific argumentation  in the classroom,” and much research before and since has explored how talk  — of certain kinds — plays its central role, and how teachers can learn to support STEM talk in the classroom (see here for a “primer” for teachers from the Talk Science project).

Of course, there has always been talking in classrooms, but increasingly sophisticated classroom anthropology and sociolinguistics over the years has made clear that the kinds of talk and the balance of talk —who’s occupying air time —  in the classroom reveals a lot about the model of learning that applies.  Who’s talking to whom, at what stages of the inquiry or sense-making?  Who sets the topic of conversation, asks the questions, provides or debates possible answers?  This has been seen to provide evidence about who’s really doing the thinking in the class (see here for an article by Joni Falk and myself that sets out this point of view in relation to inquiry-based science).

Larry Cuban has started a series of blog-posts on instructional patterns, which returns to the question of talk, teacher talk, and modes of instruction.  The first has the provocative title “Whatever happened to direct instruction?”  Cuban begins by setting the problem thus:

The research evidence that direct instruction (lower-case “d and “i”) and Direct Instruction (capital letters) have positive effects on student learning–as measured by standardized test scores–has been around for decades yet most educational researchers, policymakers, and practitioners who urge school and classroom decisions to be data-driven and evidenced-based have hardly popped champagne corks welcoming this clear direction for what teachers should incorporate in their classroom lessons (see here). This is puzzling.

He notes that “direct instruction” is the generic term for teacher-centered techniques, while Direct Instruction is a term for a kind of scripted teaching, in which (at its best) teachers are supported by the script-scaffolds to adopt or consistently maintain a pedagogy that is new to them.  Regardless, “direct instruction” has over the years acquired negative associations, as an antagonistic practice to “student-centered learning”  (a term now being appropriated for more recent fads and sales campaigns).

Good pedagogues have always known that almost any pedagogical technique can be useful under certain circumstances, and a key element of teacher wisdom is being aware of the balance among the possibilities (see here for a workshop activity aimed at getting science teachers to reflect on the balance of their practices).  As Cuban writes:

Most teachers have a knapsack of techniques they use with their students that are hybrids of teacher- and student-centered approaches. Blending high student-participation in whole group activity from a discussion to a quiz game, small-group work, and lectures, say in a U.S. history or Algebra 2 class, is common. Mixed strategies of teaching is the norm among elementary and secondary teachers (see here and here)… The mixes will differ by academic discipline, age of students, beliefs about how students learn, and other factors but hybrid approaches are dominant.

Cuban then moves from this reasonable conclusion to a question that would seem (to me) not to follow at all from it:

what is the ideal ratio between percentage of teacher- and student-talk in a lesson. Is it 80-20? 70-30? 60-40? 50-50?

I would have thought that his prior reflections would provide the answer:  “It depends.”  Rather, I shoudl have thought the correct question is, How do you decide what is the right balance for these particular students, at this particular stage in their learning a topic, under these particular classroom conditions (e.g. time, space, equipment, class size, etc.).  The question of an ideal balance seems both a wrong question and a potentially misleading or damaging one, if it is turned into canons of behavior, or even metrics for assessment.

Yet, in his second post, this question does lead him to a very useful observation:

The initial problem is that most teachers simply do not know how much they talk and how much their students talk. Do most teachers talk 80 percent of a lesson? 70? 60? 50? Historical studies put the ratios in the 65-35 range (see here and here). Individually, few teachers could tell you the ratio of teacher-to-student talk in the lesson they just taught.

And indeed Larry is aware of the complexity, or unanswerability of his “ideal quantity” question — and also that there is substantial research on the nature of classroom discourse (as hinted above):

there are many kinds of teacher-talk: controlling behavior (“That’s enough Jimmy”); getting activities started (“Count off 1 to 5 for small group work”); asking content questions (“Annie, what does x equal in this equation?”); discussion moves (“Can anyone add to Tiffany’s point?”)—readers get the picture of multiple forms of teacher-talk that would have to be parsed. Ditto for student talk…Researchers call such analyses of teacher- and student-talk, “classroom discourse” (see here and here).

I look forward to the further development of his theme — but it made me browse among recent papers in the MSPnet Library:  How do these questions about teacher talk — “when, how much, and what kinds” — show up in the recent work posted there on engineering, computational thinking, modeling, etc. as elements of the improved STEM classroom?  Granted that this question would not be a focus of attention for many papers and reports, I still wondered as I wandered.  I will report on my explorations of the past 3 months of Library articles next time.

NOTE:  Opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.