Talk Less, So Students Learn More

Talk Less, So Students Learn More

post by Heather Rocco, member of The Educator Collaborative

Talk Less, So Students Learn More

Many years ago I was in a conference center room filled with over 100 high school English educators when Carol Jago, former NCTE president and author of many books including With Rigor For All (Heinemann, 2011), made this bold statement: 

“The one who is doing the talking is the one who is doing the learning.” 

A captivated audience already, we listened and absorbed her every word. This statement, though, seemed to linger in the ether a little longer as we, high school teachers who do A LOT of the talking during an instructional period, reflected on our daily classroom routines and methods.  As this statement settled into our consciousness, we realized, “If we do most of the talking, our students are not really learning as much as they could.”  Now, I am not a lecturer. I have never stood in front of a classroom and talked at my students for 45 or 60 minutes.  I’ve always recognized the purpose and the need for students to engage in the learning through active exploration and conversation.  For me, though, Carol’s statement shifted my thinking about whole class discussions.  

When I heard Carol make this statement, I used whole group discussion nearly every day and for significant chunks of time during my instructional period.  As is typical, my class had a handful of students who would participate in this large group conversation. Though I often asked for “other voices,” I rarely cold-called on students (I hated this approach when I was a student).  If no new hands were offered, I returned to the four or five eager students who had already contributed. While I knew this decision was not good practice, I did not realize the depths of its detriment until I heard Carol speak at the Conference on English Leadership convention.  Informed by Carol’s statement, then, I realized my reliance of the whole class discussion method meant only four or five pupils and me learned a lot most days. The rest of my students, well, probably not as much.  

This realization shook my teaching soul a bit.  I loved whole class conversations.  I often felt energized by them.  I rationalized having only limited participants by convincing myself that these big discussions inspired more productive thinking later in small groups.  As I continued to reflect, though, I realized I was energized by the whole class discussion because I was an active participant who was learning. Those who sat silently may be absorbing the information, but they did not have the opportunity to test their own ideas next to others.  Their thoughts lived inside their minds, but trapped ideas aren’t fully examined ones.  

I also realized that the small groups conversations were overly informed by the comments offered in the whole class discussion.  Students, recalling my positive affirmation of one idea during the discussion, latched onto it and used it to collaborate on whatever tasks I provided them.  These students had less opportunity to contemplate a text, a technique, or an idea because much of the original thinking work had been done for them earlier in the lesson.  I needed to change to make sure all students had the opportunities speak and learn.  

Most days I asked students to write for a bit, chat with a neighbor for a bit, and then bring their ideas to the whole group for discussion.  As I changed my thinking about discussion, I continued to ask students to write and chat, but I then invited them to write again to capture their thinking now after they talked with someone.  After writing more, they moved into a small group or met with a partner to talk further. My role as the teacher shifted too. I moved around the room listening to conversations, taking notes on what I heard, asking questions to inspire more discussion.  As discussions drew to a close, I asked students to write their biggest takeaway from the conversations. I framed these takeaways with questions like “What ideas inspire their thinking most?” “What conversation do they want to return to tomorrow and why?”  or What did you disagree with and why?”. Finally, I opened a brief whole class discussion and asked students to share their thinking or an idea they heard while in the small group. At this point in the lesson, there is only enough time for four or five students to share, but I found more students volunteering to do so.  They had all had the chance to think, to process, to revise the ideas. They felt more ready to contribute in this forum.  

The hardest aspect of limiting whole class discussion is letting go of my desire to participate in all conversations.  As I said earlier, I love the whole class discussion because I am fascinated by writers and books and big ideas and techniques and students.  But it isn’t about me. My love for the experience cannot usurp the true purpose of my classroom – student learning.  

Over the years I have modified Carol Jago’s statement as I continue to hone my practice as an educator.  She could have just as easily said “The one doing the reading…” or “The one doing the thinking…” or “The one doing the researching…” is the one doing the learning.  Truly, our role as educators is to put the work into students’ hands and guide them as they grow. Minimizing the whole class discussion allows more time for more students to do the talking and the learning.