Research School Network: Teachers: emphasise the ‘why’ while modelling Helen Thorneycroft on how we can make additional gains through effective teacher talk
Teachers: emphasise the ‘why’ while modelling
Helen Thorneycroft on how we can make additional gains through effective teacher talk
by Kingsbridge Research School
Effective teacher talk in the classroom has long been a key element of teacher practice. It is one of the core standards introduced to teachers in the Early Career Framework within standard 4:
“High-quality classroom talk can support pupils to articulate key ideas, consolidate understanding and extend their vocabulary”.
Teacher talk can also greatly develop metacognitive thinking in students. The EEF’s Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning guidance report highlights two types of talk that are particularly useful: learning talk and teaching talk. Learning talk includes narrating, questioning and discussing; teaching talk includes instruction, exposition and dialogue.
Modelling: what I’m doing and how I’m doing it
The EEF promotes the value of teacher talk with particular reference to its ability to reveal the thinking of the ‘expert learner’ in the room. When teachers model their thinking processes in approaching or completing a task, they are explicitly modelling to students the key metacognitive processes that have made the teacher an effective learner. For example, an art teacher who is preparing to draw a self-portrait would consider the resources they need, know how they might make a start, and reflect on a self-portrait they have done before to remind themselves of how to complete the task. During the task, they may be regularly checking that the proportions of the drawing are correct, and considering out loud the different techniques they may use and why. Making these often implicit thoughts and processes explicit arms students with the strategies they need to attempt a portrait themselves.
Don’t forget the why
Although this kind of modelling has become ever more common amongst teachers, we can stretch it further with very little planning, but to great effect. There is an element of teacher talk that all too often remains hidden: the why. Let’s return to our art teacher. They explicitly discuss the need to have resources to hand before beginning – paper, an HB pencil and a rubber. But they may well forget to explain why: that getting your resources to hand prepares you physically to begin the task; they you are therefore more engaged mentally; that having your equipment around helps ensure your focus isn’t broken by scrabbling to find it later! The reason behind an H grade pencil? It creates fine, clear lines and is more smudge resistant. This could lead to a discussion on how other pencil types are more suitable for shading when hard, clear lines are less desirable.
Reasoning supports transfer
When teachers explain the intrinsic reasoning behind a particular strategy, the student gains a greater understanding of how it affects their learning. This core reasoning can often be transferred to other classrooms, particularly if the teacher makes this explicit, as Lauren Resnick notes: “with repeated opportunities for reasoning through dialogue, students imitate and refine skills that then… become available to them in other domains” (Asterhan et al., 2022, p.107). For example, beginning a lesson by getting all your equipment out ready to go is a strategy that students in the art lesson could translate into all their other lessons because the intrinsic reasons remain: it mentally and physically engages you in the lesson, promotes independent organisation and ensures that if any equipment is missing, it is dealt with early in the lesson.
What this might look like in the classroom
Teacher discussions that allow students to elaborate on their ideas or their methods, to reason out their thinking and question their strategies, have been associated with progress measured in the form of improved test scores (Alexander, 2020). Good examples of metacognitive talk in the classroom that were highlighted include:
- Evidence of reasoning (teacher stays with the same student or asks another, and requests evidence of reasoning, e.g., “why do you think that?” “What is your evidence”?
· Challenge: (teacher provides a challenge or counter example) e.g., Does it always work that way?’ ‘what if…?’, ‘is that always true?’
This is well exemplified in a blog by Kirsten Mulholland (EEF maths Content Specialist), who discusses how she debriefs students after a mathematical problem-solving episode in a primary school classroom. Although students initially struggled to answer questions such as “why did you choose to start in that way?” or “how did you know what it was asking you to do?”, her regular use of a debrief encouraged strong metacognitive habits and ‘began to really open up conversations about learning, empowering students to take increasing control and responsibility’.
Talk is powerful because it is a “lower stakes” teaching tool that builds confidence and engagement in a classroom by providing a safe, inclusive opportunity for students to discuss and reflect upon their metacognitive strategies. However, the learning is not all in one direction, as Robin Alexander notes: “These kinds of conversation can change teachers’ views of their students’ abilities by giving teachers greater access to their thinking processes” (Alexander, 2020).
Alexander, R.J. (2020) A dialogic teaching companion. London: Routledge.
Asterhan, C., Resnick, L. and Clarke, S. (2022) Socializing intelligence through academic talk and dialogue. American Educational Research Association.
Mulholland, K. (no date) EEF blog: Using the debrief to support structured reflection on…, Education endowment foundation. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoun… (Accessed: April 27, 2023).
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