How Much Teacher Talk is Too Much?

When I was a wee young lad in school, most of my classes were very teacher-directed.  The teacher talked at us for hours on end.  There was no time for us to really DO the learning because we had to listen to old ladies, in my case anyway, drone on and on about history, books, math, and writing.  I learned very little in elementary school because of this overuse of direct-instruction.  I’m very much a haptic learner.  I need to do something in order to genuinely learn a concept or skill.  I wish my teachers had implemented project based learning in the classroom.  I would have gotten so much more out of school if I had more opportunities to talk and explore.  Now, I know that even great teachers have to do some talking or teaching to help students understand and learn a concept; but, how it’s done is what separates the great from the boring.  As a teacher, I still struggle with this idea.  What’s the optimal time or amount of direct-instruction?

Today during Humanities class, our students worked on their I-Search Process paper.  Today’s focus was on gathering resources.  Before the students got to work, we wanted to be sure they understood how to gather their resources, what resources they would need to collect, and how to document this process in writing.  So, I started the discussion by asking students about primary source documents as they need to have one for their research topic.  As the students did not seem to already know this term, I asked them to remember some of the artifacts they saw in the Canaan History Museum.  While this seemed to jar their memory, I also gave them a definition that would hopefully be tangible for them.  I then asked the students to share how they planned to approach gathering resources for their topic.  The boys had great insight and seemed prepared.  My co-teacher and I then provided the boys with a few more strategies to help them better approach the research process.  Following this discussion, I then went over the process they would use in class to gather their resources.  It was posted on the front board and so I merely elaborated on what was already written.  I then reminded them of the specific resource types they would need to collect.  After answering a few questions, they got right to work.  The students were relatively focused throughout the remainder of the work period as they gathered resources, sifted through information online, and explained their research process.  While we did have to remind a few students to document the process they used to locate resources, many of them did this without a reminder.  The double-block seemed to go very well.  We were impressed with the caliber of work the boys accomplished.  They learned some great facts, dug deeply for information and resources, and charted their progress well.  The boys seemed happy about their progress even though a few boys struggled to locate any resources.  Those students persevered and kept looking though.  So, great class, right?  Was it?

Did we talk too much?  We probably used about 25 minutes for our discussion and explanation.  While only about half of that time was filled with our voices, was it too long?  Would the students have been as productive had we just listed the agenda on the board and let them get to work?  Would they have known what to do?  Isn’t problem solving a key skill we need our students to learn?  Is there a more effective way to explain the process?  The students didn’t seem to have too many questions during our discussion, and so, was that because we told them everything they wondered about or because they already knew what to do?  Did we hold back some of our accelerated students by having them sit and listen to our discussion?  Although we did try to engage the students and asked them questions throughout the process, was it enough?  Should we have done this lesson differently?  How much teacher talk is the just right amount?

I don’t have any answers.  But, I would like to experiment a bit.   I’d like to try not explaining our next class activity.  I’ll list the instructions and agenda on the board with the graded objective and take questions before the students begin working, but I will not elaborate on anything unless the students ask about it.  Might this elicit a different result?  Will the students be confused or more focused?  What might happen?  I am curious.  Perhaps I’ll learn that less is more.

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