Teacher Talk, Student Talk: Historical Dilemma (Part 2)

Recently, a former teacher-turned entrepreneur and I had a long conversation about a digital tool he had created that measured how much teacher and student talk occurred in a class period. As an ex-high school teacher he often wanted to know how he was doing in class–he said he had never been observed by a principal or headmaster–and was often frustrated by the lack of knowledge of student thinking and learning. So he began figuring out what might be of use to teachers and he hit upon the amount of lesson time in which teachers and students talked.

Why that? Because in his teaching experience, too much teacher talk suffocated student responses. Student responses, he knew, were quick ways for the teacher to figure out the amount of learning going on in students’ heads. Analyzing  the amount of student talk became an ajar door into which he could access student thinking and understanding.

Like many other teachers (including myself), he had stumbled over a historic dilemma classroom teachers had faced for the past century: teacher talk was essential–after all, teachers, past and present, have been hired on the basis of their knowing content and skills and being able to manage a group of children and youth. A certain amount of teacher talk during a lesson the teacher had planned was inevitable. With a large body of evidence that “direct instruction” (lower case) produced gains in student achievement and its historic use in classrooms for generations, teacher talk dominated lessons.

Yet many teachers know in their heart-of-hearts that student talk is crucial and prized also. Students answering and asking questions, commenting on what the teacher said and dozens of other ways that students orally display their knowledge and skills is essential feedback to teachers on what they seek as evidence of student learning. Both values of teacher and student talk are prized. But there is only so much time in a lesson and choices have to be made as to the ratio of teacher- and student-talk. Thus, the dilemma.

Yet many issues need to be sorted out in distinguishing teacher-talk from student-talk.

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.

The second problem is that 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. From asking to go to the bathroom to coaching a classmate on an assignment to entering a discussion–the list goes on for dimensions of student talk. Researchers call such analyses of teacher- and student-talk, “classroom discourse” (see here and here).

The third problem is that no one can say with much confidence what is the best ratio of teacher- to student-talk to have over a semester of teaching or for an individual lesson, given all of the factors involved such as the content of a lesson, age of students, teacher beliefs about how students learn, and other factors.

For those teachers (and teacher educators) who prize student talk and sense they talk too much in lessons, a set of interconnected assumptions drive their thinking. They believe that more student  participation leads to greater academic engagement and greater engagement produces gains in student achievement. This chain of beliefs seldom get aired publicly but rest comfortably within the minds of those educators who seek to raise the amount of student talk. This chain of assumptions are just that. There is little evidence that can buttress the claims buried within the assumptions, especially when it comes to student performance.

So with the help of a software engineer, the former teacher created a tool that recorded what was said in class and immediately converted the talk into color-coded horizontal bars showing when the teacher was talking and when students were talking. It even broke down student talk in response to teachers and talk among students working in small groups and independently. The software gave a big picture of who was doing the talking in a reading lesson by a 1st grade teacher or an Advanced Placement U.S. history teacher conducting a lecture-discussion. There was no sorting out of the content of the talk such as the kind of questions teachers asked or student responses to those questions. It was a macro-view of a lesson in real time that attached percentages to amounts of talk in a classroom.

The young, enthusiastic entrepreneur did not want my endorsement–I told him that I do not endorse products–but he did want to have a conversation about the relationship between teacher and student talk, what problems still needed to be solved–see above–and the linked assumptions that undergird past and present research into the value of increasing student talk and the biases associated with that value.

Our conversation ended after I sketched out the dilemma inherent to parsing teacher- and student talk. As we shook hands and parted, I wished this former teacher well in his work.



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

13 responses to “Teacher Talk, Student Talk: Historical Dilemma (Part 2)

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    I wonder if entrepreneurs who are skilled programmers ever think to do research on the topics they are working on. There is a lot of research on teacher-student talk.

  2. Hi Larry,

    Thank you for another great post. By chance, did this entrepreneur also record the amount of non-talking? Recently, I have been thinking about the role of wait time in conjunction with teacher/student talk.

    In their book, Essential Questions, McTighe and Wiggins talk about the pain of waiting for students to speak. However, they also note that critical thinking requires time. Unfortunately, most educators find silence uncomfortable and try to quickly fill the space. In my own research, I found the same phenomenon with school and district leaders. It would be interesting to see the average times allowed between a teacher question or statement and a student response vs. a clarifying response or question from the teacher.

    I apologize if I have missed an article where you have already covered this idea. I would be curious of your thoughts.

    Thank you,

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment and questions, Beth. The algorithm in the software recorded teacher-talk, student-talk and noted no talk on the horizontal bar he showed me. His next venture into classroom software, he told me, would be teacher wait-time based on the work of Mary Budd Rowe in the 1980s. As I pointed out in the post,the current software cannot yet distinguish between kinds of teacher talk or questions.

  3. Alice in PA

    Discourse analysis has so much to offer the ed field, going way beyond who is talking. I’m glad this teacher is beginning his journey into it.
    My dissertation was analyzing teacher talk during professional development as it related to them actually working collaboratively on the PD activities. I developed a framework for evaluating how well the groups worked to co-construct knowledge. Often the most productive groups were not the ones that talked the most or had the most equal distribution but rather turned on a well designed activity requiring group knowledge and the willingness of the people to question and disagree with previous utterances. Trying to get past the just being nice, smiling and agreeing is difficult. This has helped me in my own quest to have my students have better talk in my classroom.

  4. mike g

    Could be a useful tool.

    Doug Lemov has a whole seminar about this topic.


    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the note on Doug Lemov’s work, Mike. Lemov’s work, as I interpret it, is a variation of direct instruction with much emphasis on engaging students.

  5. Pingback: Talking and teaching | bloghaunter

  6. EB

    The amount of discussion in the field that addresses not only who is talking but what kind of talk is going on is increasing, and that’s VERY welcome. Finer-grained looks at sub-types would also be welcome. For example, lectures can be canned (literally, a teacher reading a textbook to the students — yes, I have seen this!) to very attuned to the students actually in the room. And lesson-based student talk can range from highly interactive and probing, based on prompts given by the teacher, to ten minutes of “turn to your neighbor and share why you like your favorite color.”

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