Feedback for Teacher Learning (David Brazer)

David Brazer is a practitioner/scholar. Teacher and high school principal, Brazer has also been a professor at George Mason and Stanford Universities. He is now Director of Professional Learning at TeachFX.

A few years ago, I met with Jamie Poskin the founder of TeachFX and former graduate student of Brazer’s at Stanford. After showing me graphic displays of teacher talk, he asked what I thought of the tool for teacher learning. I was impressed with its possibilities but at the time pointed out a series of shortcomings, especially around analyzing the kinds of talk both teachers and students engage in.

In this guest post, Brazer describes how he got involved and where the device is now. Like Brazer, I find this tool most useful for those teachers who seek self-improvement through analyzing how they teach. *

Teachers talk a lot. Hattie (2012) claims they talk 70 – 80% of class time across grade levels. In contrast, students talk very little, even when they’re talking in groups. But secondary teachers frequently tell me that students love to talk, just not about class content. The result is often an emphasis on classroom control that keeps students quiet, causing many to disengage. Students’ love of talking presents an opportunity to engage them in learning instead of controlling their behavior. What if teachers could harness students’ talk energy and see how that influences their engagement? Would teachers modify their teaching and talk less? The bet from a new reflective instructional tool called TeachFX is that they would.

            Writing a post for the ultimate tech skeptic’s blog about a tech tool for teachers feels like walking into the lion’s den. Larry has shown that efforts to change what teachers do often fail and that technology thus far has been more effective making teachers efficient than changing how they teach. A tech skeptic myself, my work with TeachFX is changing my mind. We see that frequent, objective feedback teachers can analyze quickly shows promise for altering teacher talk/student talk ratios and student engagement. Why? Because TeachFX feedback provides a rare opportunity to facilitate teacher learning.

            Research that colleagues and I published seven years ago focused on teacher learning in collaborative teams. We found that teachers rarely implemented new instructional practices proposed by colleagues. On the occasions they did, teachers had little or no evidence of these practices’ effects. Lack of classroom evidence inhibited what teachers learned from minor changes.

            Fast forward to the 2016-2017 academic year. Jamie Poskin was my intern in Stanford University’s joint degree in business and education. During his internship at a venture capital fund we frequently spoke about Jamie’s idea for a tool that would use a smart phone to audio record a teacher’s class, then separate teacher talk from student talk in a graphic display on the phone or laptop. I was intrigued, and skeptical. Then Jamie said, “Want to try the prototype in your class? What do you predict will be your percentage of student talk?” Committed to lively and informative discourse in my graduate classrooms, I wanted something like 80%, but I aimed low—40% seemed an achievable target.

            Paying this much attention to student talk might seem excessive to some, but student talk is evidence of deeper engagement and learning. Despite clear demonstration that students who are engaged more learn more (Lotan, 2014), fostering student talk remains a challenging approach for large numbers of K – 12 teachers. Consider some stark numbers: If 75% of class time is taken up with teacher talk, the other 25% consists of activities that compete with individual student talk, such as worksheets, quizzes, thinking time, transitions, and group work. Thirty students will share substantially less than 15 minutes to speak in a 90-minute class period. Given that student on-target talk is one of the surest ways to know they are engaged, students would benefit from less teacher talk and more opportunities to speak.

            TeachFX delivers vivid, objective evidence for how much teachers and their students are talking, providing impetus for teacher learning about the effects of their instruction. Recording classes regularly allows teachers to track changes in practices and their effects on student talk and engagement.

            Does the tool have the desired effects? Knowing I would see a report of my teaching, I was immediately focused on student talk in my classroom. When my recording was analyzed, Jamie returned to my office and asked, “Do you think you met your 40% student talk goal?” I hesitantly said I thought so and was much relieved when I learned that I had actually achieved 45 % student talk. Here is a snapshot of the class report I received on my laptop with explanations in call-outs:

The features of our classroom discourse were obvious and fascinated me.

            The evidence was vivid for me, but how would this work with K – 12 teachers? Would they use it? Would it change what they do in classrooms? I joined TeachFX full time last summer as Director of Professional Learning in a quest to find out. We are observing some promising trends as teachers make recordings and analyze class reports.

Although individual student talk tends to hover around 5% of class time nationally, TeachFX users typically see 15 – 20% individual student talk on their first class report. Teachers tell us their attention to student talk is heightened when they use the tool and they modify their instructional choices to encourage more student talk and engagement. Below is data from a single school with several teachers using the tool September – November. Collectively, these teachers demonstrated remarkable growth in their average amount of individual student talk over six recordings.

To date, most growth in student talk has been more modest. The district below, for example, piloted TeachFX last fall with about 20 science teachers and coaches, showing the following pattern:

Trends in these examples are encouraging, but not universal among TeachFX users. As an early start-up, we are learning the following:

  1. Turning teachers’ attention to student engagement competes with numerous other initiatives and imperatives. Maintaining their attention on student engagement is a complicated effort.
  2. Attention should be focused on transforming what teachers know about student engagement into how teachers might foster content-focused student talk in classrooms, then tracking progress
  3. Administration-level champions of student engagement powerfully focus teacher learning on generating meaningful student discourse.

Teachers are beginning to moderate their own talking to allow for more student talk and deeper engagement moment-by-moment in classrooms. TeachFX does not presume to change education overnight, but we do seem to be making progress toward helping teachers re-shape student discourse to engage their students in deeper learning.


*For full disclosure, readers need to know that I have not invested in this company (nor have plans to). Neither have I ever received any money or in-kind contributions from TeachFX, its founder, or employees.

3 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, technology use

3 responses to “Feedback for Teacher Learning (David Brazer)

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    This discussion about teacher dominated lessons seems to lump all instruction into a “talk is central to learning” framework. As a longtime teacher in the visual arts, an insistence that students talk, especially as if a sign of engagement can be misleading. In many studio projects, teachers and students alike treat relative silence as an indicator of being engaged in a process that some have called a flow, or a zone. The zone experience often ends with the approaching bell and with students saying “Do we have to stop now?” This is to say that the relative absence of teacher and student talk does not seem to be accounted for as a prospect or as a valued indicator of engagement. Measuring time that students are talking is easy. The educational significance of talk is another matter.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Laura, I agree with your observation of classroom talk. It will differ from academic to non-academic subject, assigned and unassigned activities in the lesson, the size of the class, and whether the course is compulsory or elective–and on and on. Engagement is, indeed, tricky to get at. So there is much more that this new device has to consider in parsing classroom talk. But it is a beginning that may well get teachers figuring out what happens verbally during a lesson. Thanks for the comment.

    • David Brazer

      Thank you for your comment, Laura. The app is all about collecting evidence of talk, but we do not mean to suggest that the only way for students to engage in deep learning is through talk. I would certainly agree that in many classroom settings, silence has great value (and the app measures that too). Thinking of art, though, I recall a high school visual arts teacher I admired. His students spent most of their time on their work, but he also created opportunities for them to engage in art criticism and debate. I value the opportunities students had to express how they thought about art and what they were learning about making art.

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