Talking less and being clearer. On not banging on.

When teachers teach well they talk less.  When instructions are clear students settle quickly to the tasks given to them and they don’t need to be repeated.  When explanations are clear they are concise and students listen better because they know they are learning.

When things aren’t going well teachers speak more.  Instructions have to be repeated.  Explanations go on longer and are complicated by students interrupting because they don’t understand.  This confuses other students and the teacher and extends the time students have to listen.  As instructions and explanations lengthen students switch off and more talking is necessary to bring back focus.  A vicious cycle is created.

Over the past year I’ve been trying to talk less in lessons and students are learning faster.  This blog is a summary of why I’ve found this successful.

Instructional talk:  The problem

Children in school are told what to do a lot. The moment they walk through the door they’re told to check their uniforms (take off your coat and tuck in your shirt).  On the way to registration they are given instructions on the side of the corridor to walk on (on the left) and on the volume of their conversations (don’t shout).  In form they are given more instructions (sit down and get your planner and equipment out), then more in their first lesson (write down the date and title and then read the task on the board), then more in their second (write down your homework), more at break (don’t eat on the corridors), more at lunch (line up in single file in the dinner queue) and so on.  Many of these instructions are repeated many times each day.

I think repeating instructions too often lessens the impact of them and creates an impression that children don’t need to follow them unless asked to explicitly.  Logically then, children won’t do them unless we ask, which means we have to ask more often.  It’s exhausting and I’m too busy to be exhausted.  So here’s how I’ve tried to change things.

Instructional talk: 

Create routines and confidently expect students to follow them without being asked to.  If students know that you expect them to write down the date and title at the beginning of your lesson then don’t tell them to do it, but challenge those that don’t (“Josh, that’s a warning.  You’ve been here two minutes and you haven’t started writing the date yet”.)  This is time consuming and tiring to begin with but worth the effort as, with time and persistence, students start doing it automatically.

I’ve found this works with learning tasks very well.  A month or so ago I told a Year 7 class that when we read as a class I expect everyone to scan the text so they can seamlessly continue if I choose them to continue reading aloud.  To start with it was tiring, “Sam, that’s a C1.  You were looking out the window while Macey was reading,” but it has been worth it.  Now reading with the class is much easier.  Everyone concentrates, everyone learns and when the students are asked to complete a task they are more confident because they are more knowledgeable about the content.

I’ve also found that the less I instruct the better the class listens when I do.  Now, when I give an instruction it is seen as more important because I’m not constantly bombarding students with requests.  I’m clearer and I feel less of a nag.

Expositional talk

Clear explanations of ideas and concepts are better when they are shorter.  I’ve found the key to this is subject knowledge.  When classes find concepts difficult to understand it’s usually because the teacher doesn’t understand them as well as they should; this leads to hesitation, deviation and repetition, which turns children off immediately and, worse, makes them less willing to listen carefully in the future.  (“Um, and this bit is more important than what I said before even though I said that was really important because, well, we need to go back and look at what I said before.  Taylor! Why aren’t you listening!”)

The main reason I’ve got better at this recently has been making YouTube revision videos for my GCSE classes.  When I first started these I wasn’t always clear and had a tendency to ramble; students in my class soon picked up on this and one particularly helpful student told me that if I couldn’t explain something in less than ten minutes the video was useless.  It was acting on her feedback that led to the creation of the first video I am still proud of.  (On Hitler becoming Chancellor in 1933 if anyone’s interested.

Now when I’m explaining in lessons I’m clearer and, perhaps just as importantly, I’m more aware of when I’m not and ready to stop and admit it.  I’m finding that children in my classes are now more engaged in my explanations because they know I am usually clear and they learn from listening.

I encourage other teachers to get themselves videoed explaining content even if it’s only for them to watch back.


I won’t bang on.  I’m trying not to talk as much.  Less is more.


Persisting with the Controlled Assessment

Persisting with the Controlled Assessment.

I like the new history GCSE courses and am happy that students will be studying a broader range of content in the future.  When I first learned that there would be no controlled assessments in the new specifications I was relieved.  The controlled assessment has always imposed significant practical, logistical and workload strains and I wasn’t initially sad to see it go.  However, on reflection, I now think removing it from the specifications is a mistake and will be persisting with it, even though it won’t be assessed.

Here are three reasons why.

1.  Authenticity.

Controlled assessments are more historically authentic than exams.

If a purpose of the GCSE course is to create historians then we should be requiring students to complete authentic historical work.  As entertaining as it could be if they were, historians are not judged on their ability to work in silence for two hours in formal examinations:  (Ferguson!  Starkey!  Start your exams now; in two hours we’ll finally know who the best historian is!)

No.  Historians are judged on their ability to make arguments and interpretations based on skilled inference from sources.  Properly run controlled assessments give students the opportunity to do this and gives them a truer sense of history as a discipline

2.  Challenge and pride.

Controlled assessments are difficult because history is difficult.  Students who successfully meet the challenges posed by a controlled assessment feel pride in their achievement and are more engaged and motivated afterwards.  I’ve found that many of my students who choose history ‘A’ levels do so because they’ve relished working on real historical problem and have been enthused by the source material they’ve used.  I also know that completed controlled assessments are the most commonly requested piece of work by students wanting evidence for college portfolios.

3.  Skills and improved exam performance

Controlled assessments require the rapid development of historical skills and these improve exam performance.  I’ve noticed a definite improvement in the ability of my students to tackle source questions after they’ve completed their assessments.  This is because they’ve gained confidence in using sources through completing lengthy work that required their proper use.  The same is true of contextual knowledge, causality, the understanding of interpretations and the ability to make confident and logical judgements.

Going ahead anyway

It’s for these reasons that I’ve decided to plan at least one ‘controlled assessment’ into my new GCSE Scheme of Work even though students won’t be directly assessed on it.  I’m also going to be requiring other teachers in my department to do the same as I’m confident that the benefits of completing a long essay based on source material will outweigh the inevitable logistical frustrations.