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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do You Talk Too Much in Class?

By Peter DeWitt — June 01, 2014 4 min read
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Do you talk a lot in social circles? Sometimes when we get nervous we talk a lot.

Or...do you consider yourself more of a wallflower and don’t talk enough?

Unfortunately, when it comes to schooling, some teachers may talk entirely too much, and the students in the classroom don’t say anything because it may not be very different from their past school experiences.

I know that there is always a debate between the “Sage on the Stage” or the “Guide on the Side.” Personally, I’m a bit tired of those two categories. A well-balanced diet of both can be healthy for student learning.

But...reflect on how you teach.

Do you control the conversation?

Do students ask questions?

Are they allowed...even encouraged...to have conversations with one another?

Or do they sit, as you talk?

Everyone remembers Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Standing at the front of the class doing roll call, he boringly repeated, “Bueller, Bueller, Bueller.” over and over again as the kids sat in their chairs looking catatonic.

Clearly, that is an extreme example of a teacher who strongly believed in monologue more than dialogue, but if you saw the movie when you were younger, did it resonate with you in any way? Did you have teachers who did that? I know that they were in the minority of the teachers I experienced as a student.

Don’t get me wrong, there are teachers on the other extreme, and in many places in between, who create opportunities for dialogue where student voice is not only appreciated but strongly encouraged. I’ve walked into observe classrooms where students were not only on task, but exceeding their own expectations.

But some teachers and leaders corner the market on talking without looking for input. In a recent speech at a Visible Learning Conference in Horsens, Denmark, John Hattie said that in his research, teachers ask around “250 questions per day per week.” On the other hand, he stated that students ask questions at a range of “2 per class per week.”

According to that meta-analysis of numerous studies, teachers ask many more questions than their students ever get a chance to ask. That is a lot of monologue with very little dialogue. They need to shift their mindset from being the fountain of all learning to being ok with the idea that students should not only ask numerous questions for understanding, but also contribute to the discussion without asking questions.


We know dialogue is important. Think of how often you have learned something by talking with someone new at a dinner party or professional conference. Through the conversation you learned about a new book, or it took your level of understanding of a concept to a much deeper level.

Literacy researchers have been telling us for years that dialogue offers important elements to build literacy skills for children. I would venture to guess that the same holds true for adults as well. We can all learn a lot from discussions. High quality, engaging discussions.

We need to stop talking so much in the classroom, and we need to spend more time listening to our students. It doesn’t matter whether you may be an elementary school teacher, at the high school level or in a college classroom. Focused discussions around the learning intentions set up for the lesson can help us all learn a lot from one another. Students will learn from us, at the same time we can learn their level of understanding of the concept. Perhaps, our students even know elements of a concept that we don’t know.

In the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” That doesn’t always mean during times of confrontation or mediation. It means during collaboration as well. Through authentic collaboration students, teachers and leaders can build an environment that is conducive to learning...from each other.


As with most high quality learning environments, modeling is important. The stakes are high, and I’m not referring to testing, but learning. It’s important that students understand how to focus on the topics at hand and offer productive feedback to one another.


In Graham Nuthall’s book The Hidden Lives of Learners he found that 80% of the feedback students receive in the classroom is from other students, and 80% of that feedback is wrong. It creates a perfect storm if dialogue is not encouraged in the classroom. If students only hear questions and monologue from their teacher (and tune them out after a few minutes), and then get a majority of their feedback from their peers, and that feedback is wrong, it builds the case that students are only going to school to watch a teacher work, and they aren’t getting the maximum benefit.

Classrooms where focused conversations or dialogue are part of the daily environment are much more fun, but they also have the largest effect on learning. So take a day and focus less on talking, and listen to students more. Model the behavior you want, and he include them in the process of discussing what is appropriate and helpful feedback. They have amazing things to tell us, and we all learn in the process.

Interactive ways to build dialogue:

Wiki Spaces - With proper modeling, students can learn how to appropriately interact with one another. A Wiki Space is a great place for students to offer feedback to each other.

Blogs - Student voice is vitally important. A blog can be a great venue for students to share their thoughts and opinions. The problem is that teachers want to control the environment and can’t do that when students are posting to a blog. Meet in the middle. Teachers can offer acceptable use guidelines and students will still have a venue where they can use their voice.

Closed Facebook pages (age appropriate) - Notice how I said closed. Clearly, this will take time to set up guidelines of acceptable use. However, closed pages on Facebook created by a teacher can offer a venue where students can share ideas with one another.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.