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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Education Opinion

Why Does Teacher Talk Still Dominate High School Classrooms?

By Peter DeWitt — May 17, 2017 3 min read

Today’s guest blog is written by Wendy James, Coordinator of Collegiate Renewal and Curriculum for Saskatoon Public Schools (Saskatoon, Canada).

In high schools, where I work, teacher talk still dominates classrooms. While we know learning occurs in the time when students make sense of something for themselves, we persist in telling students things for most of each period, then get frustrated when the new information is not absorbed. Brain research tell us direct instruction for grades 9-12 should not exceed 15 minutes. Even adults can’t handle more than about 18 minutes (Ted Talks!), so half a period of teacher talk is largely wasted. There are some common reasons why teachers wind up talking for long periods, and some alternatives that are better for encouraging a generative learning process.

I talk to be sure my students have all the information they need to do the process or task.

Working memory is very finite, and more details are being forgotten the longer someone other than the learner is doing the talking and thinking. Consider talking just long enough to demonstrate or highlight key details (under five minutes) or breaking up the information into small chunks with student practice in between. If you have more information than you can easily summarize, it is too much for one lesson, anyway. Your additional information likely falls in the “nice to know” rather than “essential” category. Consider a step-by-step sheet or a how-to video if you want students to remember more than three details. Giving them a written version of the steps reduces cognitive load and helps student who are language learners as an added bonus.


See also: Vicariously Learning Experiences. Why Aren’t We Doing More of Those?


I talk to be sure my students have all the key information about what I am teaching.

Presentations, even ones that are scaffolded and chunked, are a great way to ensure student only “get the gist.” Even with good notetaking strategies for summarizing and tools like graphic organizers for content enhancement, only some information is remembered long enough to even be recorded. In addition, everyone has real difficulty retrieving and working with information was encountered once and not utilized. If you care enough about something to bother to teach it, then you want students to be able to remember and use it. Before explaining a new concept, help student connect to prior knowledge so the new learning has something to attach itself to. If you describe something, stop in the description in under five minutes and ask your students to do three things:


  • Summarize in their own words
  • State why the information is useful
  • Describe when they will need the information

Engaging in these sense-making activities ensures the information is being understood, but that alone is not enough. Students needed to apply the information minutes after they summarize it in order to be able to use it later. Activities to practice or apply information are essential because they are generative learning processes. Processes with gradual release of responsibility are particularly effective in helping students use and cement new learning.

I talk to be sure my students don’t misunderstand.

The act of explaining something does provide greater clarity. It also usually results in misconceptions. After every important or difficult concept in a lesson, you need to do a quick check to ensure everyone has understood the key idea and can actually build new knowledge on it. The check should:


  • Require everyone to demonstrate what you just explained
  • Be quick
  • Allow you to see any misconceptions at a glance, so you know what to reteach.

Doing quick checks for understanding at regular intervals in a lesson is essential to ensure new information is understood correctly, and that misconceptions are not rehearsed into the brain. Tools like hinge questions, mini-white boards, quick games, and sorting activities are especially helpful in giving you good information about what you might need to reteach. Getting feedback from your students about success of your explanation is a critical step in becoming an expert teacher, because the best teachers welcome and use errors.

Simple changes to how long teachers talk can have a profound influence on the effectiveness of their instruction. Replacing chunks of your direct instruction with generative processes, formative assessment, and written step-by-steps is an easy way to make a big difference in your students’ learning.

Learn more about the work of Wendy James here.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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.

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