how to talk less

Alfonso Gonzalez wrote:
I’m trying to find ways to talk less and less while being able to help small teams as I wander through the class, which I already do. I’m wondering if anyone already does something like this. How does it work? Would you recommend it? If you teach in a 1:1 environment what do you use?
I've deliberately designed my classroom so I speak as little as possible.  I don't teach in a 1:1 environment but I think some of my techniques could be adapted for that.  Here's what a typical class period is like in my ninth grade honors physics class.  

students enter.  I'm sitting by the door with my tablet taking attendance.  On the projector screen is our topic for the day, based on last night's reading assignment.  Students find their seat and get their folder from a bin.  Each section has a certain color folder, and students have decorated their own folders.  They look at the board and get out their notes from last night's reading.  

Once it's time for class to start I raise my hand and say very quietly, "Can I have your attention please? If someone can't see me, please tap them on the shoulder."  students are sitting at lab tables and the chairs go all the way around the table, so some students do have their backs to me no matter where I stand.  After they are quiet, I remark out loud whether or not they have their notebooks open and ready.  Then I say something like "Here's your quick question, give me a thumbs up when your table is ready" and click the slide show to a question based on the notes they should have open.  Later in the year, I don't need to name the question or remind them about thumbs up, I just say "Let's do this!"  When we first start off the year I remind them not to put their thumbs up until everyone at the table agrees on a response.  

I walk across the room as they discuss their answers, listening for who's asking questions and who's teaching their tablemates, or even who doesn't have a clue.  As the tables show they are ready I announce, "two tables have thumbs up, .....  four tables have thumbs up.  who would like to start?"  the students then decide who gets to tell the class their answer first, and my only rule is one speaker per table.  

Listening to their responses gives me a good idea of how well prepared they are, and whether I should review material or extend new ideas that day.  After they all give their answers I ask, "shall we check?" then switch the slide to show a correct answer.  I always ask, "what do you think?" after I show an answer to give them a chance to articulate how their responses compared to mine.  sometimes they'll critique parts of my answer, or revise their own.  

I realize I just spent many paragraphs on the opening five minutes of my class, but that's the part that tells me how to proceed with the rest of my class time.  It's the part that tells me who I really need to listen to.

After the opening question, students go to their folders to choose their task for the day.  inside each folder is a task tracker that looks like this:  http://goo.gl/UBT8b Each table has a binder with copies of any printed materials or instructions they need for each activity.  On the windowsill are boxes of other materials that don't fit in a binder.  In one corner there is a laptop cart, and another corner has binders of answer keys so students can check their work.  Students independently choose what they will work on and in what order.

Now that the students are working independently, I go around to each table with my tablet.  I usually show a few pictures or diagrams and start with the phrase "tell me about this" or a question like "what do you see?"  anything that gets the students talking about the material first, rather than having me tell them about it.  I get to assess their understanding, hear from each and every student, and answer their questions directly.  If a table is having a hard time working through a topic, I might spend the whole class period with them.  Sometimes I move through tables quickly, sometimes each table has really different needs.  But I do get to hear from each and every student eventually, not just the ones who raise their hands.    

I think the folders have a lot of possibilities, and this is the part that could be adapted for a 1:1 classroom.  I'd like to use the folders to route students through different group configurations, so they get a chance to work with everyone in the class.  I could also use the folders to assign different students different levels of work, based on their needs.  At the end of the class, they put their current work in their folder for me to check.  In an ideal world I would give them feedback on their completed work and work-in-progress every day, but realistically that just doesn't happen.

Finally, I think students are a lot more willing to take intellectual risks when it's just a small group conversation, instead of a whole class situation.  Participating in a whole class discussion can be really stressful for some students, especially if they aren't feeling very confident.  I had more students this past year than I ever had, but I also had better relationships with them.  By talking less, I got to listen so much more!

a picture from one of the simulations my students use to study Coulomb's Law. 


  1. Thank you, Elizabeth! This is what I have been envisioning. I want to try that in the Fall with my 8th grade Science classes first, then I'll try it with my 6th grade Science classes.

    It sounds like you didn't have to train them very much. How long did it take for kids to get into the swing of things?

    1. I start the year by teaching them how to take good notes, and telling them that if they have good notes, they won't need to bring their books to class. They all had to show me good sets of notes before I would allow them to leave their books at home. They do need some note taking refreshers from time to time, but everyday I reinforce the opening routine.

      I allow them to talk to other members of their table, but not loud enough that the next table can understand them. Your tolerance for volume may vary, but I always had to remind them that talking is ok, but loud is not.

      The part that took the longest was teaching them how to decide who's going to speak, and make that decision in a civil manner. When we started they had a tendency to shout over each other, and those who didn't feel like shouting would drop out and start their own conversations. It took some explicit direction to get them to check out who wanted to speak, and decide their own speaking order without me calling on people. But it was totally worth it when they began to run their own conversations, and listen to each other instead of me.

    2. Okay. This gives something to go on. It helps me to see it in my mind before trying it out.

      Thanks again!

  2. This is fantastic. I really like how you walk around and show them pictures and ask them question to get them thinking and talking. I think you've really shown a part of the learning process that teachers I've seen leave out most of the time--talking to learn. This gives me some ideas to try next year; thanks for sharing this!