Tuesday, 18 February 2014

ICAN and Teacher Talk, or, 'How I overcame my fear of silence.'

For those of you who haven't heard of ICAN before (like I hadn't a few months ago), it is an initiative designed to encourage young people's ability to communicate. Within schools, it helps teachers to identify ways of improving their communication with students.

Now, to vitiate the words of Jane Austen: it is a truth, universally accepted, that a teacher, in possession of a class, can talk the hind legs off a horse. The truth is, we love to talk. But it's more than that: we're TERRIFIED of silence. We've all had that hideous moment during an observation lesson where you've asked the class a question and, in response, you get thirty blank, expressionless faces staring at you as if you've just suddenly started speaking in Ancient Greek. That sweaty-palms instance when two or three seconds has ticked by and there hasn't even been as much as a slight stirring as one girl adjusts her ponytail. It is mortifying - worse even still if you're asking it as part of a plenary, but that's an entirely different blog post!! Silence is to teachers what missing a penalty in the semi-finals of the World Cup is to a footballer: soul crushing.

However, the truth of the matter is that SILENCE IS GOOD. Sometimes.

When attending a course on how to make every lesson outstanding last year, courtesy of the brilliant Claire Gadsby, one of the best tips I came away with was to wait for a solid three seconds before jumping in with a clue or to paraphrase the original question. The research shows that by waiting for those three (ghastly) seconds, you are much more likely to receive an answer which shows thought and depth and is far more creditable than the usual 'erm...is it....a simile?' type response. Therefore, silence does not need to equate to a lack of understanding but, rather, it could mean that students are putting thought into their answers.

Equally, silence can be a bad thing too. A silent classroom is not always a positive thing. Long gone are the days when it was acceptable for a teacher to say 'copy out pages 18 and 19' and rightly so - we're educating people, after all, not parrots. Students cannot be passive in their learning; it should be busy, interactive, exciting, engaging and fulfilling. If it's not, then it does, at least, need to be independent.

A noisy classroom can take one of two paths: anarchy or action. It can be a true test of your behaviour management skills to carry out a noisy lesson because students can, sometimes, go completely off the rails given half the chance. If, however, that noise is productive then is there any harm in it? Drama lessons being the immediate example that spring to mind. How can students be independent inquirers, active participators, or creative thinkers if the activity is prescribed and dictated to them?

One of my performance management targets this year was to carry out my department's ICAN research and to try and implement improved ways of using teacher talk. Obviously, it is impossible to carry out every lesson, all lesson without saying a single word (although, conversely, I am going to try and do that this half term) but it is possible to use speech more effectively. A new favourite thing of mine is, when I'm asked a question, I refer it to the class or, better still, to another student - perhaps one who asked me the same question and received a comprehensive answer just a few minutes beforehand. When introducing a new topic, it's good practice to assess the class' understanding to avoid repeating learning so why not utilise those students and get them to introduce the basic idea behind complex sentences, for example? When planning a particular task, I now often ask myself how I can make students be more 'hands on' for it. Could one of them lead the task? Could one of them feedback their findings to the rest of the class? Could one of them be in charge of finding out answers without relying on asking me? Could one of them conduct a peer assessment of their group?

The possibilities are quite literally endless when you just loosen that grip on the reigns even just the tiniest bit.

Exciting, isn't it? Silence does not need to be your enemy and nor does your overwhelming urge to fill it up with unnecessary words. Consciously trying not to give them the answer when it's been longer than 3 seconds is exhilarating - especially when it pays off and suddenly a student's hand goes up and their response is 'I think the poet is using a simile here to help the reader understand how the boy feels' because it's confident, they're communicative, and it shows a depth of thought that you had previously assumed little Connor incapable of!!

Independent learning is a term bandied about by Ofsted and, in turn, SLT but it doesn't require copious amounts of post-it notes or hours of resource making; all it needs is three seconds and nerves of steel.

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