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A Brief Comment on OFSTED and Teacher Talk

June 7, 2013

One of the recurring themes of my looks at OFSTED has been their blanket hostility to teachers actually talking. OFSTED guidance for PE states that inadequate teaching  involves “too much teacher talk” (from here). My first big trawl through the OFSTED reports found ten different reports complaining that teachers talked too much. Even in an outstanding school teaching can still be criticised because “In a few lessons, teachers talked too much” (from here). This is from an organisation, you may remember, which has no actual guidance as to how much talking is appropriate and, according to their leader (who thinks a “didactic” teacher can be outstanding), doesn’t  require a particular type of teaching.

When I have raised this before, people have suggested that inspectors may simply have observed teachers talking too much in those particular schools, but this still assumes that it is the role of OFSTED to judge quantity rather than quality in teacher talk. While there are many times when less talk (of the wrong kind) might create greater learning, there are equally likely to be times when more talk (of the right kind) might improve it. Yet such instances seem completely absent from the reports. Talking on the part of teachers is a mistake to be avoided, not a skill to be nurtured, in the eyes of OFSTED.

But  just in case you think that this interpretation of OFSTED’s requirements is idiosyncratic on my part, it was pointed out to me on Twitter this week that one consultancy company has noticed it too and is making money out of it.

Talkless

More details can be found here.

According to the promotional material, the course will help teachers:

Prepare for Ofsted’s new minimum teacher talk expectations

Clarify what must be done to succeed under Ofsted’s revised framework

This apparently involves “talking less and meaning more” and so those being trained will be taught to:

Build talk-less teaching into all lessons

Apply talk-less systems to develop pupils’ learning

Hard to blame the company for taking this opportunity. Clearly this is what schools expect OFSTED to be looking for.

Beyond the usual criticisms which I’d make of OFSTED dishonesty and dogmatism. there is an important point to be made here about what is being lost as a result of the assault on teacher talk. Harry Webb (the pseudonymous writer of the Webs of Substance blog) wrote an excellent defence of teachers talking earlier this week which I would recommend reading if you haven’t already. In particular he identifies explanation as crucial to teaching:

I recently found myself in a discussion with a consultant who wished to replace my use of the word “explain” with the word “tell”… I would … allow that the definition of “telling” could be expanded to include the idea of explanation; that there is no clear demarcation between the two. However, I do not believe that this was the consultant’s intent. By trying to reduce all exposition to merely “telling” I believe that he was trying to perform the same trick as those who argue that to teach knowledge is to teach rote lists of disconnected facts. By diminishing and trivialising the concept, it provides a vacuum in which alternative conceptions may flourish, such as those that have failed with tragic regularity throughout the twentieth century; such as those that this consultant was promoting.

Teachers must continually seek to improve the quality of what they say but teachers must always talk and talk a lot. It is absurd to suggest otherwise and I despair that our profession seem so at ease with such absurdities.

Explaining is about as fundamental to teaching as it gets. In many ways explaining is teaching. Not only would I argue that it is wrong for OFSTED’s unofficial agenda to attack explanation by attacking teacher talk, even the official material which claims no such bias misses any hope of identifying good teaching by not identifying explanation as something to be judged. The OFSTED criteria allow inspectors to condemn a teacher if they cannot mark books, ask questions or assess progress effectively, but it doesn’t suggest inspectors  judge whether a teacher can actually explain their subject or not.

7 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. Then the issue is to do with conflict between what is being said by the leader and what is happening on the ground with individual teams. So has anyone formally questioned Ofsted on this “policy” and has there been a response?


  3. The flyer for the course highlights a key concern I have with the priorities of school – of the 3 objectives stated 2 are solely about satisfying OFSTED – not about how to improve teaching (and therefore learning).

    Yet these are profitable companies – they must know which courses will make them a profit and which ‘key words’ on a flyer will garner most bookings. Scarily it seems that pleasing (appeasing?) OFSTED is the key priority for many schools about improving teaching!

    Now if the course was entitled ‘Make your teacher talk have greater impact on students’ I would see it as a valuable CPD course for some staff – in it’s current guise it appears to improve nothing for teachers or students!


  4. I’m not convinced that this worry over “teacher talk” isn’t a little misplaced.

    Encouraging any professional communicator to be more concise is hardly radical or revolutionary. Any professional writer knows that hacking out unnecessary words is a normal part of the editing process. If OFSTED is doing the same with teachers, that’s not really surprising.

    And the phrase “too much talking” is surely often a slightly euphemistic way of saying “bad explanations”. It may be slightly unhelpful because it’s imprecise, but if it has the effect of making the teacher go back and revise their presentation, then it’s had the desired effect.

    As I see it, if an inspector or an observer says “too much talking” at the end of a lesson, she could mean one of two things: (1) You’re a lecturer on a par with Richard Feynman, and every word was spun gold, but these are 11 year olds, and they need more breaks in between your pearls of wisdom; or (2) some of your talking wasn’t very good and the kids got bored in those bits. For 999 out of 100 teachers, it’s going to be (2). And I just wonder if in this whole teacher-talk series of posts, you’re not rather over-interpreting a pretty normal bit of loose language.

    Moreover, the consequences of reversing the “talk less” dictum seem horrifying. You may find it hard to believe, but some teachers have a tendency to be verbose. Encouraging them to talk more is just a recipe for massive student boredom.


    • I feel like I’m just repeating myself here.

      They never criticise use of unnecessary words. They never criticise poor explanations. They never complain about a lack of explanation. They never specify a correct amount of teacher talk. All they do is complain about too much teacher talk. And it is no good saying it is a “euphemism”. The whole point of guidance is to be clear and explicit.

      The fact is that OFSTED have condemned teacher talk to the point where training is offered on minimising it. That is the reality. It is also the case that quality of explanation, despite being key to most people’s conceptions of teaching, is not among the OFSTED criteria.


  5. […] On Tuesday this week I was training some particularly lovely teachers on embedding literacy across schools and we got into a great discussion about teacher talk and independent learning. Everyone ended up getting pretty angry about the fact that they feel forced to conceal their teaching of knowledge. We all know that sometimes students need us to explain new concepts if they are going to have any hope of understanding them. Equally, we all ‘know’ that Ofsted and SLT want to see independent learning and minimal teacher talk. If you’re unconvinced, have a read of this and this. […]


  6. […] by the fact that Ofsted routinely penalised teacher talk in lessons. Only a year ago, Andrew Old drew attention to the extent to which negative teaching assessments featured complaints about talking – to the […]



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