How teachers waste their time (and yours)

TSR’s resident teacher has lots to say on the current teaching techniques and it’s not necessarily what you’d expect from a seasoned educator. Here he argues that teachers quite like the sound of their own voices and students quite like sitting back and not really engaging…. 


In classrooms all around the country the usual thing is happening. Teachers are talking and students are listening. But most teachers know that long lectures aren’t a very effective way of getting their students to learn - so why do they keep doing it? 

Why do teachers talk so much and why do their students (mostly) listen so politely?

 

Lecturer

Why do teachers like talking? 
Teachers tend to like the sound of their own voice. That may be one of the reasons they were attracted to teaching. They also love their subject. Talking about it at length is a pleasure that is just not appropriate at their dinner parties but that they can get away with in the classroom. 

At the same time every GCSE and A-level specification is overflowing with content so teachers struggle to get through everything in the time available. Activities that involve students can be very time consuming, often requiring repeated trips to stationery shops to stock up with post-its, marker pens and highlighters. Much easier to stand at the front and lecture. 
 

Why do students like listening? 
Let’s face facts: they’re probably not actually listening. 

I did some very unscientific research a few years ago where I asked a sample of students the percentage of time they were actually paying attention when a teacher was talking. One Oxbridge applicant claimed 80% attention but if you took him out of the equation the average figure was around 30%.

So what are students doing when they appear to be listening? 
Teacher talk provides the opportunity to sit and dream, to let the mind freely wander through dreams and fantasies. As long as you give the impression of attention, all will be fine. Yes, there may be the odd question but one of your super-clever classmates can deal with those. 

To maintain the illusion of attentiveness various skills are deployed. These include eye contact, pen holding, smiling and stationery fiddling. Some students act as pathfinders - they identify the teacher’s passions - the subjects on which they'll talk at length with precious little prompting and that can while away large swathes of lesson time. The passion may be Arsenal, antique door handles or Ann Boleyn, it doesn't matter. Once identified, students will be able to return to the issue at any point and prod the teacher into yet another monologue. 

So there’s an informal arrangement: I (teacher) quite like talking, you (students) quite like avoiding demands being made of you. So I’ll talk, you be quiet – that way everyone’s happy. What’s the problem?

 

Students

Is anyone learning anything? 
As far as I’m aware no educational research has ever identified teacher lecturing as one of the most effective methods of promoting learning. As an Ofsted Inspector pointed out to me: ‘whenever I enter a classroom I ask the question: who’s doing the work here? If the answer is the teacher, alarm bells ring.’

That’s not to say that a short explanation of something tricky can work well if kept brief and followed up by follow-up student activities.

But there's s a bigger issue for me. What does this style of ‘teaching’ tell students about power relationships? That they are passive and powerless receiver of information owned by their elders and betters. Their job is to listen, learn and obey. Questioning and challenging are just not part of it. Do we really want to live in a society where the next generation are getting these messages every day? 
Of course many teachers are well aware of the issues here. They work hard to develop activities and courses that get students actively involved in learning, I loved teaching the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) which encourages students to define their own areas of learning and to manage their work independently.

Oops – I’ve just realised that this has now turned into a lecture so I think I better stop now.

Do you agree? Do teachers spend too much time talking at you to the detriment of your own learning? Or are you the sort of person who learns better in a lecture? 

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