Less Talk

A cautionary note – 

This manual will not be useful unless you are presently teaching at least one course.

It frequently asks for a response from the readers that begins with some activity followed (after reflection) with specific verbal response to the text.  However, feel free to expand your comments when you want to, rather than be limited by the question.

There is something important about having someone you keep in mind as you write, so sharing your comments with at least one other person is valuable.  Furthermore, sharing with a larger group allows a wider understanding of the difference your choices and your perceptions make.

Committing to the exercises will take discipline.  You have to want to do them if they are to have the intended effect.

The ideas presented here are basic ideas at the very root of teaching and of learning.

 Talking Heads

The talking teacher is no longer the best way to facilitate learning.

The modern learner was raised with control in hand.  As with most inventions which tend to mimic what we already do biologically, the remote control of the mind shifts easily to other channels.  When this occurs will vary from person to person and in a sense from class to class.

It is worthwhile to gauge attention of your learner groups.  So, look up, frequently.  Check the eyes of the students.  When they are no longer focused on you, they have gone somewhere else.  Over a few days estimate how long this tends to be.  [Rarely will it exceed several minutes.]

Whatever you find, this is a reasonable maximum length to gear your presentations.

Record length here:___________

The Rabbi

In ancient times in many small communities, the Rabbi was the only person who could read and write.  He served a unique purpose in that he made correspondence possible.  He would translate letters, and write up contracts and deeds. He would perform rituals for he would know the Law, and had discussed the major questions raised in Hebrew texts.  He knew how to make sense of a narrative and could offer his take on the meaning of the Holy Word, for he had gone to the Shul (cognate of German Schule and the reason we spell School the way we do.)

Now school has come to all of us, and the special providence of the Rabbi cannot be filled in the same way.

Now we have quite varied sources, diversified media, and a number of expert perspectives we can consider if we want to.  Now our task is more often separating what is useful information from the noise that saturates our airwaves with self-serving ads, ever louder commercial insistences, and even corporate slants that interpret for us the meaning of what is true and what is wise and what is best for our community.

It should be clear that the teacher can no longer claim the providence of the Rabbi, for grasps at certainty have been replaced by perspective.

Many people prefer to hold on to ancient ways, stiller ways.  They want things to remain mostly the same and are upset by the speed of a fast changing world, and perhaps with good reason.  Yet change is the only constant, like it or not. And our school must alter its practices to stay alive and effective. 


One way to begin is to focus attention around a theme or topic of the day at the opening of class.

Topics can be varied in subject and substance, depending on what you want to emphasize. Presentations can convey concepts or offer up images which will presage what will follow. 

Acquainting students with specialized vocabulary has been much overdone. [Learning the parts of speech, for example, does not correlate with improved reading or writing.]

Keep the topic visible throughout the session.  Relevant notes, lists or illustrations can be added to a board or screen as your delivery proceeds and remain there as a reminder of the focus.  Regularly check out the look by viewing it from the back of the room.                                               

Focal doses of presentation can be interspersed with “hands-on” participation in which decision making, individual expression, physical activity, social exchanges and interactions with the environment immerse the learners in a task at hand. Follow the lecture or teacher led 
discussion with an exercise which engages learners in a somehow related activity.

[For example, after speaking about how modern authors (like Faulkner and Joyce) offer their characters by allowing us to see through their eyes and speak with their voices, I asked some students to make a tableaux in the middle of the room and the rest to draw what they saw.  

I collected and shuffled the unsigned drawings and asked volunteers to return them to their respective creators. It proved easy to do and made the point that perspective  has become fundamental to the narrative.  So it was with the drawings; we learned as much about the observers as we did about the observed. Follow-up activity: view an episode of Downton Abbey.] 

Title and briefly outline a lecture:

Design activities you would consider responsive to the topic.  List a few here:

How Are You Doing?
An evaluative process:

Ask a colleague, an administrator, or an interested student to make the following observations.  Have them sit in on your class and once a minute record who is speaking and/or holds class attention.  If convenient, video the class instead and develop your own system for recording what you observed.  While simplistic, I found this a useful beginning.

More sophisticated commentary can also be developed that divides the activities into blocks of time, i.e., five minutes of teacher moderated class discussion, a seven minute written paragraph, 4 minute option to share what was written if students liked what they wrote, a short summary of what was learned by individuals or what surprised them as a conclusion and a five minute teacher presentation on the transition to the next related topic.

Who is the focus of attention?

Teacher                                 Student                     Multiple Foci (groups)

Note the % of time and attention you held here ___________

Aim to reduce teacher talking to less than half the time!e

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