We talk a lot in classrooms. We talk a lot in schools. We talk a lot in education.
We talk a lot.
Sit in any traditional classroom in America and you’re likely to hear much talking. Traditionally, this will be the teacher. Oftentimes, it will be in lecture mode. If you (and the students) are lucky, the class you are watching will feature a lecture from the teacher and then time for the students to practice…alone…no talking.
If fortune turns his back on you, the lecture will last the entire class period with the expectation that notes are taken the whole way through.
In the schools we need, we say more and talk less.
Improvisational theater gives us an appropriate structure for considering this approach – economy of dialogue. In her book, “When I Say This…,” “Do You Mean That?” Cherie Kerr explains, “What this means is the improv player can say only what is absolutely necessary during any scene in any show.”
An economic approach to talk in the classroom, well-deployed can increase the value of what’s being said. If a student no longer has to filter out the excess speech, it stands to reason those words he does hear will have greater value.
From a practical perspective, respecting the economy of dialogue also helps to adhere to Dan Meyer’s directive, “Be less helpful.” With fewer words to instruct them, students will find themselves the chief technicians of their learning, needing to parse out the meaning of the judiciously offered information from the teacher.
This only speaks to one segment of the classroom population – the teacher – but the rule applies to students as well.
When we ask students, “Why?” after they’ve answered a question or offered an opinion, we are creating a semantic implication that there is a right answer for which we are looking. Sometimes, there is. Much of the time, there is not. What we are after when we ask follow-up questions in class is more information from our students. We literally want them to say more to help us understand their thinking and help themselves to play out their nascent ideas.
If this is what we mean, then this is what we should say. In the cases where students have offered information and our instincts tell us there is more to be mined in their minds, rather than narrowing the scope of what they might say next, we can simply invite them to “Say more.”
You will note a discrepancy between the application of this principle to teachers and its application to students. It is true, teachers are being asked to talk less while asking students to “say more” and thereby talk more. As it turns out, this is intentional.
By and large, I’ve not noticed a dearth of teacher words in the classrooms I’ve seen. Students, on the other hand, are given little practice using those voices teachers are so quick to purport wanting to give to their students.
First, let us ask students to say more, get comfortable with playing with ideas out loud and finding the meanings they intend to make. After that, once teachers have practice themselves, let us begin teaching economy of dialogue.