My interest in the idea of sharing pedagogical purposes comes directly with the contact I have had with the Project for Enhancing Effective Learning at Monash University in Australia. Now each of these teachers were very active in establishing learning agendas with their classes. The impact they were having was inspiring. Each classroom tool can have a purpose beyond delivering content, and this needs to be shared.
I suppose the purpose of this website is collate, crystalise and open dialogues about how to increase this within classrooms. As the quote from Carl Bereiter illustrates this classroom methodology can empower our students.

Monday, 15 July 2019

The hidden structure of teacher explanations

Purposes of teacher talk.
Before we can consider the structure of a teacher explanation we must first consider the purpose of that talk.
Teachers talk a lot. And so we should. Much of the visible art of teaching comes from the moments when we open our mouths. With between 10% and 30% of lesson time being spent explaining, we must be confident that this is time well spent and that our explanations are effective. Teacher talk is a mix of content explanation with talk of motivation, emotions, strategy, instructional guidance, questioning and feedback. As befitting something that is aimed at developing an understanding of other people, teacher talk is far from a simple construct. 
For me teachers talk mainly for the following 11 reasons: 

  • Context setting.
  • Engage and maintain interest.
  • Represent new information.
  • Emphasise the important.
  • Differentiation.
  • Build a narrative.
  • Sharing Procedural knowledge.
  • Guide students to generate the knowledge themselves.
  • Summaries and Plenaries.
  • Stimulate student thinking.
  • Build and maintain relationships within the classroom

Legitimate Code Theory as an analysis tool.
Although teacher talk is a very visible part of our craft, the actual structures within it are not, or at least they are shrouded in complexity. So stumbling around the internet the other day,  I came across the field of Legitimate Code Theory (LCT), which claims to among other things,to help to make the "invisible visible" in order to reveal the rules of the game. Now as a dyed in the wool Nuthalian this intrigued me. This blog, incidentally , is not about LCT, I know way too little to explain it or to have an opinion of its use, although there are some case studies of its use in classrooms that I would like to explore.  Being able to see why the art of teacher talk is successful is always an opportunity not to be missed. So, I watched this video, which is (hopefully) embedded to start at the relevant part, although watching it all is recommended.

Professor Karl Maton explains the background of this case study, describing the same class in the previous academic year as unruly and under-performing. They had been transformed one year later, with a different teacher. Now, teaching is complex and many factors may be at play, but due attention is made to the teacher. So they asked a the guiding question “Why did the teacher spend more time teaching content than the previous teacher?” To do this they attempted to isolate three simple focuses of  the content; the directions or instructions given; and the behaviour of the students. I like the simplicity of this and how they are able to track these through teacher talk with the LCT matrix. 

The matrix used to analyse the teacher talk and strategies requires some thought. I am happy to admit that I am below novice on the subject of LCT and this video is very much my introduction to it. So I hope that this simplified matrix  helps make clear what it looks like. I think it helped me follow what was happening and relate it to teacher skills. I hope it's not too simplified to be insulting to an expert in the field.

Maton uses the phrase a "autonomy tour" to describe the process of moving between the quadrants of the matrix. For instance starting talking about content, then leaving and talking about other concepts, process, ideas and then returning to the original content. Maton sees this as a way teachers can integrate knowledge. So in this case the content being taught is integrated with directions for students and expectations of behaviour. By doing so students see a model more than just the content, for instance how to select and use examples from sources as shown by the teachers use of video. Fellow Nuthalians will hear loud and clear Nuthall's first premise of "students learn what they do". Maton goes onto suggest that this teachers success with this class is down to this integration. I especially like Maton’s phrase "bring it back home" to emphasise that this teachers talk, although not exclusively about the target content, finds a connected way of returning back to what he was trying to teach. Everything is therefore about learning the content. It strikes me that this a method that Expert Teachers would use to increase the amount of redundancy in their teacher talk- they find other ways of saying the same thing. 

The teacher talk begins on content and solely about the content. Each picture will have the teacher talk, the current code or type and purpose of the talk and any moves that is being made across the matrix as the teacher takes a "tour". It is important to realise that the desired quadrant, that of talking about this lessons core content is only desirable for this lesson. Other situations will require talk or actions in differing parts, and indeed in this situation how other parts support the learning of the core content.

This is followed by content away from the specific content being taught, but it is still 

subject knowledge that the students will cover later in the year. So remains in the “home” quadrant, but with a lesser relationship.

Talk then stops even being about the subject, and is now about students own experience. Briefly leaving the home quadrant and where the importance of what is being said is beyond this lesson, but there is a link that the teacher is exploiting to bring student experience to mind. This is another feature of what I would recognise as an expert teacher strategy. Expert Teachers increase the relevance of the material being taught to the students. 

This is not just shallow, hat tip towards the kids, this relevance is used to engage the students, before returning back to the main content with the all important why. By stating this he is increasing the relevance of the content., another expert teacher behaviour.
He then goes out again to make clear some other knowledge, and everyday experience that will make subsequent content discussion more understandable. Again this is a nice example of an expert teacher making the content more relevance, but this time by establishing useful prior knowledge.

Once more the teacher talk returns to the core concept being taught, making this a good example of an expert teacher getting back on track. That is to say, despite the explanation necessitating an off topic idea,  in this case hygiene, it is woven back into the narrative of being under siege in a castle. The knowledge is once again brought back home.

Structure of the explanation
Hidden within this narrative is another Expert Teachers behaviour that of being able to problematise the concepts being taught. Explanations are composed of three simple parts; a problem to be explained, a person to do the explaining and someone to explain to.  Yet, I would wager that we teachers sometimes rush, or skim or worse still miss the problem part out all too often. The reason for this is obvious, we know the answer. The problem teachers face when dealing with this is desirability; our knowledge, the correct knowledge, is what we want our students to have. However, this ambition can cause us to forget that the vastness of the difference in the depth and quality of knowledge that we possess, as subject experts and that of our students. We simply see things in a more holistic, joined up and detailed way. The temptation to delude ourselves by telling students just ‘the facts’ is therefore pretty strong. So he sets  up a problem to teach to. The choice of reading material helps, by giving a bigger overview. This reminds me of Nuthall’ second premise “ effective activities are built around big questions.”

But the teacher spots the problem, or might that be an opportunity, to explain. The text only uses the word "disease" and this is what he focuses his narrative upon. He set it up, by following up the reading of the text with a context in which the students are to think and learn. He says something like " What this text is about is the importance of castles and what happens when the castle is under siege" This "what happens when" is the problem setting part of his explanation. This is one way Expert teachers problematise their teaching. 

The lesson moves on requires use of a video. In some ways, when teachers do this they are delegating responsibility for the explanation to someone else. Part of the problem is that videos will contain a lot more information than the core ideas the teachers wish to get across. Some of which will not be germane. So their selection, and use requires a great deal of thought from the teacher. In doing so this teacher demonstrates another two expert teacher behaviours: that Expert Teachers are more selective in the choices of example they use and they increase the relevance of the material being taught to the students. As this teachers talks he constantly talks about the content, the "what" and the “why”. He does this for both the content, directions and behaviour. It is in this talk that he directs students to the relevant materials and ideas. His direction towards the relevant bits starts with the simple prefixing of the video with questions
Importantly,  it is the teacher talk and discussion that ensures the knowledge is brought "back home". 
The video then takes us on a tour of the teacher instructional structure.
It starts with a directional focus
the video is then described as a combination of educative and entertainment content, that is not (yet) related to the core content being taught. It cross two quadrants as it is loosely content related and context setting.
The teacher then returns to the content by prompting students to answer the first question. At this point it becomes clear that this teacher is highly structured in his explanations/ lesson. Expert Teacher do provide more structured explanations than non expert. The intriguing thing for me, as a teacher, is that this is pretty much invisible in his communication, but by golly it is there. in his teaching...
... and in the elaborations he makes to the student responses. The knowledge is brought back home.
Another "autonomy" tour is then started  by setting directions and making clear the "why" of the process.

The conclusion drawn is that the teacher success comes from the integration of content, direction and behaviour so that:
I have just come across LCT as an idea, and it feels useful. Now I am not sure if this because I recognise, the behaviours and aspects of the teaching that allows me to follow Matons narrative, and whether I would see the "invisible" in a context that I am less aware of remains to be seen. But I am intrigued. What I find useful is the slowing down and examining of a teachers art to see the skills and behaviours that make what they do visible and therefore learnable.
Since watching, two strategies have become clear to making my explanations better. Firstly, I have been keen to ensure I keep purposes clear for students, giving clear why to content and to task. Secondly, I have been aware of where of the extra content needed to make new learning accessible and most importantly how to bring it back home. This requires thought of not only when to introduce it, but when to integrate it. This is pedagogical content knowledge in its purest form- how are our subject learned.

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