A ‘fitbit’ to remind us to talk less

How much of your class time is teacher talk?

How much is student talk?

I noted in my book, Beat Boredom, that less than 2 minutes of a typical 60-minute English class is spent in genuine student-to-student discussion.

That’s deeply concerning because students are better engaged and learning more when they are talking.

Did you know that nearly 50 years ago, researchers found that teachers of high-achieving students talked about 55% of class time, compared to 80% for low-achieving students?

Did you know that most teachers, in most classrooms today, spend about 80% of the time talking?

Did you know that “student talk is an important and integral part of learning,” according to the National Research Council, and that the more students talk, the more they learn (Cohen and Cohen, 1997).

So what we can we do to move the needle on student talk?

One encouraging development is a new tech tool, the “fitbit of teaching,” called TeachFX, which helps us record and analyze data on how we spend class time. My friend, Jim, an outstanding educator in Arizona, told me I had to connect with TeachFX because it fits so well with my work to promote active learning. He was right.

After talking with the founder, Jamie Poskin, I got a TeachFX account. I’ll be posting an in-depth Q&A with Jamie on the NeverBore blog in April (and using it during workshops), but I wanted to share the results of my first TeachFX session here.

Last week, I recorded my second hour AP Macro class to find out how much I was talking. I assumed it wouldn’t be very much, since my class is centered around simulations and collaborative problem solving.

It turns out, I was still talking 53% of the time. That’s better than the typical classroom, but I was amazed it was that high. Part of it was because I was answering students’ submitted questions about “Econoland,” a simulation we had done a few days earlier.

Of course, it makes sense to talk (a lot) in response to students’ specific questions. But I was appalled at some of the times I interjected myself when students were talking.

I’d ask a question about a demand shifter, and when the student started to say “it would shift left because…” I’d jump in and add “consumer tastes changed, exactly!” When I saw the printout, I wanted to throttle myself. Seriously, who needs to talk that much?

Here’s an example of a better exchange in my classroom that day, recorded on my TeachFX printout:

Me: Alexander and Jacob. Number two. Nationwide auto workers’ strike. Tell us what happened.

Student: We said it [supply] would shift to the left because it’s going to be more expensive and the supply would increase.

Me: OK, wait a second. You said two things. You said it will go to the left and increase. Those are contradictory.

Student: So it’s going to be a decrease, right?

Me: What do you think?

Student: Increase supply.

Me: If they’re on strike?

Student: Or decrease. Yeah, probably decrease.

Me: If they are on strike, are they producing anything?

Student: No, it’s definitely a decrease.

Me: Thank you. By the way, I try really really hard not to give away what I want you to say with my face. So if you’re looking for me to affirm you (nodding my head) and I don’t do that, don’t think ‘oh my God, it must be wrong.’ No, I’m just trying to make you think.

That was a nice moment because they had made a mistake, but I helped them think it through by asking questions, rather than correcting them or giving hints with my face. That’s what I want to be doing all the time.

TeachFX doesn’t recommend a certain percentage of student talk v. teacher talk, but it encourages you to set your own goals. It also doesn’t capture group work time very well — because group talk is too hard to decipher, and it’s difficult to quantify if kids are on task or not.

It does a great job quantifying hang time, though. That’s the time we wait after asking a question, and most of us find it difficult to wait more than a few seconds, myself included. That’s unfair to many students, who process more slowly and need time to think before answering.

One of my challenges as a professional development leader is getting teachers to reflect and think about their own practice — what they do well, where they could improve. What I like best about this tool is that it gives us an entry point, a place to start that conversation.

It takes trust (in whoever might see the data) and vulnerability to open your classroom to this kind of examination, but so far I think it’s worth it. I’m hoping it will change not just the amount of time I talk, but also the things I say — and the amount of silence I can handle.

I encourage other teachers to check it out.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom