We like reading and writing in classrooms because they are manageable, easily controlled and orderly. They are often very quiet experiences. All teachers need to do is enforce or ensure silence. A casual look. A raised eyebrow. A mention of a name. Shh, we are reading. Shh, we are writing.
Silence has been code for success in teaching. A silent classroom means you have the class in control. A silent classroom creates security for teachers. The class is being controlled. Nothing to see here. Move along.
The emphasis on reading and writing over talk isn’t a new thing. It’s been there for a while and as Robin John Alexander(2013) pointed out, talk isn’t viewed as real work. The problem is that talk is seen as a social thing. If I let these students talk, they will end up talking about what they did on Tik Tok or something else pointless. They will probably spend most of the time gossiping.
Because talk is social and because it isn’t easily controlled we opt for far easier options.
What we forget is that talk is what we naturally do. What do you do if you have a problem? You talk to someone. You sound people out. You listen to the people offer solutions or their thoughts. Then, you come to a point when you can move on. You are ready. That journey, to resolve a problem, probably didn’t follow a clear structure, and, like most conversations it probably jumped from topic to topic and included the odd bit of digression. But, through talk, the problem would have been resolved partly, or fully. It was probably a bit messy, chaotic and dirty. I doubt somebody at the start of the conversation would have assigned clear roles and decided the order of speaking. Trish – you think of the problems. Sharon – you think of the consequences. There wouldn’t be a piece of sugar paper between them. In fact, most people will have played a variety of roles in the discussion.
Working with students and boys over the years, you notice how boys like to talk and share their thoughts on things. In fact, as a boy I loved talking. I picked my university course because the idea of talking in groups about a book really appealed to me. Imagine my surprise when I arrived on the course to discover it was largely me talking in the sessions. It ended up being me and the tutor discussing things, but the verbal interrogation of an idea thrilled and enthralled me. The writing was hard, but the talk and the discussion engaged me on a level I never really knew before. I’d endlessly grapple with ideas like violence in Edward Bond’s Saved or the subtleties of emotion in Ibsen’s plays and religion’s hold on the monarchy in the Shakespeare’s history plays.
I am not saying that every boy is a type of ‘Oliver Twist’ who goes through one oppressive experience at a time, but I do feel that boys don’t have the opportunities and the experiences to talk. We don’t give them the chance to talk. We pigeonhole them to the point that we infer the reasons behind their behaviour. You are doing this because you are impressing your friends. You are doing this because you wanted a laugh. You are doing this because you are angry.
We supress talk for those who need it the most: boys. We tell boys to be quiet. We tell boys to stop shouting out. We tell boys to not be so disruptive. And, here’s the rub: we suppress the one thing that will help students, particularly, boys to get better at writing. Idea forming. Problem solving. Concept exploring. All this happens with talk. We make everything in school an internalised process. Is rewriting a school’s curriculum an internalised process? Nah. I am talking to every man, and woman, under the sun about. I am testing it out. Talking. Chatting, Arguing. Persuading. Yet, for boys, we make it all an internal process. The exam is an internal process, yet the whole education system before it does not need to be.
We know that computer games are addictive and psychologists have studied what makes them so addictive. They study the idea of ‘flow’ and how people enter a state we call ‘in the zone’: a state of total engagement and enjoyment for people playing computer games or any other activity. We know boys, and girls, enjoy computer games. Lots of people assume boys like computer games because of the competitive nature of them. That stereotype is peddled in lots of areas of society. Add a game to your lesson and it will appeal to boys. Absolute rubbish.
To create flow, there are a number of conditions needed such as relevant challenge and control of task, but one interesting condition stands out: unambiguous short-term goals. Games have a number of short goals which keeps the player in the zone. It propels them to go on. Think of Mario running along and collecting coins and picking up the occasional superpower thanks to a mushroom. Lots of short-term goals. The purpose is to get to the end of the level and avoid danger, but there are also lots of short-term goals along the way propelling the player to continue. It’s what absorbs their attention.
Now, let’s look at Mario as an analogy for the classroom. Is the writing / assessment a short-term goal? Or, is it the end of level baddie? In the classroom, we fixate on the end of level baddie. It is the piece of writing, the exam, the test and the big thing at the end of what you are doing. We obsess about the goal. Beating Wario.
Boys, and I can speak with some authority as I used to be one many years ago, can be largely fixated with the end goal. The score of a match. The test. The result. They are not so interested in the steps that lead to that goal. The goal is more important than anything else. It is their priority. Their purpose. There is a fixation for the end point. A finite marker of success. That’s why they rush writing. That’s why they finish before everyone else. Or, why they struggle to start, because the fear of not reaching the goal is debilitating. It isn’t competiveness; it is goal fixation. That’s a big difference.
We need to look at challenging this goal-orientated thinking in students and help them build the sequence of goals towards an overall purpose. We need them to collect coins and mushrooms along the way. In fact, it needs to me more about the coins and mushrooms. Those short-term goals. And that’s where talk comes in. Where can we see boys, and girls, doing something successful on a daily basis? Talk. Not question and answer and memory recall, but talk. Mario could express a point really succinctly. Or, Luigi could ask a very interesting question. Even Sonic could be having a great little conversation about a complex idea with his partner Zelder. Lara could have used a lovely phrase to describe a part of the topic. That there is your short-term goal. A coin. Well done. Your step closer to flow. If Mario collected numerous coins over several lessons, he stands a better chance of beating the end of level baddie.
Talk is the safe space in the classroom. Talk is the work in school that isn’t going to be endless criticised or judged. You can’t really tickle pink and grow green talk. It is messy, chaotic and dirty, but it has nuggets and gems of brilliance. We need to catch them being brilliant. Talk is the one area we can do that with aplomb for students. We need to catch them being brilliant at reading, writing and talking. And, we need to find a fair balance between the three elements and a simple ‘throw in a think, pair, share’ will not do.
In fact, catching them talking well is actually a red mushroom. It makes Mario grow and get bigger so he can easily defeat the end of level baddie.
Thanks for reading,