Improving Instruction By Talking Less

Meet The Author: Seth Eckler, Ph.D. – University of Louisville

Improving Instruction By Talking Less

 I often tell future and current practitioners, when attempting to describe the type of teacher I was at the beginning of my career, that I was someone who thought of himself as the — “content-commander.” Strong and bold, the dictator of expectations, and ruler of progress. If it was meant to be, it was up to me. 

My personal approach to teaching then wasn’t unique, hardly; to be honest, it’s probably still the most observed teaching-style in our profession. This often led me to over-instructing, talking too much, and providing detail where detail wasn’t needed. But over-instruction, specifically observed in this more direct style of teaching is a thing, and we would be wise in our field to avoid it.   

 There have been many studies over the years that have analyzed impact behaviors (that being the behaviors physical educators display in-lesson) and how those behaviors ultimately impact student-related outcomes, such as activity levels or skill-development. However, only a few studies have actually yielded significant results. Some have found that properly timed consistent and specific feedback to students about their performance provides autonomous support that fosters growth; others have identified behaviors and strategies such as teacher/peer-modeling and “questioning” as powerful behaviors that can yield results. 

 In my experience, both in research and practice, I will admit that I am still not 100% sure what really matters. In one project we conducted we found that students were most active in environments that limited instructional time. In fact, of the nine teachers that were being evaluated, the ones that had the least amount of time in a variable we called “instruction time” had the highest amount of student activity. 

Don’t get me wrong. We are teachers. We are coaches. We need to provide instruction. But how? If we are called to provide opportunities not only to be active but to learn to be active independently, how much should we really be talking? 

 As with many things in life, instruction is best in moderation. Providing our students with the starting point is paramount; the foundation is what lasts. However, many teachers, because they are the content experts, believe that learning occurs solely in a vacuum. I talk, you listen, you do, you learn… if you don’t learn, I talk some more. It can be frustrating to watch, believe me. I come across it almost on a daily basis, and when I do, here are some strategies that I encourage practitioners to employ.

1: Utilize Interval Instruction

Take all of the relevant information the students need to get started and concentrate it. Limit each time you are providing “big picture” instruction to 45 seconds. By condensing the information, you are accomplishing two things. 1.) You are allowing them to get started without being overwhelmed, therefore facilitating movement and growth at a higher rate. And 2.) You are allowing yourself, the teacher, to see where their confusion lies or where their deficits are within the skill or activity. This eliminates, to a large degree, the questions that you answer during your instruction that the students don’t end up asking.  

2: Avoid Large Group Instruction

In the study mentioned earlier, one variable that was observed was teacher/student interaction. In short, this measured with whom each teacher behavior was displayed. The study found that 59% of the time, the teacher was interacting with the class as a whole, 32% of the time with individuals, and 8% of the time with small groups. 

Undoubtedly there are times when we need to talk to the class as a whole, but lasting impacts can be made on individual progression if we can flip those numbers. The chunk of our detailed instruction should be given to small groups or individually. Breadth to the sum, depth to the parts. 

Check out how PLT4M partners with Physical Education programs across the country:

3: Focus Your Feedback

There is no doubt that specific feedback impacts performance. But be careful what feedback you are giving. Often times, as the content expert, we identify areas for growth and don’t acknowledge the areas that have grown. When you provide feedback to students, acknowledge the things they are doing right and the growth they have shown in their skill-performance. 

Corrective feedback and feedback that is meant to facilitate growth is a necessity, but oftentimes we concentrate too much of what they need to improve and not what they have improved. Try to keep a ratio of 3/1, “Wow Jack, I really like the way your pressing through your heels on the upward movement, try keeping your chest up and back straight throughout, good job with your breathing.” Simple enough, Jack has heard three comments that acknowledge growth and one comment to facilitate it. 

4: Foster A Growth Environment

We talk a lot in our field about the “growth-mindset,” however, this mindset isn’t innate in individuals, and oftentimes our physical education environment promotes competition and winning more than growth. It is important that our physical education environment and our instruction within that environment promote the journey for wellness and not the destination of wellness. 

Incorporate short-term goal achievement that leads to long-term goals success, consistently encourage students by showing them where they started, how they’ve grown, and how it will lead to where they want to be. Once a student is done with your class, whether it be at the end of the year, the semester, or the quarter, the take-away should never be an either-or; I did it, or I failed, it should always be – I grew. 

These tools, strategies, and behaviors are not the “magic pill” for your teaching, they don’t individually or collectively lead to students’ success, but they will help you facilitate meaningful opportunities for student growth and ultimately lead to you becoming more impactful in your schools, for your teams, and with your students. 

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