Don't tell us how to teach - we can think for ourselves

'Thinking aloud' can be a useful way of talking through teaching processes to boost teacher development, says Sam Jones

Sam Jones

CPD: How 'thinking aloud' can boost teacher development

I am presently lucky enough to be working on a project with some 20-odd teachers from right across FE. From training providers to prison, adult ed to general FE, and sixth form to SEND provision, we are trying to explore what goes on in our heads when we plan and teach – how we make pedagogical decisions in our practice and the reasoning behind them. This, we believe, is important work to highlight the complexity and richness of sector teaching and pushes back on the narrative that FE teachers need to be told how to teach. It shows that, actually, we are pretty good at thinking things through for ourselves.

In FE, we tend to be "told" and, as a result, making your thinking and cognition clear isn’t commonplace anywhere in the sector. For our project, this has meant there has been a lot of discussion and thinking about what this may look like. One of the project team, Saj Mohammed, recently sent out an article about a technique used in clinical training called "thinking aloud", which is a bit of a game-changer.

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Thinking aloud is basically a way of making clear the reasoning processes that exist behind judgements, and explores how making this kind of cognition available to other practitioners, particularly trainees, can be really useful:

"Think aloud explicitly allows trainees to see how high-content knowledge is used by expert clinicians, who are able to select the important information and generate links and associations to organise this information. Research has shown how trainees and expert clinicians are able to identify important pieces of information for a diagnosis. However, only expert clinicians are also able to identify and organise the important information to generate a correct diagnosis. Think aloud allows trainees to hear how expert clinicians selectively organise information to solve a patient problem, and it also allows supervising clinicians to understand the way trainees are thinking when using think aloud to explain their developing reasoning process." (Pinnock et al., 2015:334)

Teacher CPD: The value of 'thinking aloud'

As a teacher educator and teacher developer, I am always interested in different way of looking at development and this article really nailed it in terms of the focus of our project. The article focuses on how we pull all the "important pieces of information" together in order to make decisions. Teaching is a cognitively challenging job and we need to be able to decipher and respond to a non-stop stream of information and noise. 

The learning space itself will have affordances or restrictions to our practice, and what we’re teaching will be influencing how we teach, as will who and when we are teaching. You may have to differ your approach due to the mood in the room or the responses you get, there may be behaviour issues, distractions, misconceptions or misunderstandings, and there may be professional or industrial norms that form part of your repertoire. As teachers, we all learn to respond to this feast of human interaction and decide which actions to take which will get us the best outcomes. We do it almost constantly, often unconsciously, reading the room, checking understanding, watching reactions, responding to unexpected humps in the road, drawing on previous experiences. This, to me, is a really fundamental part of our professionalism, in the same way as it is for clinicians. We constantly select and organise the information around us to solve the problems and take the actions required to teach.

I have seen this approach elsewhere, notably the fabulous resources that look at content representation and pedagogical decision making that the team from Huddersfield University created for Gatsby. I don’t see this enough in the development of teachers. It is buried away inside practitioner research projects and within some of the communities of practice that are built across the sector. It could be a really useful development tool for neophytes and experts alike. As a pedagogy, a teacher educator could "think aloud" in a teacher education classroom as a way of getting your teacher ed students to understand rather than simply observe your practice, or it could be a useful tool for mentors to allow mentees to access their practice: "Why do you think I may have decided to do X in the session?" 

I could really see it working as a way of observing and developing practice, where videoed lessons are accompanied by a discussion of the pedagogical reasoning underpinning a teacher’s actions.

Actions such as this not only have the potential to develop practice but also have the potential to shift the ownership of practice back to the teachers and away from "being told", which will form a massive step forward in teacher development.

Sam Jones is the chair of the steering committee at the Research College Group and founder of FEResearchmeet             

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