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Talking is good for learning: discuss

A senior politician (who shall remain nameless) paid a visit to a London primary school last year to sit in on a lesson.

The lesson had been planned by a charity, so was something of a showcase, and set the children the challenge of piecing together true stories from a series of items on their tables.

However, the politician seemed perturbed when he arrived (late) to the classroom. Why were the children all sitting around tables in groups talking to each other, he asked. Why weren't the pupils facing the front and quietly listening to the teacher teach them something?

The headteacher was so stunned by the politician's questions he was not sure how to reply.

Yet politicians are not the only ones who can believe classroom discussion does not really count as learning.

It is understandable that some teachers are also wary of allowing pupils to talk to each other, given the amount of time they spend just trying to get the blighters to shut up. The danger that pupils will veer off topic the moment they have been given permission to chat is a clear and present one.

Discussion in class can be overused and unproductive, allowing some pupils to switch off. But before it is consigned to the box marked "Failed teaching ideas from the 1980s", teacher Mike Gershon brings us a back-to- basics look at why discussion can be a highly effective part of learning (see pages 4-7) and how you prevent pupils from becoming sidetracked.

Incidentally, if you are not already familiar with Mike's work, you can find plenty of free teaching materials he has created on the TES website (

Getting people to work in groups and share their knowledge is not always productive - sitting in on your average office meeting would show that. But if we get it right in schools, perhaps one day those much-demanded communication and teamwork skills will trickle into the workplace. As the old telephone adverts said, it's good to talk.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw.

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