A respected FE trainer argues that thinking, not talking, is the key to learning. Stephen Jones reports
Geoff Petty is talking. He likes talking, he admits. In particular he talks with gusto about the practice that has turned him into the doyen of FE teacher trainers. He calls it teaching without talking.
Of course Geoff is well aware of the irony. In fact he points it out himself. But the concept is vital, he maintains, because all teachers - himself included - are just too fond of the sound of their own voices.
"It's so very seductive," he says. "You think they're hanging on your every word. But the sobering fact is that if we give students thinking tasks to do, they will both learn to think better and learn the content better than if we just talk to them."
We are talking - well, Geoff is - in a south London pub on the doorstep of the college where he will shortly present his radical views to a group of hard-bitten lecturers. Yet they will like what they hear, he insists, because so many teacher-training sessions these days aren't about education at all. "When I go round colleges, there is a real sense of relief when they find out the session is about teaching. People come into education for that, not for funding units."
Teaching without talking lies at the heart of Geoff's book, Teaching today: a practical guide (Stanley Thomas, ISBN 07487 169 71, pound;19.50), which has already sold 60,000 copies and is about to go into its third edition.
Contained within its pages are 25 different ways in which teachers can get their message across without recourse to the old standby of "chalk and talk".
Nowadays people listen when Geoff talks, but it hasn't always been so easy for him. Back in the early 1990s, when colleges had just left local authority control, all people wanted to hear about was the "business" of FE. And it was only with the emergence of the Common Inspection Framework in 1999 that his telephone began to ring.
"Suddenly from being a backwater for the best part of 20 years, teaching and learning was up there again. The spotlight at last switched to what was going on in the classroom."
As he speaks of this revival, Geoff is becoming more animated. A Messianic quality has come into his delivery, an impression that his flowing white hair and bushy beard do nothing to dispel. And then, in the midst of this biblical fervour, he casually drops the c-word into the conversation.
I look nervously around. Luckily no one has noticed. Because even in a pub slap bang next to a college, the term "constructivism" can still raise a few eyebrows.
Constructivism is one of Geoff's watchwords. But while it might frighten the drinkers, he assures me that there's nothing very problematical about the term.
"It is simply the idea that students make their own meanings, their own constructs," he says. "Learning is really about making your own sense, rather than remembering what you've been told."
All too often, says Geoff, teachers fall back on what he calls "custom and practice". "We tend to teach the way that is customary, rather than the way that works."
What does work, Geoff maintains, is learning through doing rather than listening. This is more than just the much-lampooned practice of "putting them into groups to share their ignorance". Each of his 25 methods is designed to get students engaged, to get them to think. "Teach them to think," he says, "and they also learn the content better."
When I object that task-based learning is notoriously time-consuming, he points to experiments where traditional methods have been tested against constructivism. With constructivist techniques, he says, "students learn more higher level skills and they learn the content better in the same amount of time."
Experimentation and evidence are important to Geoff. He trained as an engineer and taught physics in the Midlands, before moving into teacher training. "At last teaching methodology is becoming a science," he says.
"There is evidence for what works. Even 15 years ago we didn't know that these methods were more effective. Now we do."
The following day we are in the classroom. Since he gave up the day job to concentrate on his writing, consultancy and in-service training work, Geoff has run sessions like this in almost 200 colleges the length and breadth of the country. OK, so he is talking again. But he is also practising what he preaches, and getting the dozen or so lecturers in the room to "do" as well as to listen.
"Teaching is so bloody hard," he says, "it's impossible to get it right all the time. But why waste your time with methods that don't work, when you can just as easily use those that do?"
FOUR MEANS OF INSTRUCTION WITHOUT TALKING
Ask a question that leads to what you want the students to learn. Each individual then writes down an answer and shares what they have written in pairs or threes. Next the pairs or threes combine to create larger groups which then agree a group answer. The teacher puts feedback from each group on the board, "topping up" and correcting the class answer.
Students in pairs are given two related texts about new topics. After studying one of these alone for, say, five minutes, each student then explains their topic to the other, who asks questions until they understand.
Each student, or group of students, considers a task or problem from a different angle. They then create an evaluation matrix which they all share and which covers all the "angles". This enables them to learn content at the same time as evaluation skills.
Students are given text in a particular format and asked to convert it into another. For example a health leaflet could be transformed into a newspaper report, or a chronological account could be reformulated under new headings.