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Ways teachers can talk less, and get kids talking more

Excerpts from Angela Watson's blog. She's a National Board Certified Teacher and Teacher-Trainer. Quoted with permission from her (former) Cornerstone for Teachers website. Some wording was modified to make more sense for Sunday School.  The following are excerpts.


I have often found myself talking too much during group work and student-directed projects because I’m trying to push kids’ thinking, provide feedback, and help them stay on task.

It’s still tempting to spend too much time giving directions, repeating important information, and telling students how they did instead of asking them to reflect on their work.

Ways teachers can talk less and get kids talking more:

1. Don’t steal the struggle.

It can be uncomfortable to watch kids struggle to figure out an answer, but they need time and silence to work through it. Resist the urge to talk students through every step of a problem and instead just observe.

2. Move from the front of the classroom.

It’s easy to get in an instructional rut when you stand at the same place near the board all day long. Try occasionally sitting on the side of the classroom or in an absent student’s desk and say, “I need someone to go up and demonstrate ___ for us.”  

5. Turn your statements into questions and prompts.

Instead of saying, "no that's not quite right," ask, "tell us how you came up with that answer." Then listen for them working it out and help them redirect to the right answer. Not only will these questions get kids talking instead of you, kids will also have the chance to reflect on and articulate their learning.

6. Instead of asking, “Does that make sense?” say, “Can you put that in your own words?”

Invite kids to put what you’ve explained into their own words, either repeating it back to you (if you were helping the child in a one-on-one conversation) or by turning and talking to a partner/doing a quick think/pair/share.

7. Stop wasting time repeating what you've already said.

It’s tempting to say important points and instructions a couple of different ways to make sure every child understands. But kids learn that it’s okay to tune you out because you’ll repeat everything you say. Instead, experiment with different strategies for getting kids to follow directions*** the first time you give them and use call-and-response routines to get kids’ attention right away. 

8. Notice moments when you summarize/review for students and instead get their input.

If you hear yourself saying once again, remember, as I said, as always, so to sum this up, or "don’t forget," that probably means you’re about to drive home an important point for the second or third (or tenth) time. Practice making those moments a chance for kids to share: Who can sum this up for us? 

 Be sure to read the THINK-PAIR-SHARE discussion technique here at

 Posted at


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directionsSeven Ways to Get Kids to Follow Directions

What would you add to this list?

1. Get their eyeballs looking at you. Having a prop helps!

2. Speak and write out the directions on the board, and on a handout if necessary.

3. Reiterate the directions as students begin the task. Don't expect everyone to understand the directions at the same time.

4. Break down tasks, such as a complex art project, by creating STATIONS to which they can move to follow the next step.  

5. Occasionally "game" the directions by having a little fun with them. For example...

  • Grab a fun costume an act them out as a character. 
  • Invite a student to stand next to you and try to repeat after you. 
  • Play “guess what comes next.”
  • Hand out a “Best Direction Listener” and “Best Direction Follower” award. 

6. Check your bad habits. Don't shout. Don't “wait for everyone to be still." Command focus and attention through what you are doing, demonstrating, and making sound interesting.   

7. Identify the "direction-less" and distractors early and move near them so they can feel your presence. 


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The Power of Surprise in Creating Memorable Lessons

Here's another example of the brain science catching up to what good teachers and lesson writers have known for a long time. German researchers at the University of Magdeburg's Neurology Clinic have discovered and described how the brain's memory process is both activated and enhanced by the student's experience of "surprise" or "novelty."

You can easily test this science simply by comparing your recall of that surprise birthday party someone threw for you with any other run-of-the-mill birthday you celebrated.

This is why good teachers want to create exciting learning experiences --because good teachers want their kids to remember their good lessons.

It's chemical: Novel stimuli activate the hippocampus more than familiar stimuli do to trigger a release of dopamine. The release of dopamine in the hippocampus activates the synapses among nerve cells, creating stronger connections that lead to long-term memory storage.


Practical applications:

The author of the article mentions the importance of starting class with NEW or NOVEL information/activities in order to stimulate memory --instead of doing what many teachers do which is beginning with a recap of previously taught materials.

The power of surprise can be harnessed by:

  • Unexpected activities
  • Novel teaching materials and techniques
  • Incorporating surprises (like surprise outcomes, magic tricks, and other "fun" things)
  • Does a novel environment stimulate memory formation?  Yes. It's why you can remember your last vacation better than the week after that vacation.

In his book, The Power of Suprise: How Your Brain Secretly Changes Your Beliefs, psychologist and professor Dr. Michael Rousell explains the various research projects behind the science of how surprise, novelty, twists, and unexpected events have the power to change our thinking. (We might call it a conversion, or a bolt of lightning, a sudden insight or an inspiration.)  In his book, Rousell describes how authors, film directors, and magicians have used the power of surprise to take us places we didn't expect to go.

Honestly, this book didn't surprise me!  Jesus used the power of surprise in his parables. Surprise! The shepherd left the 99 to go rescue the 1.  Surprise! The Prodigal Son got a party.

You might even say the Cross was a surprise. Is that why we remember it? ...because it was so unexpected.    And the Resurrection might just be the biggest surprise in the history of the world. They expected a dead body, but found the Risen Christ. 

Maybe our lessons, techniques, and rooms need a little empty tomb action too.

What do you think?


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  • The Power of Surprise in Teaching
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If the brain loves to form memories around situations and content that are presented in "novel" ways, what then is "novel" ?

UNEXPECTED comes to mind, as does SURPRISING

Here are some other technique-provoking synonyms for the word "novel."

I would add "sense-invoking" ...such as the unexpected sight, smell, taste, texture, or sound.

I might also add laughter, funny, emotional --all of which can be unexpected and surprising.

Excerpts from the December 2008 Scientific American "Mind and Brain" article:

Learning By Surprise

Novelty enhances memory. That fact has practical implications for educators
By Hartmut Schütze

Psychologists have known for some time that if we experience a novel situation within a familiar context, we will more easily store this event in memory. But only recently have studies of the brain begun to explain how this process happens and to suggest new ways of teaching that could improve learning and memory.

Novelty Detector
One of the most important brain regions involved in discovering, processing, and storing new sensory impressions is the hippocampus, located in the temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex. Novel stimuli tend to activate the hippocampus more than familiar stimuli do, which is why the hippocampus serves as the brain’s “novelty detector.”

The hippocampus compares incoming sensory information with stored knowledge. If these differ, the hippocampus sends a pulse of the messenger substance dopamine to the substantia nigra (SN) and ventral tegmental area (VTA) in the midbrain. From there nerve fibers extend back to the hippocampus and trigger the release of more dopamine. Researchers, including John Lisman of Brandeis University and Anthony Grace of the University of Pittsburgh, call this feedback mechanism the hippocampal-SN/VTA loop (above right).

This feedback loop is why we remember things better in the context of novelty.



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  • Learning by Surprise and Novel Teaching

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