Teacher Talk: Sounding Into Ears

In the early middle agesinstruction came from didactic grammarians who taught in repetitive and boring ways… the one way catechism (literally ‘to sound into ears’) by which the master instructed his pupil.” Trivium 21c p45.

When I was at school (not quite back as far as the middle ages) we had a history teacher who would ‘sound into our ears’. He told us to open our textbooks to a certain page, instructed us to copy either from our books or from the board on which he had chalked up what was written in the textbook. He would then speak the words monotonously from the text and we were expected to write at the pace by which he ‘sounded into our ears’. Unfortunately we got bored, started to misbehave, threw things at each other, threw things out of the window, including, on one occasion, a fellow pupil who, when he went flying past the window of the class below caused a bit of commotion though no lasting damage to himself. Our teacher blamed us, shouting that we were wasting our lives.

As a poacher turned gamekeeper, I am not proud of my behaviour, but I am interested as to why we didn’t present passive ears waiting to be sounded into. I could pay attention, for example I would sit and listen to the historian AJP Taylor on television as he, without the visual gimmicks of today’s TV historians, stood and delivered lectures to camera. The great AJP was a master storyteller and he gave me a lifelong interest in history. It is not the ‘sounding into ears’ that is boring, it is how a teacher goes about it.

In ‘Why Don’t Students Like School‘ Daniel T Willingham writes: “The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories.” (p51). Willingham suggests structuring lessons from stories based on the four Cs: causality, conflict, complications and character. This is a good place to start but I think it is also worth looking at the book: ‘The Seven Basic Plots‘. The author, Christopher Booker, spent years researching the idea that there are only seven stories: ‘Overcoming the Monster’, ‘Rags to Riches’, ‘The Quest’, ‘Voyage and Return’, ‘Rebirth’ and the classical narratives of ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Comedy’. I believe even a short 5 minute presentation following one of these structures could enthrall the most despondent of classes.

For those who do not feel comfortable with ‘storytelling’ structuring their talk and yet agree with Willingham that lessons based around conflict work particularly well, the art of rhetoric is the perfect option. In Trivium 21c I explore rhetoric in more detail but the following should give a flavour and a great way to structure and think about teacher talk. What follows is a glimpse at ‘the five parts of rhetoric’ as used in Ancient Greek education:

1. Invention Firstly you think about the content which you intend to teach and you draw together your ‘evidence’.  Then you establish your Ethos, your credibility, not your street cred but why you are a suitable person to teach this particular content (this is probably part of an ongoing dialogue where you communicate about why the subject you teach is important). Next you think about how to create the right mood, the shared emotion or Pathos between you and the class. You should pay particular attention to creating the right emotional charge at certain points in the lesson. Finally Logos, which is your use of reasoning and logic, and models critical thinking.

2. Arrangement: The order in which you present your talk. For this the basic six parts of oratory are useful: 1. The Exordium or ‘hook’: something that catches the class’s attention but is also central to your narrative. 2. Prothesis: you present the history of what your are talking about. 3. Partitio or division: you make the points which are uncontroversial and then the points which are contested. 4. Confirmatio or proof: you state your thinking. 5. confutatio or refutation: you refute any opposing argument 6. Peroration You sum up the arguments and leave an impression with your class about why the content matters and should matter to them.

3. Style: Low, medium or grand? Low style is ‘down with the kids’, use sparingly. Medium is probably the best for day to day teaching, but every now and then it might be good to unleash the ‘grand style’ of great oratory to lift the class to a higher level.

4. Memory If your talk is drawn from your natural memory, rather than always reading from a textbook, your credibility is enhanced. If you use powerpoint it should be your tool rather than you being its slave. Anything on your whiteboard should illustrate and not lead your talk. N.B: Natural memory which is ‘knowing your stuff’, is better than artificial memory, which is more like an actor remembering a speech.

5. Delivery: voice, gesture, posture, use of space. Without these performance skills being used to the full, the most brilliantly thought through examples of teacher talk can fall flat.

Put all this together and teacher talk can be something that enthralls a class and helps them learn and remember what you want them to learn and remember. Sounding into ears can be a very effective way of teaching if you do it effectively.

14 thoughts on “Teacher Talk: Sounding Into Ears

  1. This is beautiful. It captures elegantly what I realise I am often (inelegantly) doing when working with trainees who need to find the story in their lesson flow. Why do some pupils hear and others not ‘hear’? It is rarely much to do with how long the trainee talked and everything to do with that inspirational gathering of all ears and eyes that must be construed temporally – that is, by its wider role in the lesson or even in the sequence of lessons. Bruner wrote movingly of the ‘imperative of genre’, the way we respond to story actively because we recognise its tropes and topoi, and want to make meaning out of its necessary structures, gaps and spaces. It neatly destroys the damaging assumption that pupils are being passive or not learning when they are just listening.

    I also love the idea of low, medium and high style as a way of thinking about oral delivery and classroom culture. When one knows a class well, the students know when one is making ironic play with these (rather as Horace plays with the heavenly language of epic in his most earthly of forms, satire), and when one is deadly serious. That low style should be used sparingly is also a useful idea for thinking about what goes wrong when, in the name of accessibility, a teacher is effectively trivialising an aspect of knowledge that is beautiful, and thereby not providing access at all, but rather denying access to the real thing, to the dignity at the heart of the thing.


      1. Thank you Martin. I’m indebted to Gadamer for the use of the word ‘dignity’. I find him thought-provoking and useful when thinking about why certain kinds of research or instrumentalist methods somehow lose truth, even as they try to approach it. Gadamer’s idea of ‘the loss’ of meaning can also usefully be applied to lessons that bypass ears, I think, especially where a teacher hasn’t contemplated the heart (say, disciplinary structure, deeper tradition, grammatical ‘shape’…) of the object being conveyed. Incidentally, I thought of Gadamer and his insistence that tradition is liberating not sclerotic, on almost every page of your book, especially pages 172-3. That could just be because I am a Gadamer nut, but I did wonder what you thought of Gadamer’s take on tradition.


      2. Gadamer, who I know little about, sounds very interesting. I’m going to buy a couple of books and then get back to you! Thank you for your lovely comments re: Trivium 21c and yes, my argument with Ken Robinson and his comments around new paradigms and the liberation offered by the knowledge and constraints of the past are a vital part of a liberal arts education.


  2. Thanks for this – an excellent post. In support of Willingham, there’s a fabulous bit of work by Margaret Meek which describes narrative as a “primary act of mind.” In it, she argues that storytelling is intrinsic to human psychology – we use it to impose order (or a semblance of order) on the chaotic interconnection of lives and events. This would certainly support your views here and reading Meek has always helped me with planning lessons, assemblies and with making sense of chaos more generally! This post is full of great advice. Thank you!


      1. How texts teach what readers learn (Thimble Press 1988) is the classic by Meek. The piece I was referring to is actually by Barbara Hardy in a book edited by Meek called “The Cool Web: The Pattern of Children’s Reading” – apologies for my faulty memory!


  3. Reblogged this on ProfLearnSVC and commented:
    Interesting blog about teacher talk – why it can be ineffective, why it might be useful and how we can make it more effective. The blog is History focused but has relevance to all subjects that include elements of narrative and story telling (e.g. English, RE, Geography, Drama).


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