In Defence of Just Telling Them

When I was taking my A-level equivalents in the states, I remember loving the experience of success, seeing myself get better and know more thing. But something was different with my maths teacher. Like my other teachers, he was brilliant, had a 4.0 GPA from a top maths department at the same uni I attended, and had a subject degree in maths, not teaching. There was a something that made him very different to my other teachers however.

He wouldn’t give us formulas, but instead told us to use mathematical principles and derive them ourselves because we would get more meaning that way; he would explain relationships between concepts, but never explicitly show how to arrive at an answer. He left the textbooks at the front, untouched, although I had one in every other subject and always had since as long as I could remember. I never knew how to get the marks I needed and I found myself listening to try to get bits and pieces of what he was saying and then googling trying to find the formula to match his words so I could practise the maths problems. I was left not knowing what to do because he thought just telling us would take away the meaning from the task.  

I see this same problem appearing in the discourse around the teaching of English, that somehow ‘telling them’ ruins the subject, that English has a special place in creating meaning, and that obviously you can’t have the same connection with literature as you do with the boring formulas and numbers. This is wrong. While I never really knew what my maths teacher was on about, it was clear he loved his subject and deeply enjoyed talking about maths.  Every subject has its own beauty and English is not unique in its ability to develop a sense of awe and wonder.

Another problem we run into in English are the questions of knowledge: what do I want them to know?; What is the body of knowledge for English?; Is English actually knowledge-based or is just practising the generic skills we see in the language papers or extracts and comprehension questions? These are all good and well questions to pontificate and discuss and write blogs about, but we have 180 pupils sitting their exams at the end of this year. Learning is an intrinsic good in and of itself, but whether we like it or not, a major end goal for us as teachers is strong grades for our pupils because those qualifications open doors and opportunities for them. We owe it to the young people in front of us to teach them the knowledge required in a way that gives them the highest chance for success. Direction instruction, like systematic phonics, is essential to some, harmful to none, and helpful to all. 

We should take an approach to English that doesn’t isolate pupils who don’t have an automatic connection to a text. We can ask them ‘what do you like about the poem?’ Absolutely. What if they don’t like anything and they think poetry is dead? We’ve already hit a wall before we begin and have isolated them from engagement.  Critically, a feelings-first approach also runs the risk of implying to kids that don’t feel anything that English isn’t for them, that it’s a vibes-based subject, that there isn’t a way to actually ‘improve’ at English, that only if they have a personal knack for it can they enter the magical gates of English-dom. This just isn’t true. We can instead give them the knowledge of what we are learning first, rather than hoping they magically construct it.  Some can and will construct a meaning eventually, but we shouldn’t forget  about the majority who rely on their teachers to teach them the things they need to know. 

If we’re studying Sonnet 116 in year  8 as part of our poetic form scheme of work, I can tell them:  count the syllables in each line. Notice the line ‘that looks on tempests and is never shaken’ has 11 syllables. It’s not a mistake. Sometimes poets will deliberately ‘mess up’ the form to communicate something else to us. Now, that 11th syllable there is called a weak or feminine ending. So while the actual words of the poem are showing assurance and fearlessness, as we studied yesterday, that weakness at the end of the line might actually be showing doubt in the poet’s belief. Let’s look and see the other like you marked as having 11 syllables and see what Shakespeare could be communicating there’. Or I can  ask ‘what do you notice? What do you wonder?’ repeatedly, giving out hints and tips hoping that eventually they guess the answer in my head.

Think of knowledge as pieces of furniture in a room. For novice and developing readers, they have fewer pieces of furniture and the pieces are out of place–  a chair might be upside down, tables are stacked on top of each other, and the home is in a general state of disarray. In order to arrange these pieces of furniture in a “right” position, students have to first be shown how to do that. The mistake we can make by taking a ‘feelings’ first approach is that we are asking them to arrange their homes without showing them what the design of the room could look like first. The meaning that the teacher is delivering is not the only possible construction of what a model home looks like, but it’s one that pupils can know is a possibility and will help them as they begin to form their own ideas and make their own connections.  If my maths teacher had told us the formulas and had us practice, then perhaps, as a top set class, we would have been able to see the relationships with repeated practice. Instead, he threw us into the deep end with no supports. I don’t want to make the same mistake.

I love my subject and I hope pupils do as well, but you can’t love something if you don’t know how to do it. It is my job to know more than the kids in my room and to build up their skills and knowledge to a level of expertise.  It is my professional responsibility to teach them the things that I know. 

So I will continue to just tell them, and we’ll build from there.

I’m on Twitter @MsJasmineMN


  1. furniture analogy adapted from Robert Pondiscio , ED Hirsch, and Daniel Willingham
  2. ‘vibes-based’ phrase taken from this New Yorker article


  1. Great post as usual, Jasmine.
    My thoughts on this are that many people favour how they believe they arrived at understanding as a way of teaching. The problem with this is that at the point of learning, we are unlikely to understand the nuance of what the teacher is doing, so its easy to convince ourselves that the best way to learn is to that moment of understanding, not all the details that make it possible.

    The best maths teaching scaffolds both conceptual understanding, worked examples and opportunities to practice with feedback.

    Do you think English teaching would be similar?


    • Probably. The deep conceptual understanding can come with time, but there are also those that just want to know how to find the answer. In mixed settings we have to keep this in mind and it’s why teaching is an ‘art’ not just science. I’d err on the side of telling them more than not though , englishly speaking , especially as the idea of ‘worked examples’ don’t always work outside of literal writing practice

      Liked by 1 person

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