Say More, Talk Less: An Excerpt from Building School 2.0

CHRIS LEHMANN is the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, a progressive science and technology high school in Philadelphia, PA.

ZAC CHASE is a former teacher, an instructional technology coordinator, a consultant, and a writer who blogs at

This excerpt from Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need explains that when teachers speak less in the classroom, students can become better at speaking and expressing their ideas. This excerpt is just one of the book’s 95 propositions for creating better schools.

We talk a lot in classrooms. We talk a lot in schools. We talk a lot in education.

Sit in any traditional classroom in America and you’re likely to hear much talking. Traditionally, this will be coming from the teacher. Often it will be in lecture mode. If you (and the students) are lucky, the class you are watching will feature a lecture from the teacher and then time for the students to practice …alone …no talking.

If fortune turns his back on you, the lecture will last the entire class period, with the expectation that notes will be taken the whole way through.

In the schools we need, we say more and talk less.

Improvisational theater gives us an appropriate structure for considering this approach, it’s called economy of dialogue. In her book, “When I Say This,” “Do You Mean That?” Cherie Kerr explains, “What this means is the improv player can say only what is absolutely necessary during any scene in any show.”

An economic approach to talk in the classroom, well-deployed, can increase the value of what’s being said. If a student no longer has to filter out the excess speech, it stands to reason those words he does hear will have greater value.

From a practical perspective, respecting the economy of dialogue also helps to adhere to Dan Meyer’s directive, “Be less helpful.” With fewer words to instruct them, students will find themselves the chief technicians of their learning, needing to parse out the meaning of the judiciously offered information from the teacher.

This speaks to only one segment of the classroom population—the teacher—but the rule applies to students as well.

When we ask students, “Why?” after they’ve answered a question or offered an opinion, we are creating a semantic implication that there is a right answer for which we are looking. Sometimes there is. Much of the time, there is not. What we are after when we ask follow-up questions in class is more information from our students. We want them to say more to help us understand their thinking and help them to play out their nascent ideas.

If this is what we mean, then this is what we should say. In cases where students have offered information and our instincts tell us there is more to be mined in their minds, rather than narrowing the scope of what they might say next by asking “Why?” we can simply invite them to “Say more.”

Let us as teachers practice economy of dialogue on our classrooms, saying only as much as really needs to be said. Then let us ask students to say more so that they get comfortable with playing with ideas out loud and finding the meanings they intend to make.

From Theory to Practice

  • Try changing from “Why?” or “What do you mean?” to “Say more …” in your classroom. Make a commitment to doing it for a full week and then journal about the experience at the end of the week. What did you notice that was different about what kids said in your classroom?
  • Read The Dialogic Curriculum by Patricia Stock. It is an amazing text for delving deeper into inquiry and into student ideas.


9781118076828.pdfABOUT THE BOOK: In Building School 2.0 authors Chris Lehmann and Zac Chase offer a larger discussion of how education, learning, and our physical school spaces can—and should—change because of the changing nature of our lives brought on by these technologies. The best strategies, the authors contend, enable networked learning that allows research, creativity, communication, and collaboration to help prepare students to be functional citizens within a modern society. Each section of Building School 2.0 presents a thesis designed to help educators and administrators to examine specific practices in their schools, and to then take their conclusions from theory to practice. Collectively, the theses represent a new vision of school, built off of the best of what has come before us, but with an eye toward a future we cannot fully imagine.

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