Speak Up Please
Have you ever felt like you weren’t being heard? Have you ever refrained from speaking up even when you felt strongly about something? Skillfully speaking up and listening well are two of the most important life skills we can master and rarely are they explicitly taught to teachers, administrators and especially to students. To learn to communicate well takes self-awareness and the capacity to self-monitor as well as social awareness and emotional intelligence. All three ingredients—self-awareness, social awareness and emotional intelligence—are keys to successful teaching and learning.
I believe that the more we understand the dynamics of communication, the more effective our teaching will be and the more our students will learn. Communication, particularly oral communication, plays a central role in teaching even when teachers are aiming for student-centred, project-based or experiential learning. There is always someone talking to someone else at some point or even throughout the process. Therefore, it stands to reason, that teachers and students need to become extremely skilled communicators. Communication is also at the heart of living cooperatively in a complex and diverse world. Learning to communicate well is a life skill worth cultivating in every grade and every subject area. It is worth cultivating among adults in schools as we learn to breakthrough outmoded hierarchical structures and collaboratively imagine new ways of interacting that promote instead of inhibit innovation, creativity and imagination. In fact, if adults are not skilled at communicating, how will they be able to teach their students to be? It is not possible to teach what you do not know.
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How many adults in your school are willing to respectfully challenge the thinking or practice of a colleague or a supervisor? How many avoid confrontation of any kind in the name of keeping the peace or out of fear of hurting someone’s feelings or of being punished in some way by a supervisor? Not having the skill and courage to speak up to challenge the status quo, question the reasoning of others, or make an unpopular suggestion in ways that can actually be heard, limits the influence we can have. When we don’t believe we have the right and obligation to influence those around us to change the things that we see aren’t working, we feel powerless and slowly our passion drains away. I posit that every one of us can learn to become more effective communicators. It is a matter of learning a skill set—it is not necessarily an innate talent.
Informal communication is complex enough. When you add academics to the mix, you add another layer of complexity. Consider the aspect of knowledge in an exchange. If the speaker is more knowledgeable than the listener, then the issue of accessibility arises. “Can the speaker state her understanding in a way that the novice can grasp?” This dynamic is at play in our classrooms every day. Often teachers do a lot of talking and some of the students are not following what is being said. If the speaker [a student] is less knowledgeable than the listener, then interpretation comes into play. “Can the ‘expert’ interpret what the speaker is trying to say and perhaps clarify or summarize the speaker’s attempt at expressing her ideas?” So often teachers are listening for what they want to hear, rather than what the student is actually saying, they don’t realize that the student is onto an important insight.
I posit that every one of us can learn to become more effective communicators.
When engaging in discussions during math class, if there is a difference of opinion or two different answers are being discussed, is the teacher providing air time for students to express themselves? Have the students been taught to listen with open minds to one another or is there a competitive atmosphere in which being right [winning] is more important than understanding? Are they interrupting, talking over, or tuning out? Are kids just waiting to say what they want to say and not really even hearing what their classmates are saying? Is the teacher just trying to get through her lesson rather than listening to students and adjusting the lesson accordingly? At a faculty or department meeting, are these same dynamics at play? So many of these dynamics are at play just between two people. When there are 25 or 30 people involved, the dynamics are magnified and the role of the facilitator becomes critical.
Learning to create an environment for respectful discussions is just the first step in the process. Maintaining an environment for respectful and purposeful talking and listening is an ongoing endeavour. Setting norms for robust academic discourse is a step that needs to be taken over and over until the norms have become an ingrained part of the culture. Inviting every voice into the discussion and making it safe to state ideas—even half-baked ones—requires time and patience that many harried teachers and administrators don’t feel they have. I wonder how much more learning would take place if we were willing to slow down, probe each other’s thinking, consider other’s ideas before rejecting them, and literally take the time needed to engage everyone in the class or at the meeting?
Facilitating in ways that keep the eager, verbal students engaged, while nudging the introverted, shyer students to contribute requires astute social awareness, a commitment to equity, and a belief that every student and teacher is capable and can come to understand the ideas at play. Faith in the process and continual attention to developing one’s skills and the skills of the students in our care—an effort-based approach—goes a long way.
I have been thinking about and studying the dynamics of communication throughout my educational career. My new video project, “Adding Talk to the Equation,” due out in April, uses a series of classroom video clips to examine the pedagogical practices that invite all students into robust mathematical conversations. We begin by explicitly stating clear, high, expectations for students to listen carefully to the ideas of others. Listen so well that they can restate what a classmate said. This restating move takes practice and often reveals the surprising evidence that most kids are not following the class conversation. Rarely are students listening to what their classmates are saying. They have been trained to attend to what the teacher is saying and are often used to only attending when they are called on. The conversational pattern in most classes then is teacher student, teacher student, teacher student. This pattern means that most students are not actively engaged and except for the five or six we can count on to carry the discussion, are happy to be sitting silently until the bell rings. Generating a rich dialogue starts by ensuring that students are actually listening to one another.
Couple the restate practice with the use of turn and talk or think/pair/share, preceded or followed by a stop and jot is a pedagogical technique that gets more students engaged and also begins to make it clear that the teacher believes that everyone is capable of understanding the ideas under discussion and expected to engage in the conversation. My colleague, Antonia Cameron and I have written an in depth article on turn and talk which can be found here: http://www.metatlcinc.com/new/resources.html.
Turn and talk, restate or repeat back, and tell me more about that, are the three basic talk moves that teachers need to use more often and in all subject areas and at all grade levels. If we got into the habit of saying to a student, whether they are right or wrong, ‘say more about that’ or ‘tell us why you think that’ or any variation of these phrases that invite students to explain their thinking in full sentences and in ways other people can understand, then we will get more student input during class. When we actually listen to one another, it is likely we can engage in a conversation focused on reasoning rather than right answers. Which leads to the use of the next move—restate or repeat back. Once a student has fully expressed an idea, then ask, “how many people heard what was said?” Don’t be surprised if only three or four hands go up. Call on one student who did have his/her hand raised and ask him/her to restate or paraphrase or summarize that idea. Then instruct the class to turn and talk to make sure all students can restate the idea. If you want a quick way to assess this, ask kids to stop and jot the idea in their notebooks. Once the idea has been clarified, invite students to then agree with, disagree with or add to the idea on the table. It is impossible to agree, disagree or add on to a statement you didn’t hear. This process keeps one idea on the table long enough for as many students as possible to get their heads around the idea. In other words, it gives all students access to the idea. This process takes time, slows down the discussion and allows people to dive more deeply. It is different from the process of getting as many ideas on the table as possible with little understanding of each idea or the connections among them, which can result in few people learning anything of import.
When we actually listen to one another, it is likely we can engage in a conversation focused on reasoning rather than right answers.
These are the three basic talk moves. Once you master these, which often requires a very different way of thinking, then there are myriad other moves you can learn to add nuance and skill to your pedagogical repertoire. You can find a document listing additional moves, Cultivating Classroom Discourse to Make Student Thinking Visible, at: http://www.metatlcinc.com/new/resources.html
This post was written by Lucy West for LearnTeachLead.
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