We are told that the person talking is the one who is learning. Think about that within the context of a traditional American classroom. Who's talking? I've observed hundreds of classrooms over the course of my career and can easily conclude that in the vast majority of them it is the adult who is doing most of the talking. Does that mean it's the adult who is learning? We would hope this to be so, but not as the primary learner at the expense of the kids. Perhaps we have the equation upside down.
Traditionally, we limit, or at least control, the amount of student talk in a given class setting. Our experience suggests that a well-managed classroom will have students compliantly focused on every word given by their teacher, with limited opportunity for peer to peer discourse or debate.
At what cost? What happens when, and if, the students speak?
In a provocative, and, somewhat, amusing article that appeared in the November 3, 2015 edition of Faculty Focus, professor Joseph Finckel recounts an occurrence where he literally lost his voice, rendering him unable to communicate with his students in the manner that was familiar to both him and them. Yes, he is a college professor. But, I would hope to dispel any myth that his experience is solely applicable to a post-secondary environment. I find his experience, and his conclusions to be equally appropriate for pre K-12 practitioners to consider. After all, true learning is absolute. Nuances for the age of the learner are expected, but should never be leveled as excuses to avoid the truth.
Professor Finckel states: “A wealth of literature focuses on active learning and learner-centered instruction, but I submit that nothing empowers learners as immediately and profoundly as does removing the professor’s voice from the room.”
Let that resonate. “Nothing empowers learners as immediately and profoundly as does removing the professor’s voice from the room.”
Even as his vocal condition improved, he found himself captivated by what was occurring in his classroom. So he elected to extend his period of silence. “My experience teaching without talking proved so beneficial to my students, so personally and professionally centering, and so impactful in terms of the intentionality of my classroom behavior that I now ‘lose my voice’ at least once every semester.”
(I would suggest a more frequent interval of teacher silence.)
It all boils down to the tension that exists between dependence and independence.
Dependence is reinforced in an environment where the teacher is doing the bulk of the talking. It is the teacher, the expert, who is the keeper of wisdom and information; to be served up at their discretion and as he or she is comfortable. Consequently, any discovery that the students may experience is in the sole control of the instructor. When discovery does occur, how it happens and the manner that it will be assessed, is a one-sided proposition. In fact, what might appear to be discovery may not be true discovery at all. We should not be disillusioned that just because students are observed to be diligently writing down every word that's being said, that this translates to genuine student engagement. Rather, it is an act of compliance: compliance of an expectation to be receivers of information rather than those who construct it, in preparation for a scripted call and response experience that is the product of successful memorization and the timely regurgitation of information.
Rather than limiting student opportunities through dependence on his or her teacher, we must aspire for them the chance to operate independently. We must trust them enough (that’s right, I said “trust”) to construct learning that has meaning for them, to develop their creativity and their analytical thinking through collaboration and purposeful discourse. Sometimes, this is out-of-their-seats and noisy. But, nurturing academic independence is a critical component of developing the skills, and knowledge, that they will find to be relevant and will prove to be essential to their successful futures.
I would probably sound rude were I to suggest to a teacher “sit down and be quiet.” Yet, that may be some of the very best counsel I could offer. By assuming the roles of facilitator, coach and guide rather than conductor or engineer, the teacher is freed to actually engage with their students in the construction of their knowledge and competence, and observe learning as it is occurring. Again, quoting Professor Finckel: “Your capacity to observe what happens in your classroom will increase exponentially when you relieve yourself of the pressure to speak.”
Instruction that relies on student passivity, no matter how well planned and executed, does not assure or guarantee that learning is taking place. As discussed in this piece and several previous posts, true student engagement, the gateway to learning, is dependent on kids assuming active roles in their education. They will be engaged if they are given the opportunity to explore their curiosity. They will be engaged if they are permitted to develop their creativity. Students are more likely to be engaged when they have opportunity to express their thoughts, insights and ideas, and the opportunity to share these with their peers in a collaborative pursuit of learning and understanding. Students must never be surprised when they hear their own voice.
The final word belongs to the professor. “For those of us who benefited from great lectures and class discussions in college, it is easy to assume that more talk equals more learning. The more we transmit, the more they will receive. We talk with the best intentions; the most logical way to teach something is to explain it in a way that makes sense to us. (However),
teaching without talking forces students to take ownership of their own learning and shifts the burden of silence. It also forces us to more deliberately plan our classes, because we relinquish our ability to rely on our knowledge and experience (what’s happening) in the moment.”
Shh. Listen. The kids are learning.