Watch What You Say: Improving Classroom Teaching Patterns



After we’ve taught a lesson, we know exactly what we’ve said to our students and how it’s impacted the results of our lessons, right?  Not exactly.

When I reflect on how a lesson went, I normally focus on the student assessments, to see the results of how much of what I taught gets mastered by students.  This is not a bad practice to improve your teaching.  One day, however, a thought came to me that I might be able to strengthen my teaching by thinking about my communication patterns with my students.  

Videotaping yourself and then self-reflecting is one option, and enlisting another adult to make observation notes and then discuss is another great way to get objective data on your teaching style.

Here are some questions to take note of when reflecting on your communication patterns with students:

How much are you/your students speaking?

Often, newbie teachers think that teachers are speakers.  They have most recently come from higher education, where the majority of lessons are delivered as lecture.  For elementary through high school students, and even for most adults, this is a surefire way to create boredom, even if you are the world’s most fascinating lecturer.  The human attention span was measured at 8 seconds in 2013 (which is shorter than a goldfish’s).  To keep students engaged, you must allow them react, question, and actively do.  A recent study from Dartmouth revealed that you remember approximately 30 percent of what you see, you remember approximately 50 percent of what you hear and see together, you remember approximately 70 percent of what you say (if you think as you are saying it), you remember approximately 90 percent of what you do.

Have your observer or look at your video observation from your lesson to examine:

  • How long are you speaking?
  • How long are students speaking?
  • Is it a healthy ratio to encourage student thinking and learning?
  • Are there points where speaking too long leads to students “checking-out”?

What are you/students saying?

It’s not just about the quantity of teacher talk; it’s also about the quality of your interaction with your students.  Think proactively whether:

  • When you are talking, is it primarily to impart content, or to stimulate student inquiry?  
  • How many questions do you ask during a typical lesson?  And are the higher order thinking questions that stimulate critical thinking rather than factual regurgitation?
  • How many questions do students ask?  How deep are their questions?  How do you help them ask deeper questions?
  • Are there natural entry-points for exploration and discovery in your lesson?

What is the flow of conversation?

Many teachers think that if they are asking lots of questions that learning must be happening.  While it never hurts to model asking questions for students, many times when a teacher questions and a student responds, the flow of the conversation becomes a ping pong match.  Teacher-Student-Teacher-Student.  In this model, a student sees their role of communicating solely with the teacher or to supply correct answers or to ask a question to get “the right answer.”  A better model, that also supports students communicating with their peers, is one that encourages students to respond to each other and to build off of and challenge one another’s thinking.  To this end, examine:

  • How many times do students respond to each other directly?
  • Is there the teacher-student ping pong interaction going on?
  • How do you encourage students to build off of the ideas of others?  To respectfully challenge one another?

How can you best encourage all students to participate in the class conversation?

And then there is the fallacy that if any student is speaking that all students are learning.  Although some students do learn best by moving or writing or creating, all students benefit from verbalizing their ideas.  Speaking and questioning are also essential skills for students to develop.  To see how well you engage all voices in your classroom, examine:

  • How many of your students participate during your lesson?
  • Are there certain students who monopolize?  How do you encourage them to step back and leave room for others?
  • Are there students who don’t speak or speak less often?  How do you help them participate?  
  • Are there some students who are more readily able to engage during certain types of activities or through certain types of communication?
  • Do certain students need to write down or practice what they will say before speaking in class?

Creating lesson plans is essential.  So is analyzing student learning by assessing their work products.  But do yourself a favor and evaluate your own process of establishing communication patterns in your room.  The results will only bring more voices and more quality thinking into your class.  

So don’t delay, grab a camera or a teacher friend to take notes, and then watch what you say!


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