In my job I do lots of training sessions with groups of teachers. Sometimes it’s a small group, sometimes a classroom-full; sometimes a giant hall or lecture theatre. I’m fascinated by the ways teachers’ behaviours provide a reference point to illustrate student behaviours and responses during our lessons. I often make the point that students behave the way they do, not because they are feckless teenagers, but because they are people; they are human – and teachers do exactly the same kinds of things; they respond in similar ways.
Here are some examples:
Responding to learning activities
In my sessions I use lots of examples of questions and retrieval activities to illustrate the difficulties people have with learning ideas – and the extent to which our memories fail us. Nearly every time, participants in the sessions provide live examples of the struggles our students experience:
- Forgetting completely or struggling to remember or explain something that has literally just been explained or discussed in the group seconds previously. One person’s response tells you nothing about what any other person might know.
- Mis-reading words, not saying them correctly, guessing pronunciations and getting them wrong – but finding it much easier after explicit modelling.
- Struggling to explain something they think they know but can’t find the words – or realise they didn’t know it as well as they thought they did.
- Finding it hard to recall information after having had it in laid out in a document to read just seconds or minutes before. The power of using multiple iterations of Shimamura’s “Generate-Evaluate” cycle is easily demonstrated.
- Sheer panic in the face of being asked a question and opting to say ‘I don’t know’ -or the almost embarrassing level of delight adults have at knowing something and getting it right! The emotional responses we have in relation to learning, succeeding or failing can be strong.
- Feeling stupid when getting an answer wrong, following up with something like ‘I’ve always been crap at geography’; f eeling stupid when other people are getting the answer that they can’t see – eg in a non-verbal reasoning question, and then labelling themselves as ‘a bit thick’ – that old fixed mindset defence.
- The joy people experience from building confidence and fluency with a bit of old-fashioned repetition and rehearsal. It feels good to know something and get better at explaining it or saying it more fluently,.
Very often I use these adult behaviours to highlight how far we need to go to get all students to learn all the material we’re trying to teach. It requires a much more intensive, extensive approach to questioning and recall activities than many people realise.
This is hilarious. I love to watch it happen and then highlight it. Anything students might do in unstructured group activities, adults do in theirs. Here’s a sample:
- Allowing one person to dominate a pair, trio, group – such that the shared response is really just the thinking of one person. I’m often amazed at how comfortable some people are to totally dominate a group or, conversely, how readily they capitulate and let someone else do all the talking or thinking. When six people sit around a table and I ask for pairs – I have to properly insist or else we end up with one person pontificating to the whole table.
- Needing to tell others your answers even when you’ve been asked to think silently – to allow others to think for themselves. This really makes me laugh. Some times I lay down the law and say that I really, very seriously, want people to think to themselves without sharing their thoughts – and I see people bursting, desperate to tell their colleagues that they know the answer. It’s a powerful instinct – “look at what I can do”. It’s also just entirely natural and positive that people want to talk about their ideas; insisting on not talking can feel weirdly stifling and unnatural. Think-Pair-Share is a strategy I continue to promote because of the power that it has to structure learning-focused talk.
- Talking about a totally different set of ideas than the ones that you’ve been asked to discuss. If you wander around a session where adults are talking at their tables – you usually get a mix of discussions related to the question in hand plus a whole bunch of other stuff. People have gone off a tangent, started talking about lunch, are comparing notes on the match or on Love Island from last night. In the safety-bubble of group or paired discussion, adults set their own rules. Why shouldn’t they? But of course, this is how students feel too. If adults drift off in this way, you can be sure your students will.
What this highlights is that groups have dynamics that you have to take account of. If you leave it to chance, drift happens. Of course it does, naturally so. If you need to keep everyone to task, discussions need to be quite tightly goal-focused with some level of accountability and some structures that ensure everyone is involved and is able to contribute, to deepen their learning and understanding.
Off-task or non-conforming behaviours.
Again, this can be hilarious. Very occasionally I see it as actually rude – mostly it’s just funny that adults think that either they are invisible or they really just don’t care what anyone else thinks or whether the instructions apply to them:
- Calling out answers despite being asked not to. Why? Happens all the time – someone just has to prove they knew it!
- Doing something other than the thing you’ve asked them to. It’s their time, fair enough… which is often how students feel I guess. This is what I want to do so I’m doing it whether you like it or not.
- Talking to their neighbour right under your nose, or sat at the back, as if nobody can hear. Or just blatantly having a good old laugh and a chat during the session. It could be in a room of 20 people, two people right in front me, chatting away all the time. It could be a couple at the back of a hall, arms folded, opted out and chatting away merrily. Increasingly I deploy various “pause and make eye contact” techniques to make an issue of it. If you’re in my session, I expect your attention! Sometimes there is mild annoyance, sometimes embarrassed acknowledgement.
- Texting a friend sitting elsewhere in the room during the session to exchange a joke and looking for a response – as if nobody would notice. Hello??? I called this out only recently. “We’ve got people texting each other in the room – I’ll just wait a minute”. (Conference tweeting is different – that’s a whole other thing with a protocol of its own.)
- Blatantly checking emails or browsing internet on laptop, pretending to make notes, even in a small room where this is obvious. Making notes fine, anything else – not! Reminds me of when a colleague used to bring her marking to Year Team meetings. Please!
- Sitting with back to the screen or presenter – and reacting oddly grumpily at the invitation to turn around. Why would you do this? Sometimes I find people are uncomfortable with the eye contact. My teacher-itch kicks in all the time when I can’t see someone’s face and often pause to wait for people to give attention when I feel they should be. Sorry.. it’s the teacher in me.
- Filling in from the back leaving front row empty, seeking the position of minimum exposure. Classic behaviour. Almost universal. I get it – adults should sit where they like; they’re adults. But the idea that a cloak of invisibility allows back-row chatter and off-task nod-wink whispering to be less conspicuous is a hilarious delusion. I CAN SEE YOU.
The point of this is highlight that students are often doing things that adults also do. We need to recognise the natural inclination people (including adults and teenagers) have to do the stuff they need, that they want, that makes them feel safe, comfortable, at ease, on their own terms, in their own time, in their own space… As Shimamura suggests in MARGE, one study showed that only 45% of university students from a large number were paying attention in a lecture at any one time. These are human behaviours; not the signs of dissent and subversion. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be challenged – they often should be. I have no qualms challenging adults over these things. But it’s worth acknowledging that certain behaviours are natural, common in groups of all kinds and need conscious effort and a degree of self-awareness in order to address them when they’re problematic.