How much time does it take you to feel and know the atmosphere in a new group of students? Surely, we feel atmosphere straight in the first lesson but the real knowing comes a little later, maybe, in a couple of lessons or so.
During this time the students and the teacher are testing the waters, they get to know each other better and develop a suitable communication style. Needless to say, a teacher’s personality greatly influences the atmosphere in the classroom. However, the atmosphere largely depends on the students and their relationships within the group. So, it’s not surprising, that with some groups we, teachers, feel more comfortable than with the others. So to say, you unmistakenly know when you on the same wavelength with your students, and your communication is going smoothly.
It is always enjoyable and energising to work in such an atmosphere. However, we don’t always have groups like this. Very often, we have to invest time and energy into bridging up a communication gap with our students.
I haven’t had any communication glitches with my students for a long while. Even so, I can’t even remember any case when I had any miscommunication with groups of students. Of course, there have always been some troublemakers, but these were certain individuals not the whole groups of students.
But last semester I came across a surprising and seemingly new to me situation. It wasn’t the lack of feedback as such. My students did respond to my questions and tasks but only if I asked them directly and personally.
The problem was that my students lacked the willingness or at least readiness to respond and participate. Whenever I ask them a question to reflect and to express their ideas on, or any other simple or challenging question, all I saw was downcast eyes, dull facial expressions and dead silence. With their body language the students cried out to me, “Not me! Not me! Don’t ask me!”
It once culminated in one of my students asking me back, “Do you want us to answer your question?”
At first I was puzzled, I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to elicit responses from my students. But one day, when I asked them just another simple question I looked up at them just to see them all ill at ease, perched at their desks like small little sparrows on a rainy day. I couldn’t help laughing at the their look! Then I explained to them why I was laughing. I told them that I could understand what was happening and described what they looked like at that moment. I assured them that I wasn’t asking questions for form’s sake and that I was truly interested in their ideas. They looked up at me, smiled and relaxed a bit. I think this was the moment when the ice broke.
I can’t say that the students became exceptionally cooperative and willing to participate in the lesson, but I can admit there was much more response from them since then.
Who or What to blame?
When I was reflecting on the causes of the situation I had a suspicion that my students didn’t like me or felt very indifferent towards me as a personality. If this was the case, there was very little I could do to change the situation and make them like me (or could I?).
But later in the semester I had a chance to clearly see that my personality or my teaching style was not the real cause of the problem.
Once a student of mine was making a presentation in front of the rest of the class. He started his presentation with a question just to see how much his listeners knew about his topic and also to grasp the attention. To his frustration he didn’t receive any answer: everybody just lowered their heads and cast their eyes down. The speaker’s frustration lasted for a couple of seconds while he was waiting for a response. Not having received any, he addressed to his fellow student by his name who confusedly mumbled something in response. Finally, on getting at least some feedback, the speaker hastily went on with his presentation never asking his audience any questions again.
This incident was enough for me to understand that I wasn’t the reason why my students refrained from cooperation as they reacted to their fellow student’s question just in the same way as they reacted to mine. Clearly, there were some other reasons for the lack of response from students.
So, Who or What is to blame, then?
A brief note: Here I am going to speak exclusively about Russian educational situation as I have no experience of any formal schooling outside Russia. However, you might find some similarities with what you have to deal with in your countries.
So once I realised that the lack of response was due to some reasons not related to my personality I tried to figure out what the real causes were.
And here is what I thought.
I believe students didn’t respond because …
1. they didn’t have anything to say. This could be blamed on the teacher who asked too complicated or irrelevant questions. But I’m sure this wasn’t the main reason as I was asking students questions of various complexity while the lack of response was almost the same in all the cases.
2. students are intimidated to speak out. This, I believe, is the main reason in my situation. My students came from the same schooling system as me, so I can easily put myself into their shoes. I know from my sometimes bitter personal experience that learners’ initiative is not welcome at schools and, even more so, is sometimes punished.
3. also, students grow to be afraid to express an opinion of their own or to give any answer it at all because they are afraid of making a mistake. And mistake is considered something shameful and unacceptable especially if it is made in public.
In this connection, I have to say that a widespread tradition to immediately give a mark to a student for whatever they say in the lesson is counter-productive and even harmful. This way learners are inhibited to think freely and imaginatively, they fear to be immediately labelled wrong and punished with a bad mark.
So, to avoid the nasty feeling of being publicly humiliated, students learn the worst lesson they can be possibly taught at school: it is better sit still and keep a low profile.
Not surprising, that we are very often baffled and alarmed at how passive, indifferent and inert our fellow citizens are. Sorry, but we all have been through school with the its carrots-and-sticks (mostly sticks, though) system.
What to do?
Below is what I think is essential to do if we really want to see more open-minded, confident and proactive people around. Of course, the list is not exhaustive and any other ideas are most welcome!
1. Friendly and welcoming atmosphere in the class where students feel comfortable and know that they matter and their voice is heard and appreciated. I am sure you don’t knew to be convinced of this: this prerequisite is self evident and fundamental to all the other measures. However, not every teacher shares this view. I remember two of my schoolteachers – the Russian language teacher and the teacher of English – who could serve as the blatant example of how teaching should not be done. They both were exceptionally stringent and unfriendly, reserved and distant, prescriptive and gloomy. The sheer thought of their lessons made me sick. Needless to say, these teachers’ lessons were all painand a complete waste of time for me: I wasn’t learning anything there except for the fear.
2. Lots of the whole class mingling and pair or small-group interactive activities that can take stress and tension away. They are also the salvation for timid and vulnerable students who are scared to be the centre of attention and speak in public.
3. Problem-solving, inventive and imaginative activities and tasks which would foster imagination, critical and creative thinking.
4. Individual and team work through which students can learn to cooperate and work together towards a common goal, share responsibility and try out various roles within a social group. Also, individual work is necessary for learners to elaborate their own opinion and style and be ready to stand up for their own viewpoint.
5. A larger set of various assessment techniques should be put into practice too. This will help to avoid the too straightforward and imperative assessment which learners fear so much. Click on the following link to find a rich collection of alternative assessment techniques you can try and use in your classroom.
I believe the alternative way of assessment and activities like the above could be incorporated in lessons on any subject: from chemistry and maths to languages and history.
All these measures may help teachers to create a comfortable and stimulating environment for learners’ creativity and initiative to flourish. This might not work every time and with every student, but this will surely help students to relax, open up and respond. So I hope that we will see much more raised hands and wideopen eyes looking straight into our eyes.
For further reading I recommend Luba Vangelova’s article which goes in line with my blog post and develops some ideas expressed here.