Reflections on the power of soliloquy and expression in the classroom.
I recently attended a panel discussion with Andrew Wade, Lou Bloomfield, Kate Burke, and Claire Kinney on the use of voice in teaching and its impact on distance learning. The event was highly useful, even inspiring, but I want to discuss here a subtopic they did not address.
When I was a student at BYU I was part of Dr. Robert Burton’s Hyperdimensional Research Group. We were few, usually only two or three people at a time, and each worked on significantly different problems. One of the most common interactions in the office was when one of us would turn to another and say “could you listen while I talk through this problem?” There was no expectation of the listener being able to offer advice; we simply wanted the benefit of sharing our thoughts vocally to an audience.
A popular pedagogical technique is think-pair-share Lyman, F. T. (1981). “The responsive classroom discussion: The inclusion of all students.” In A. Anderson (Ed.), Mainstreaming Digest. pp. 109–113. College Park: University of Maryland Press. . The model is a simple one: you present a problem to the students, give them some time to think it over, then have them pair up and discuss their thoughts before having pairs share with the class as a whole. The addition of the pair-discussion step to the usual class discussion model is often cited as a way to engage shy students and to scale discussions up to a large classroom. I have yet to encounter someone who has tried think-pair-share and did not find it valuable.
When teaching first-year college students there are always some students who engage fully in class, do poorly on exams, and are still keen enough to discuss why they feel they did poorly. One of the most common suggestions from these students is to find a way to let them talk to themselves during the test. They feel that the requirement of silence inhibits their performance.
I have been employed as a tutor for a full decade. I have given lectures and talks, taught groups of 2 to 200 people with average ages varying from 10 to 50 on subjects ranging from faith to pedagogy to detailed technical topics. In this, I have found that students and teachers move between several modes during learning.
Sometimes a student’s mind is focused and clear and a teacher has knowledge to impart to them. Student expectations match teacher delivery and presented knowledge fills prepared openings in their mental model of the universe. In these situations, students have no need to vocalize.
Sometimes a student isn’t really engaged. The teacher is just some person talking in the background while the student entertains unrelated thoughts. In these situations, getting the student to speak is a powerful focusing tool for most people naturally pay attention to what they are saying.
Sometimes a student’s mind is focused and clear but the teacher hopes to impart an understanding that cannot be easily reduced to words and images. The teacher’s goal is not so much to impart information as to have the students explore and better understand information they already have. In these situations, students’ vocalizations can help focus their thoughts, keeping their exploration progressing and aiding learning.
Sometimes a student’s mind is trying to fit taught material into a metal model that does not readily accept it. They feel confused and uneasy as each thing the teacher presents fails to meet their expectations. In these situations, students explaining what they understand can help both teacher and student recognize the (incorrect) mental model so that the teacher can explain corrections and the student can understand which part of their understanding is being corrected. Student vocalizations are important, and ideally part of a dialog.
Of these four categories, in the first there is no need for student vocalization while in the last there is need for actual conversation. In between are situations where the students benefit from speaking but do not necessarily need to be heard by the teacher directly.
As with all aspects of teaching, the right use of student vocalization varies by the situation. The ever-useful lesson-planning question “how do I hope the students’ thinking will change?” can be gainfully augmented by “how are the students receiving the lesson?”. Of course, an experienced teacher can often guess how a lesson will be received before the students are present or even identified.
These observations also suggest a practical lesson for distance learning: don’t do it alone. Most students will frequently benefit from speaking to someone, often even if that someone knows no more than the student speaking.
I also find myself wondering on how much overlap there is in the value of speech and the value of writing. My first reaction is that they are differently useful in learning, leading me to wonder about the potential value of audio-recorded assignments. As a grader I would hate those (audio is hard to skim) but as a student perhaps they would be useful.