Classroom Communication: Clarity
05 May 2022
It was my wee boy’s fourth birthday party last week. The garden was to play host to a ninety-minute extravaganza of exciting activities: with eleven three-and-four year old’s frolicking in the sunshine.
Inevitably, five minutes before the little darlings arrived it started to pour with rain. Cue eleven three-and-four year old’s now squeezed into our living room.
A desperate consultation between my wife and I revealed a collection of games that we could hopefully fill the time with. My wife suggested we started with the ‘balloon game.’ She hastily explained to me that it involved a race between two lines passing the balloon behind them.
As you can probably imagine, my explanation of this game was utterly miserable. The group looked at my quizzically, before ten minutes was spent hitting each other on the head or manically shouting about ‘poo’ (what on earth is with this age groups bizarre obsession with excrement!?).
Not to labour an already laboured point, but I am ironically listening to the audiobook of ‘How to talk so little kids will listen,’ at the moment. With two small children, I am keenly aware of how subtle the use of language is with them – and how quickly it can spark a change in mood!
I am also about to be tasked with supporting the development of collection of new English teachers from August, so this utter failure to elicit any understanding at all left me reflecting on that essential element of all communication: clarity.
In the hierarchy of teacher skills, it has to reside near the top. You might have dazzling subject knowledge and a charismatic delivery, but unless there is crystal clear communication in the room, and clarity of expectations – there will be no learning.
In this spirit of aiming for crystalised communication, here are five brief initial thoughts on how to achieve it:
1. Pace of Speech: As teachers we are orators on a very public scale. Unless we have the capacity to control pitch, volume and pace of our speech then we will not encourage listening and clarity in our classrooms.
As a teenager I had a Maths teacher, for this purpose we will call her Mrs Multiply, who had one mode of communication: loud. I dreaded going to the lessons, partly because Maths completely baffled me, but more because I couldn’t hold on to anything Mrs Multiply said.
The pace and pitch of speech is also balanced with the way we use body language and movement around the classroom – are we projecting warmth, calm and confidence, or are we distracting young people through our movement?
2. Questioning. How do we know we have achieved clarity in the classroom? Is it by the well-honed facial expressions of young people who have mastered the art of nodding sagely to our every instruction? How many times have we given instructions in a lesson to be met with a sea of questions: “What do I need to do again?”
This brilliant post from Tom Sherrington has had a real impact in my own teaching, moving from “do you understand”, to “what do you understand?” being a bit of a game-changer.
These two posts I wrote almost five years ago now, one on questioning traps and the other on questioning strategies, might also help. Of course, things like success criteria and objectives can help in the mission to secure clarity, but it is the questioning to check that our students have a tangible grasp of those things – not just flashing them on a PowerPoint side – that will really ensure understanding.
3. Stories: Let’s take this blog post as a case in point. Without framing it in the contexts of the story of a four-year-old birthday party, it would be remarkably dull (or even more dull, depending on your sensibilities). Stories help us to achieve clarity, they help us to hold on to information, and they increase our desire to listen and learn. They also don’t require any planning: they are merely fascinating asides that illuminate thinking for our young customers.
4. Less is more: The principles of minimalism (again, I have been rambling on about this for half a decade – this post is a summary) are fascinating to reflect on in terms of how we go about the business of learning in a classroom.
I have found myself thinking about this notion of less is more as I consider designing a curriculum for an English teacher training year. Achieving clarity of intention is actually remarkably difficult and complex, it is much easier to keep adding information and resources. I know this has often been the case in my English lessons, particularly when I started teaching.
What can be stripped away strikes me as a useful question to reflect on when considering planning. The focus on the thinking that takes place, rather than the resource development has always helped me: what exactly do I want them to be thinking about in this activity? It can be applied at every level in the classroom: from that tendency to over-narrate and interrupt young people when they are trying to work independently; to that PowerPoint that is packed with information, different colours and jazzy wee pictures.
5. Modelling. Balloongate would no doubt have been avoided if my wife and I had sat on the floor and shown our young party guests how to play the party game. It could have been interspersed with some questions about their understanding throughout the modelling process. Even better we could have broken down each stage of the game for them, and asked us to repeat in a choral fashion as we went along (might have filled a bigger chunk of that endless ninety minutes then!)
Modelling as many processes of the lesson as possible, will play a big role in stopping the breakdown in understanding occurring and help give young people the confidence to then attempt tasks independently.
Perhaps a final point to reflect on is the intrinsic differences that exist in every classroom, and how our planning can help them to achieve clarity. As a fully-fledged introvert, I struggle to achieve clarity verbally initially, unless I have had a chance to reflect in writing. My wife, as a classic extrovert, prefers to talk through issues to arrive at a point of understanding. Space for both in the classroom is important.
Back to balloons. I showed my wee boy a bit of the film ‘Up’ this week, about an elderly gentlemen who vanishes off on adventures in his house – propelled by balloons. This central image from the film strikes me (ready for the cheesiest end to a blog, ever?) as a fitting metaphor for achieving clarity in the classroom. Get the clarity right, and our young customers can sore upwards and onwards in our subjects.
Thank you for reading.