Let’s talk WITH our students – not AT them

How do we, as educators, compete with the increasing number of distractions around our students? How can we get students to learn when their attentions are split among several things or are elsewhere all together? The answers to these questions are simple: we can’t compete, and we can’t get students to learn when their heads are somewhere else. But, what we can do is learn to teach in a way that engages students, so that their minds don’t have time drift away. So, how do we do this?

In my opinion, to do this, we must move away from the dominant lecture-style teaching format. Cellphones, laptops, iPads, Apple watches, etc all provide students with constant access not only to their friends and family but to the entire world via the internet. There is no way that they can listen to our voices droning on and on while they read the latest tweets and status updates. Don’t get me wrong, lecturing has its place in the classroom and can be an important teaching tool. For example, Robert Talbert discusses how lectures can be used in a beneficial manner in “Four Things Lecture is Good For” (2012) by stating that lectures are bad for transferring information from teacher to student but are good for covering a lot of material. He also states that people who are good at lecturing incorporate big-picture views about the topic being lectured. That is – lectures should not just spew fact after fact about one topic – they need to explain why the facts are important and relate the topic being lectured to other topics.

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However, standing in front of a group of people talking AT them for an hour plus doesn’t accomplish what we want it to. Instead of talking AT our students we need to talk WITH them. We should not be the only voices being heard in the classroom. Our students should express their thoughts, their ideas, their opinions, and their experiences in class (when appropriate and asked for, of course). Everybody has a different set of knowledge and skills that make his/her/their voices have something unique to say. And just because we are educators, does not mean we should not be educated every day as well. Even if our students don’t know more about the topic being discussed than we do, they may ask a question that sparks an engaging conversation. Or they may have a comment that insights feelings in other students that prompt them to speak up. Even the statements of “I don’t understand” or “can someone explain this in a different way” are extremely valuable to us as teachers. This lets us know that we need to LEARN to express something in a different manner. As Marc Carnes states in “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire” (2011), students are dropping out of college not because they cannot afford it (though that does play some role) but because they are not interested! Why spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on “not learning” something you’re not interested in?

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We cannot (or should not) forbid technology in the classroom without major pushback (see “Laptops and Phones in the Classroom: Yea, Nay Or a Third Way?” by Anna Kamenetz,2018). So, we need to get students to engage in their classes so that they are not bored and want to read that “Bob just got his hair cut and is feeling fresh” more than listen to us talk. Just as we are taught as children to earn the respect of others, as teachers we need to earn the attention (which can translate into respect) from our students. Making them feel talked at and unheard won’t accomplish this. I realize I am not providing any answers here on how to engage students, particularly while incorporating technology – that is up to us to discuss WITH our teachers and peers!

11 Replies to “Let’s talk WITH our students – not AT them”

  1. I really enjoyed reading your post and you brought up so many great points. I agree that student input, questions, experiences, and insights can be really beneficial in a learning environment. I am excited to continue to talk throughout the semester about ways to engage with students!

  2. Fascinating blog! You discussed lots of interesting points that I enjoyed. I like your discussions over the necessity of lectures where it should be, the distractive nature of digital technologies, and the need to keep students engaged in a class by “talking with them instead of talking at them.” You pointed very interesting and important point that the active classroom can be a win-win situation since students will learn better and instructor also can learn through questions and engaging conversations in the class.
    PS: The picture is so funny :)!

  3. I agree with you on your points here. Talking with our students is crucial to their learning the material and how it connects to them, and is also incredibly beneficial for assessment purposes- for us to know what they understand, can apply, critique, and also what they are still struggle with. I would also add that we must talk with our students more to also understand their needs. Selva talked in her post about an instructor of hers from UT- Austin who did this by asking what the students wanted out of the class, and then co-constructed the syllabus with them. What better way to engage students than getting them active in the creation of the course from the very beginning! And of course, being from a Human Development background, and a therapist, I think connecting with our students by talking with them is just simply a basic way to show you care. And I fully believe that when you show care for your students, they will also care about you as an instructor and the class as well.

  4. I agree — I have had a few classes where the students help shape the syllabus, which is a cool idea! But I think that only really works well in relatively small classes.

  5. Good afternoon Erin,

    I absolutely agree with you 100%! Talking with students, engaging, and building a community is the only feasible answer to removing exciting items like “laptops” from a classroom. I couldn’t even imagine having to deal with a monotone professor without some sort of distraction. Before laptops (and even sometimes still) I would sit by a window just so that I could stare out and imagine I was somewhere fun rather than stuck in a classroom. Uhhhhhh…..true story……yeah let’s just say that me sitting by a window while taking the GRE was a BAD idea!!! LOL!


    Cheers, Lehi

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