Classroom communication is central to teaching; in fact, it’s almost a description of teaching. But the image of classroom communication as a teacher talking to rapt rows of students is false on many counts. That’s not what happens, and it’s not the most effective method of transmitting information.
In this post we’ll show evidence that demonstrates that communication in classrooms is most effective when it’s a two-way street, informed by mutual respect, guided by teachers and focused on understanding. We’ll address the importance of teacher-student and student — relationships. And we’ll end by looking at how new technological tools can be leveraged to accomplish much more effective classroom communication.
We’ll start with the case for classroom communication as a driver of educational and pastoral outcomes.
Classroom communication and teaching outcomes
Effective classroom communication is the basis of good educational outcomes. Studies confirm that teachers who communicate better lead classes to better grades and retention rates, while higher dropout rates are partially attributable to poor classroom communication. A positive relationship between teachers and students is both a result of better communication, and contributes to an environment that supports it: we are looking at a virtuous circle, or positive feedback loop. It’s one that can help overcome in-class impediments to learning, such as poor attitudes or fractured relationships between teachers and students, helping to create bilateral communication environments centered on the pursuit of understanding rather than expression of conflict.
Within this framework student communication is also extremely important. Good teacher communication can encourage, model and coach effective student communication, including learning about expression, persuasion, self-advocacy and questioning. Effective communicators are more effective students, and good classroom communication from teachers can help close the gap between privileged and disadvantaged students in this regard.
Classroom communication and behavioral and pastoral outcomes
Good classroom communication can improve behavior and attitude, catch social problems within the school before they begin, and act as a foundation for social and emotional learning. Students who can communicate effectively can advocate for their own social and emotional needs and are less likely to turn to negative behaviors such as acting out, attention-seeking, dissociation or ‘tuning out.’
In turn, these SEL outcomes can help drive better academic outcomes: it’s another virtuous circle. In order to break existing vicious circles, self-stoking cycles of negative actions and negative outcomes, teachers have one ‘lever’ they can pull, an action which is in their direct control: they can improve in-class communication.
Types of classroom communication
Traditional in-person classroom communication consists of verbal and non-verbal communication — spoken or written requests to students, writing on whiteboards and chalkboards, and so on. Of course, this type of communication is a two-way street and students can also talk to teachers.
It also involves non-verbal communication; to some degree, being a teacher is being an actor, performing to the class. Teachers can model desirable behavior, and their nonverbal communication, like body language, can contribute to the atmosphere of the classroom and thus to the learning environment. (Students can communicate this way too — just think of all the time a student has told you what they think of you without speaking…)
However, we’re now able to communicate more effectively in classrooms because we can use dynamic visual aids, video, and simulated activities (digitally manipulating virtual objects, for instance). We’ll get further into this later in the post. For now, this graphic shows the types of learning that are known to lead to better retention and engagement — and, superimposed, the methods of communication that characterize the traditional classroom:
We focus on precisely the forms of communication that lead to worse outcomes, because they were historically the only ones available to us. It’s time to change that. How can we encourage more effective classroom communication?
Encouraging classroom communication
Classroom communication doesn’t just happen. It’s the product of well-structured teaching and positive relationships between teachers and students, students and peers, and students and the school. When students feel safe, valued, and well-instructed, they feel like they can take part in classroom discussions, answer questions, and raise issues.
Create a safe environment
This goes beyond physical safety, though in some schools, that is a factor. It’s about feeling socially safe too. Teachers who use abrasive, shame-based techniques to punish students who raise their hands and get the answer wrong are less likely to see a forest of eager hands than those who address errors more positively (and no, of course, that doesn’t mean telling students they’re right when they’re not). But teachers aren’t the only source of power in a classroom. Students often feel intense social pressure from peers, and teachers have to find a way to override that so students can spend time learning instead of defending their reputations to their peer group. That can be achieved by teacher modeling, classroom management, and by direct personal communication between teachers and students.
Teamwork and groupwork
In Lethal Weapon, two cops with completely opposite characters are obliged to work together. They gain insight and respect, become friends, and get their work done. It’s a trope — because it happens. People who truly dislike each other won’t do a joint book report and become besties, but suspicion, mistrust and uncertainty can evaporate in the shared pursuit of common goals. Again, if there’s a positive classroom environment, students can learn from their peers that they’re good at things they didn’t realize they could do, or even that they enjoy them.
Two stars and a wish: the power of positive feedback
If all kids hear is negative feedback — don’t do that, this is wrong — what they’re hearing is: you’re wrong. It feels like personal rejection, and it leads to kids switching off, zoning out, acting up and giving up. But you can’t just tell someone who thinks two and two is five that they’re right so you don’t hurt their feelings. A part of a teacher’s job is to correct error. How can teachers communicate in a positive and affirming way but still address mistakes and problems?
One option is the ‘two stars and a wish’ approach, addressing two good things in a student’s work and one that could use improvement. This method can be used by teachers to offer feedback to students, or by students assessing their own or each others’ work. (If you’re brave you can ask students to apply it to you…)
This approach shouldn’t be understood as sparing students’ feelings because they can’t accept criticism; instead, it should be seen as a more effective way to communicate and modify work and behavior. In particular, when we’re seeking to establish the ‘virtuous circles’ of positive communication discussed above, positive feedback can be used to build supportive relationships with students — while teachers who rely on negative feedback more typically end up establishing conflictual student-teacher relationships.
Using digital aids to improve classroom communication
We have more options now than a chalkboard and a voice. We don’t have to wheel a big TV in to play VHS tapes. Digital displays give us access to moving images, to recorded lectures and talks, and to a range of blended communication styles — slides with embedded video, annotated speeches, and so on.
That’s a massive positive, because, as we’ve seen, sitting still and reading or listening to someone talk is one of the most ineffective means of communicating information we have. The real picture is more complex, because we can identify multiple learning styles as well as a general ‘pyramid of efficacy.’ This picture is itself complicated by the fact that almost no one has a single learning style and the most common configuration is ‘quadmodal’:
Of the four identified learning styles — Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing, and Kinesthetic — over a third of those surveyed here preferred all four:
It’s obvious from these graphics that we should seek to present information in complex, multimodal ways to match the ways students actually learn. You can’t do that with a chalkboard. But you can do it with a digital display.
Digital technology is credited by teachers with permitting greater collaboration between students (79%), supporting greater personal expression from students (78%), and allowing students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience (96%).
Using the international PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores, McKinsey was able to show how different classroom technologies affected learning:
Using data projectors and internet-connected computers was associated with a bump in reading that neared or exceeded the expected results of an additional year of learning. Math and science scores might be less emphatic but they remain impressive.
The evidence from McKinsey’s survey suggests that classroom-based technology is most effective when it’s in teachers’ control, with the best results coming from internet-connected screens and screens the whole class can see. (It also shows that the effect of screen usage is most pronounced, and correlates best with long usage periods of 60 minutes or more per session, in North America.)
That fits with the results of tests and surveys showing radically increased engagement from digital signs and displays. It also fits with evidence showing that such technology is most effective when used to do things for which there is no pedagogical precedent. When students used computers to look up information on the internet, attainment rose; when they used them to perform practice drills which could as easily have used pencil and paper, attainment actually fell, suggesting that it is the learning style (kinesthetic and visual) rather than the technological substrate that matters.
To bring more effective communication into the classroom, teachers should focus on pedagogical logic: why does this help students learn? Communication is a two-way street, and teaching staff should be looking for levers they can pull to help develop a ‘virtuous circle’ of appropriate and learning-centered teacher-student communication. Technology, especially in the form of internet-connected digital displays, can help with this by offering entirely novel pedagogical routes and permitting the formation of new learning relationships guided by teaching staff.