We Can Teach By Talking, But Are They Listening?


We Can Teach By Talking, But Are They Listening?

A few weeks back, I was reading a book called Teaching Minds (Kindle/Hardcover/Paperback or Audible Audiobook) by Roger Schank and really enjoyed it. As a Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University after his faculty experience at Stanford and then Yale, he is known for the quote:

There are only two things wrong with the education system –

  1. What we teach; and,
  2. How we teach it.

When I read great books on education, learning, or motivation, I will tweet out quotes that I may want to go back to at a later date. Today, during my grade 9 applied math lesson, I was immediately brought back to the following quote from Teaching Minds:

It was this book that inspired me to completely break free from note templates that I had been making for my students to complete on their iPad. I consider them pretty nifty and are more interactive than what you’d think of when someone says “worksheet“, but I realized that much of it was me scaffolding them along and that can quickly turn to disengagement and even just “copying” once it goes up on the screen.

Students Learn By Doing – Not Listening

Today, my students were working on Dan Meyer’s Hot Coffee 3 Act Math Task to introduce the volume of a cylinder with my goal being that we show the interconnectivity of math by connecting this new knowledge to prior knowledge involving proportional reasoning. What I’ve taken away from Teaching Minds and other books like Make It Stick that discuss interleaving with spaced practice is that students learn by doing – not by listening. While this might be difficult to deconstruct in certain subjects that are content heavy like Geography or History, it seems fairly obvious in math class. As I’ve outlined in a recent post called The Two Groups of Math Students I Created In My Classroom, I spent the better part of my career rewarding students who could memorize through mass practice, rather than rewarding them for being good at math.

But I Had Successful Students Who Learned By Listening…

It can be difficult to convince math teachers that scrapping a formal note that outlines definitions, formulas and an extensive list of examples if I expect them to “get through the curriculum”. After all, many students are successful when lessons are delivered primarily in a lecture format where a note is given and students sit back passively listening to the teacher while copying down the important points. But how many of us have actually engaged in some serious thinking about what made those students successful? Was it because they copied a note and listened to you? Unlikely.

I’ve learned to be pretty honest with myself when it comes to reflecting on my lessons. When my lesson sucks, I know it and am not ashamed to say it. Thinking back to my days delivering a traditional note as mentioned in the previous paragraph, my successful students were those who did their homework and crammed the night before a test. Those who were not successful, likely did neither. Sure, firing off a couple examples would help some make connections, but how did they do when it came to problem solving questions that appeared to be unfamiliar? Not so great.

Listening Is Hard For Everyone

Listening is tough. It is even tougher when you don’t care about what you’re listening to. When strong students seem engaged in your lesson, it is more likely the need to get the note down and maintain a high average that is motivating them rather than the words coming out of your mouth. For struggling students, they learned long ago that school isn’t so bad when you aren’t paying attention. Many would say that today’s generation has a lot more Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), while I believe they just aren’t afraid of teachers or parents anymore and don’t feel a need to comply. That isn’t a bad thing, either.

I have ensured that each and every class this semester has focused on students solving problems through discovery/inquiry, connecting them to new learning goals, and finding ways to extend them to a variety of other concepts in the course. There is not a whole lot of direct instruction coming from me and the kids are doing great. Now that I’m not up there for 75 minutes talking while oblivious to who is or is not paying attention, I can tell quickly when students are not listening. Only once or twice a class do I ask them for 50 seconds of their time (even though it is for more like 5 minutes) and during that time, I tell students to stop and have their eyes on me. Wow, do they struggle with it. I typically have to individually ask certain students for “eyes up” and by then, the ones who were looking are now looking through me and a few others are now starting to lose focus.

Today, I wanted to clarify an issue that every student in the classroom was having. The question was an extension that Dan Meyer provided with the task:

If you were going to try to triple the Gourmet Gift Basket worlds largest coffee record, what kind of coffee cup would you have to build?

Students Learn By Doing - Not By Listening - Extension Question

Since the students had to convert the volume of 269.255 cubic-feet to approximately 2010 gallons, every student had substituted 2010 in for V in the volume of a cylinder formula. Usually, I talk with a small group of students who are working collaboratively, however I thought I could save some time and address the whole class.

So I started:

Ladies and Gentlemen,

After circulating the room, it appears that we are all having a similar issue. Can you all stop for 50 seconds and look this way…

I went on to ask students what had gone wrong and when there was nothing, I thought this is a great spot for some direct instruction. I explained why using gallons was not possible and that they should use their measurement in cubic-feet and sent them on their way.

I then began walking around again to each group and quickly realized that none of the students had made the adjustment. So, I discussed it with the first group and they were off. Went to the next group and explained it again. The third… and so on. It actually took a matter of 10-15 seconds talking with groups individually and they were off to the races.

Talking To A Large Group Hurts More Than Helps

What I realized rather quickly today was that speaking to a large group appears to be the most efficient method, but it actually hurts more than it helps. After taking about 3 minutes to explain the gallons/cubic-feet issue, there were literally zero students who had absorbed what I had said at the front of the room and yet each student understood in under 20 seconds when I spoke to them directly.

Today, the lesson I learned about learning by doing instead of listening was much more important than the lesson my students learned about volume of a cylinder. In order for me to ensure that I won’t forget it, I thought I should probably apply my own advice of “learning by doing” somehow.

And now, you’re reading it.


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  • I am with ya brother but I have one issue with what you have written
    “After all, many students are successful when lessons are delivered primarily in a lecture format where a note is given and students sit back passively listening to the teacher while copying down the important points.”

    I am not sure successful describes it properly. This is certainly not true in applied classes. But in academic classes this only appears to be true. When we teach in that style (the style that many of us were taught in) the measure of success was whether we did well on the test.
    However, those kids that were successful on the test, are the same kids you see next year and you are shocked that they recall nothing from the previous year. That is, they didn’t really learn it, they just were able to mimic the teacher for the test.

    • Preach on! Completely agree. I don’t think I was clear enough in regards to why I believe some students can be successful when ‘sitting and getting’. Most of those successful students are doing practice at home (nothing wrong with that), but through mass practice. This means that they are basing their practice on familiarity without actually having to activate prior knowledge in the brain to build connections. We then promote that they “study” the night before, but this is simply to get back into that familiarity mode in order to allow them to trick us into believing they are good to go. Your comment about lack of retention is a clear indicator that students are not building a deep enough connection using this mass practice/cramming study method.

      I think your statement about how we test students is also a problem and it is clear to me that much of the applied/academic gap comes down to the fact that most applied students I have encountered are unwilling to play the mass practice/cramming game. I used to be disappointed that they just didn’t “work hard”, but what I realize now is that my applied students are the ones who are inspiring me to look for better ways. If all of my students played the familiarity game only to lose the knowledge by next semester, we’d continue believing we were doing a good enough job and thus continue that way.

      Thanks for always adding your thoughts. You add a ton of value to each post.

  • Erin Little

    Thank you! I agree completely and I also get stuck with lecturing sometimes. If I had my way our schools would be like the Summerhill or Sudbury Valley school but I digress… Both my classes have 29 kids in them and I have about an hour for math (works out to slightly less in reality). I have tried rotating through groups to consolidate or teach but I find I can’t get through enough curriculum in order to cover it all (I try hard to integrate strands and expectations but I know I can do better – a matter of time). I also do lots of investigations, but they need consolidation which I usually do whole class. Any suggestions? I really appreciate your work Kyle and that you share it on this blog. While I’m asking questions, I’m looking for a 3 Act Task for simplifying expressions and solving for x. Thanks!

    • That is always tough to get around the room. I’ve found that since I’ve focused more time on students engaging in problem-based learning (focusing on tasks, rather than covering content), students are doing the work and I can determine where the loose ends need to be tied. I’ve learned a lot this semester and am excited to keep playing with this “lecture-less” and “note-less” approach.

  • Erin Little

    I think that the issue is they just don’t have much interest in the topic (in this case math). If I’m interested in something I will listen, like when I’m engaged in a passionate discussion about education with a colleague. I think we can help them to be somewhat more interested in math it through 3-Act investigations and other activities but ultimately most of the good students are motivated by grades and future plans; I would guess only a small percentage are actually passionate about math itself. If we let all of them pursue their passion and interest then I think we would see a lot more engagement overall.

    • Engagement is another piece I’ve been trying to focus my attention on. For me, it seems to always come back to finding ways to leverage the natural human curiosity we all have in us. It is easy to get distracted with making sure the math “relates” to students when that really doesn’t seem to matter. I’m loving tinkering with this idea and hope to be able to come up with a good summary over time of what (may) be going on here.


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