Over the years I’ve read, researched and put into action many, many things that have improved my teaching. But I’ve found there’s one simple thing anyone can do to make an immediate improvement.
That’s it. The science of effective teaching at its basic core is this simple action. But you also have to ask the right way.
Let’s look at why.
Where does a kid spend most of their day? Drumroll please… That’s right, school. As much as school can teach kids about working with other individuals, operating respectfully in a system of hierarchy and having basic social skills, I’m not a big fan of a lot that goes on in the classroom environment. To be more specific, I think it’s unhealthy how children get conditioned to do things a certain way.
Here’s the situation: imagine you’re back in school and get asked a question in front of the ENTIRE class by your teacher. Spotlight’s on you buddy. Let’s say most of the time it’s an answer you know, but you feel the added pressure from the eyeballs of your classmates staring directly at you and your mind draws a blank. What would you do? Would you tell the teacher, “I can usually answer this question but with the added social pressure and attention on me at the moment I’m feeling very uncomfortable and unable to answer.” Or will you say… “I don’t know.”
Yeah, that’s what I thought. “I don’t know” is effective because it’s a get-out-of-jail card that works every single time. So the student uses it again, and again, and again until it’s conditioned into a habit. Because think about it, what is the teacher going to do? Accuse them of lying??
By the way, I use a simple fix for the dreaded “I don’t know.” I simply tell all my students that it’s a phrase they aren’t allowed to utter in piano lessons ever. EVER!
But you have to understand that this is not the student’s fault. In their mind they’re trying to respect their fellow students and teachers by not wasting time. Would you be comfortable standing there in complete silence for 3-5 minutes while trying to come up with an answer? In front of everyone?? At that age, that type of silence is deafening and minutes can feel like hours. Plus, most teachers don’t have the patience to wait in the first place.
And this is only half of the dilemma. The other half is that I personally believe many educators are terrible at getting honest, useful feedback from their students, especially in a group environment. If you’ve had the same experiences I did in college, you eventually found out that instruction isn’t necessarily better in a higher education system. The college classroom isn’t exactly the epitome of freedom of expression. Unless, hurray for you, you went to a great school with great professors.
One of the worst scenes (of many) I can remember was when I was still in a music doctoral program. One day, the professor asked for the class’s opinions and a student bravely volunteered (it can be scary to put yourself out there) and expressed her point of view. You could tell how nervous she was by her tone of voice. So what did this professor do? Well, she wasn’t rude about it but she basically told the student that she was flat-out wrong in front of everyone! Personally, I felt terrible for this student and I was horrified at how ignorant an “intelligent” professor could be. Congratulations! You just guaranteed that no one will want to speak up in your class ever again.
Is that the only reason why no one else was eager to speak up? Nope. Turns out 90% of the time none of my classmates had a clue to what this professor was talking about. I know, because I would ask my colleagues after each class was over. I was just as desperate as they were to understand the material.
But wait, the story didn’t end there. This same teacher later complained about a lack of student involvement! Administer self *head slap*.
So how do we not repeat this horrific experience and get honest, truthful feedback from the student?
Well besides doing my best to stay humble and admitting that I don’t always have the right answer, I also try to think of why I’m asking in the first place.
Is it to get honest feedback? Is it to help the student? I have to ask these questions sometimes because I’m far from perfect. In my lowest moments I can have the urge to do something petty to get the point across (we’re all like that sometimes, admit it). Knowing the why almost always snaps me out of it.
I want to know if they truly understand what I’m saying. And what’s important is that you have to create the space where they feel like they will not suffer ANY negative consequences whatsoever for their words. You have to make it 100% safe that they will not be judged, that they can trust you. What’s more important is how you make them FEEL.
You have to realize that some kids aren’t able to communicate effectively yet and you have to be willing to not take ANYTHING personally. Because trust me, sometimes the answers will sting you.
Side Note: Have you ever met adults that rub people the wrong way? Well, don’t hold kids to the same standard. It’s unfair.
Next, dig deeper. Even if you directly ask a student, “did you understand what I said?” they likely will agree even if they don’t really understand. On one occasion I kept pressing my student 3 or 4 times before they finally admitted they didn’t get it! The specific wording I used to snap him out of it was, “did you really understand what I just said or are you just trying to be a good student?”
So… Understand my frustration with school? This is what “being a good student” entails for many kids. This is also the #1 reason why I dropped out of my postgraduate studies (it was a long list).
Now, a great technique to check for comprehension is from the book “Teach Like a Champion.” Ask them to repeat what you just said. But make sure they paraphrase it in their own words. You’re not looking for them to repeat what you said word for word or phrase for phrase. Then make sure to ask them how they would apply what you said in a hypothetical situation. Do it, don’t let them (or yourself) off the hook! This technique really forces the student to dig deeper.
As always, think of other areas you can apply this, such as the work environment and personal relationships. But if people are afraid to give you feedback, that may fall on you. Are you making it comfortable enough for people to be honest with you or do you get defensive and quickly shut down their comments? Do you listen to their feedback only to do nothing to implement it later?
Conversely, if you’re someone who gives feedback are you wording it in such a way that they will actually want to hear you? Do you consider their feelings or are you being harsh in your choice of words? Remember, you have to communicate with people in their language, not yours.
Think of what better teachers, parents, siblings, colleagues, and bosses we could be.
Think of what better people we would be.
So don’t ever be afraid to ask. Because if you don’t ask, you’ll never find out.