Participant engagement and learning depends on being understood and having the sense of feeling safe enough to divulge their thinking to the group.
— The Choreography of Presenting
The more we learn about how our brains work, the more we understand about what kinds of states are most conducive to learning. For example, we know that when we are in a fearful space, our minds are not in a position to learn effectively.
One way to help our students feel more at ease is to listen and acknowledge. In their book The Choreography of Presenting, Kendall Zoller and Claudette Landry express this beautifully: “Listening and acknowledging help establish and maintain a state of relaxed alertness (Caine & Caine, 1994), a psychological state in which the emotional threat from revealing what you do not know is low and the cognitive challenge associated with learning new material is high” (84).
To say this another way, feeling engaged and understood by the teacher puts us at ease; when we are at ease, we feel less self-conscious in front of peers and more ready to be challenged. If we could only have classrooms of one, we would dedicate our attention to understanding what students are thinking, and respond fully to their questions and interests. But it’s not so easy nor obvious as to how to give acknowledgement to a whole classroom of students at once.
Zoller and Landry describe a handful of ways that our body language can communicate this kind of acknowledgement to an entire audience at once. Though they are talking more broadly about presenters and adult audiences, their advice is extremely relevant to teachers and students.
When a participant has a question or comment, our body language is important in establishing rapport and showing the participant that we are really listening. We can show we are listening by:
- Making eye contact
- Standing still
- Breathing slowly
- Holding an open gesture and stance (even when we don’t make eye contact, 2, 3, and 4 are very powerful in showing that we are attentive).
Where we stand in the room, in relation to the student asking a question and the rest of our students, can make a big difference in how engaged and at ease the whole class is.
For example, if a student asks a question and we walk close to them to answer, the rest of the class can be physically boxed out of the ensuing conversation and our stance can potentially seem more intimidating to the questioner.
On the other hand, if we stand in a place where we can see the entire class, we can better read their reactions and include them in the discussion.
After a student asks a question, our next actions make a big impact on how heard the student feels.
For example, if we interrupt or dismiss their thoughts, it’s less likely that that student in particular, and the others in general, will stay engaged or ask more questions.
On the other hand, as Zoller and Landry suggest, by pausing, paraphrasing, and probing, we can build a trusting and engaged classroom.
These subtle movements and changes in our physical presence can make a very important impact on how able our students are to receive information and construct knowledge.