This week’s #IMMOOC question was a good one. What is one thing that you used to do in education that you no longer do or believe in? Why the change?
I’ve been working with adult learners, teachers, and kids for over 20 years. Thinking back to some of the first workshops I ever did (yikes!), it is easy to see that I have evolved as an educator. (Thank goodness!) Like most educators, I am always reflecting on my practice and making adjustments based on different factors and current research. So, there has been a lot of changes over the years. However, out of all those changes, there is one change that I feel has had the biggest impact on my teaching. The ability to shut the heck up.
I’m a talker. I admit that. My ability to jabber on and on is almost legendary. When I first started conducting training workshops, I equated good teaching to good lectures. I spent much of my teaching time talking at my learners. I bet that to my learners, I sounded very much like the teacher from classic Peanuts cartoons.
I blame much of this on the fact that education was not my original field. Early in my career, I was an engineer who did training. So, I taught the way I was taught. Stand and deliver. As I moved into the education, I began to learn about effective teaching and learning strategies. I learned new ways to engage learners and make my instruction more learner-centered and less teacher-centered. Over the years, I’ve worked to include more hands-on activities, discussion, and questioning in my teaching style.
The hands-on activities are great. I’ve seen much more engagement and “Ah-ha” moments as my learners get their hands-on things. The hands-on activities have also generated more discussion and questioning as they work through activities. However, even though I was moving away from traditional lecturing to more of a discussion-based way of introducing new topics, I still found that the discussions were lacking. With a little bit of reflection, figured out the issue. I was still doing too much of the talking. It was still too much me and not enough them. I was asking more questions and doing my best to promote active discussions but my learners weren’t talking.
Here is what was going on. I would ask a question. Wait a second or two for someone to respond. No one would make eye contact. I, feeling very uncomfortable with silence, answered my own question and would continue on with the delivery of information. It wasn’t that my learners didn’t know the answers or didn’t have an opinion to add to the discussions. It was the fact that they didn’t have to. After a very brief moment of waiting for an answer and hearing no response, I would just answer my own question and we would carry on. I realized that I had a real problem with silence. To me, silence needed to be filled and if they weren’t going to do it, I would. I would end up having a great conversation with myself and my learners sat back and watched it unfold. Needless to say, most of them checked out.
As we read in Chapter 4 of The Innovator’s Mindset, relationships are very important. How could I build any type of relationship with my learners if they checked out while I had a conversation with myself? I couldn’t. And I didn’t. So, I worked really hard to get comfortable with silence. Let me tell you, for a talker like me, it was really hard. But what I realized was that I was not the only one uncomfortable with silence. My learners were too. If I paused long enough, someone in the room would want to fill the silence and would offer up an answer or comment. Sometimes I don’t get either but I do get the question, “Could you repeat the question?” BAM! That is the sound of the disengaged, reengaging.
Today, silence is a staple in my teaching toolbox. When I lecture or deliver new information, I try to break it up with discussion or reflection questions every 5 – 10 minutes. I ask my question and then I wait. I make direct eye contact with as many people as I can. I want them to feel uncomfortable with this moment of nothing. More often than not, not too much time passes before someone will respond and that will kick off a lively discussion. I believe that it helps my learners see that they are an active participant in this learning process. They have something to add to and I WANT to hear it. I WANT them to share it.
I’ve started using this technique in other areas of my professional life as well. (Works well with my teenagers too. Just saying.) If I want to be an effective educational leader and foster innovative thinking, then I need to shut the heck up and listen to what my team has to say. I can ask the important, thought-provoking questions, but then I need to let the silence hang there so my team knows that their perspective and ideas are important to the conversation. For me to create an innovative culture and build relationships with my team, it needs to be less me and more them. They need to know that I’m not just asking questions to hear myself answer but to give them an opportunity to contribute.
So, embrace the silence. Don’t feel like you need to fill it. Many times that brief pause gives your learners time to arrange their thoughts before they respond. If you break the silence too soon, you might never hear what they have to say.