Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Model of Communication in Teaching

Perhaps it is time for a theoretical discussion on how teachers communicate with students. All grade levels. There was a study done some years ago I believe at the University of Florida but I am not sure, that reported that teachers talked TO or AT students about sixty-five percent of the time in a classroom. From my own experiences I'd say that was probably close to correct at times. But another separate research project checked on how much children listened and it was closer to forty percent. My experiences would say that might be high. I really never saw this later research so don't hold me to it.

But the other day I told you about Tommy and Improper Fractions. One on one. And that led my mind back to Charles and Ray Eames' model of communications that they developed I believe in the early sixties. It is interesting to note that this husband and wife team were essentially modern designers that played around in architecture, furniture, the fine arts, graphics and film. They were extremely creative and covered a wide swath. The following model I attribute to them, although I have modified slightly. Let's take a look at their model.



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The left box represents the sender (S) of the message. The sender has to decide on a message and get it to the receiver (R) of the message. An easy translation of all this is that the teacher (S) tells the student (R) to get his social studies book out (message). So far, we're cool.

But to have a complete communications we need feedback indicating that the message has been received.....NOT necessarily understood. The message has been received. Feedback might come in a variety of ways. The student says, "Yes, I will do that." and then gets his social studies textbook out. The sender of the message hears the words, "Yes, I will do that." and sees the book appear in the student's hands. That is feedback.

Now let us say that I am the sender of the same message but I say it in the French language. The student shows that he has heard me but does not understand the message. He might look quizzical, perhaps puzzled but doesn't look for his social studies textbook. That too is feedback. I have received the message that the student doesn't understand the message. I must try again. However, there has been a complete communication's act....even though the student didn't understand me.

You want to know what the asterisks are? Glad you asked. The asterisks represent noise. Big definition here--noise is anything that distorts the message. This definition came from the early electronics field of radio. Noise was really noise in those days. Crackling sounds on the speaker might keep you from hearing the message. During World War II, families sat around a radio and listened to messages about the war. Sometimes the message would just fad away (noise) and sometimes there would be so much static (noise) that you could not make out the words.

Noise is throughout the communications model. It can be in the sender of the message or in the receiver of the message. Or it can be in the environment as in an uncomfortable chair that hampers you from hearing the message. It may be that you did not eat breakfast and although you hear a message your thoughts are on your stomach. Noise can be embedded in the message as in, "Hey old man, get out of the way." 'Old Man' for me becomes noise. I get upset. Noise.

According to some theorists, there is always noise in the communications act. Always. I tend to agree with this school of though. And... you essentially cannot get rid of noise. You might eliminate one type of noise but another takes its place. A student comes to your class hungry, so you feed that student. You eliminate hunger as a noise. But now the student is sleepy. Go figures.....

But hang in there, we teachers have ways.... of overcoming noise. In my book there are two main ways of overcoming noise. These are not in order--you can do either one to overcome noise. Ready? First, you can increase the power of the transmitter. I can hear some of you saying, "you got to be kidding me." No, truly. If the student in the first example did not respond to my request that he get a book out, I can say it louder. "GET OUT YOUR SOCIAL STUDIES BOOK!" Or, I can say, "Charlie (aiming my message directly to one individual), get out your book." He's getting the full force of the message.

Now I am sure you won't believe me (sarcasm here--pay attention) but commercials on radio and TV are louder. The FCC has noted this and apparently will be making some changes in the future. I know, you knew that all along. Increase the power of the transmitter. Guess how they do that in a magazine--they print that ad on stiffer paper. Not only does it open more readily to that page but you tend to pay more attention to the ad.

The other way to overcome noise is...... REDUNDANCY. We teachers use this one as well all the time. We say it over and over. "Okay, boys and girls, open your books to page twelve. Does everyone have their books open to page twelve? Turn to one page past eleven!" Redundancy. That style is boring--we can do better. We can say it, we can write in on the white board, we can write twelve on the overhead. Or bring up a screen with the word 'twelve' on it in PowerPoint or Presentation.

Actually there is good research that advertising has used for years. You'll get your message across much better if you say it on the radio, show it on TV, mail an advertisement with coupon, give a free sample, etc all within a certain time. I'm forgetting some of the ways. But it is redundancy that can overcome (not replace) noise in the communications act.

Teachers have known this for years. Increase the power of the transmitter and/or redundancy. I have heard teachers at all grade level say in a quiet voice, almost a whisper, "I'm waiting." And the room comes to attention. That soft voice is actually an increase in the transmission of the signal. And kids have an unholy way of knowing just what level of softness is the breaking point.

I use to use the overhead. Blink it on and off. It always got the rooms attention.

So think about it--a teacher has to communicate each day, each lesson to fifteen, twenty, thirty five or more students. And each student needs to get the message--and the teacher has to get the feedback that that message was received. It really is a complex act. Most teachers are so cool on how they communicate. Sometimes a smile, a pat on the shoulder, "nice going," or however she/he has developed their techniques of reaching students. I guess that is one reason I had so much admiration for all teachers. The deliver the message of learning.

Many thanks to all those teachers who taught me how they communicated.

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