Let me presume that the average, well run classroom is full of conversation, most of which will be productive talk about the work the teacher has instructed pupils to do. With this in mind, there is ample opportunity for teachers to listen in on learning conversations as well as responses directly offered by students during whole class discussion.

Are you really listening?

If you are anything like me, you have missed various opportunities to listen attentively and then offer the most appropriate response. Add to this being observed or being in an interview, listening becomes even trickier and more elusive as you anxiously try to cover all bases, sometimes missing the obvious things as a result. I’ve been guilty of this before, and no doubt I’ll fail again, but it’s important to really listen to the students’ answers. Listening well provides insight into not only what they are thinking but how they are thinking.

If you listen closely enough and pause to reflect on the responses students give you, you are able to adapt your teaching accordingly. You become aware of subtle but significant misconceptions, which, if go unchecked, can reduce the quality of student answers. Take the following example from an English literature lesson.

Teacher: What makes poetry?

Student 1: It has rhythm.

Teacher: Great. You are right. How is rhythm achieved?

Student 1: Rhyme!

Teacher: Yes. How else do poets achieve rhythm?

The problem with the student’s answer is that it is both right and wrong. They are right to draw the conclusion that use of rhyme can help to achieve a sense of rhythm. However that’s only part of the picture. This answer contains a significant misconception or error since many poems have no rhyme yet there is a definite rhythm. The re-scripted example below would have been far better in responding to the student’s answer in order to move them forward in their understanding of the topic.

Teacher: What makes poetry?

Student 1: It has rhythm.

Teacher: Great. You are right. That’s just one feature of poetry amongst many others. How is rhythm achieved?

Student 1: Rhyme!

Teacher: Well done as you are partly right. But do all poems have to rhyme?

Student: No

Teacher: This clearly indicates that rhythm can be achieved by poets without using rhyme. All poetry has rhythm, but not all poems rhyme. Remember that. Everyone repeat after me on the count of three. 1-2-3: ‘not all poems have rhyme, but all poems have rhythm’.

Students: ‘Not all poems have rhyme, but all poems have rhythm’.

Notice that the second example of teacher and student discussion is far more effective as the misconception is challenged. The teacher’s role is to develop the students’ knowledge so that they can think more accurately about a topic. There is tremendous value in correction as it allows teachers to close the learning or knowledge gaps so that students’ understanding improves over time. Learning exponentially increases, serving well for examinations, discussions and other tasks require cognitive work.

No one could argue against the fact that just because a student was told something this means that they learned it. The following lesson, this newly acquired piece of knowledge could form a subject pop quiz. This would allow the teacher to test students’ retention and intervene further if required.

Here are some ways to challenge students’ misconceptions:

  1. Play the ‘Spot the misconception’ game. Ask a colleague to observe you with the sole purpose being to listen to what the students are saying and identify any misconceptions.
  2. Video yourself and then identify the number of misconceptions students give.
  3. Start the lesson by telling the students that today you aim to really listen to them and try to figure out the best response.
  4. Collect a sample of student work and with a colleague, trawl for student misconceptions. These could be used to form a bank which is then later used to inform class instruction and lesson topics.