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Teaching is Listening, Learning is Talking

Author(s): Jay Roberts
Posted: August 5, 2009


Teaching is listening, learning is talking. This wonderful rule of thumb, from the educator and writer, Deborah Meier, reminds us that real learning comes, in large part, from being actively involved in the educational moment. Experiential educators have long known this and frequently advocate for teaching that involves the learner and does not, as Paulo Freire famously described, treat students as empty “banks” in which to deposit information. I once heard a feisty school superintendent from Texas describe this method as the “sit, get, spit, and forgit” model of teaching and learning.

While many in progressive education have believed active learning to be far more effective, definitive scientific evidence has been difficult to come by. There are mountains of educational studies, research, and journals advocating for this method or that, and educational conservatives and progressives both have virtually unlimited amounts of data from which to cherry-pick evidence to support their particular pedagogical approaches. There have been very few studies that have risen above the fray to clearly and succinctly shown significant, generalizable results. Until now.

One of the most respected scientific journals, Science, recently (and without much media attention), published a study that, in its simplicity, is astounding in terms of its significance. “Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions,” published in the January 2nd edition of Science (vol. 323) is one of those simple research studies that yields powerful results. In the study, researchers used in-class “clickers” (imagine the “ask the audience” function in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?) to have students answer a conceptual question in class. Then without revealing the answer, the researchers had the students discuss their answer with a neighbor and then “re-vote” after the peer discussion time.

As might be expected, the number of students clicking on the correct answer increased following the peer discussion. We might expect this because students who originally missed the question might be lucky enough to sit next to “Mr. Smarty Pants” who helped them figure out the correct answer. OK. No big deal right?

These researchers took it a step further. They wanted to find out whether peer discussion, in and of itself, increased conceptual understanding irrespective of a student sitting next to Mr. Smarty Pants or not. So, after they asked the first question and performed the peer discussion and re-vote, they asked a second question. This question was what they called “isomorphic” in that it was related, conceptually, to the first question but it required conceptual transfer from the original question. At no point during this exercise was the correct answer to the first question revealed (thus controlling for the Mr. Smarty Pants scenario). The results were astounding.

The number of students who answered the first question correctly increased after peer discussion (again, as expected). But, the number of students who answered the first question wrong, then changed their answer to the correct one after peer discussion also tended to answer the second, isomorphic question correctly. Even more significant, students who got the first question wrong both times still improved on the second question (over random guessing). So what does this all mean and why is it significant enough to appear in Science?

This study shows, very simply but very powerfully, that students learn more and they learn better through talking. Student peer discussion, rather than a waste of time or pedagogical “fluff” as some conservative educational theorists have long argued, significantly improves student conceptual understanding. Indeed, much more than getting the right answer from Mr. Smarty Pants, the students that got question one wrong twice benefited from literally “talking it out” in order to understand new concepts. As the researchers themselves say, “We speculate that when [these students] discussed, they were making sense of the information, but were unable to apply their new knowledge until presented with a fresh question on the same concept.”

This simple study provides strong evidence to something experiential educators have long advocated. Students must be involved in their own learning. The educational process must be active and social, not passive and individual.  Rather than “seat time”  and time “on-task” as the dominant currency of classroom practice, it’s high time we start listening to our students (and letting them talk more to each other) to improve academic perfomance. Teaching is listening and learning is talking.

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