Why Noisy Classrooms Promote Learning

A Shelby County teacher and Tennessee Teacher of the Year finalist describes why her classroom is rarely quiet. Karen Vogelsang teaches a fourth grade at Keystone Elementary in Memphis.

By Karen Vogelsang

Karen Vogelsang is a 2014-15 Tennessee Teacher of the Year finalist.

As I prepare for the new school year to begin, I can’t wait to have my classroom full of buzzing student voices. Some might think I’m crazy to hope for a noisy classroom, but a class with collaborative student discussions is the kind of environment that will prepare our students for success in today’s teamwork-driven workplaces. To accomplish the rigorous academic discussions called for by Tennessee’s new standards in English and math will require a cultural shift for teachers to transfer their classrooms from teacher centered to student centered.

In English language arts, one of the instructional shifts is for students to engage in rich, evidence-based conversations with peers and adults about what they are reading.  That might sound like a lofty goal, but the shift applies to students in kindergarten to 12th grade in a way that is age appropriate.  The standards are detailed in the speaking and listening section of the Tennessee’s state standards. This section sets goals for students to follow agreed upon rules for speaking and listening, build on the conversations of others, and ask and answer questions. Students provide evidence and use reasoning skills in the process, which are higher level, critical thinking skills students need to be successful, not just in the classroom, but in life!

So true to the standard’s emphasis on questioning, you might ask, why is this section on speaking and listening such a big deal?  Simply put, collaborating with their peers give students an active role in their learning.  They can articulate their thinking with their own words, allowing them to make new connections.  It also helps those listening to clarify their thinking. The bottom line is, students learn from each other.

Not only do these student conversations help the students, they also help the teacher.  Research has shown that student misconceptions hinder a student in learning more so than a student who has no prior knowledge about a concept. These student conversations can be used as a measuring tool by teachers.  Teachers can catch misconceptions by listening to conversations and correcting those misconceptions before they take deeper root in the students understanding. I would much rather know about any misconceptions my students have early on than find out when I look at the results of a test!

Math classroom also requires collaborative discussions. In my training as a state instructional math coach this summer, we learned about something called Accountable Talk. Teachers provide students with sentence starters and vocabulary to have meaningful discussions about what they agree with, disagree with, and have questions about. As coaches, we learned talk moves, or ways to support students, to ensure classroom discussions are purposeful and productive. Students in the math classroom learn from each other during discussion just as they do in the reading classroom.

The instructional shifts of Tennessee’s new state standards require us to teach our students to have productive, rigorous discussions.  In a noisy, student-centered classroom, students are engaged because they’re using their natural inclination to talk.  The other added benefit is my own learning; I gain so much from listening to my students!  So as you begin this year, I hope you will encourage some productive learning discussions and let the noise begin!