When I was a preservice teacher, I repeated almost everything my students said whenever I taught. One day, my professor observed me teaching and pointed this repetition out and suggested I not do that. Because I was still overly defensive of my own skill (a trademark giveaway that I was still very much a novice), I disagreed with him and said that I repeat the students’ ideas to show that I value the ideas and to ensure that the whole class hears the ideas. He replied with something like, “I believe you want your students to be good communicators. In what way are you undermining your communication goal when you repeat their ideas?” (To all my former/current students, I went through it too!).
Throughout my career, I have always struggled with repeating students’ ideas. While I know there are some folks who will say that repeating students’ responses is ok, I don’t buy it. When I speak for them, I imply that the center of the classroom is still me (the teacher). When I repeat their words, I tell the students that it is ok for them to not listen to each other because the teacher will repeat it anyway. While I hope to respond neutrally to students, I am bound to repeat some student ideas, but not others. This sends the message that only some of the ideas are worthy of repeating. If I do repeat every single student idea, the dialogue is really annoying (trust me). Finally, if I rephrase the student idea, I run the risk of unintentionally changing the student’s meaning.
So, what can I do instead? Below are some strategies I’ve used instead of repeating student ideas.
1) Ask the student to repeat their idea. This strategy is ideal when I am actually concerned that the rest of the class didn’t hear the student. I often accompany this by moving away from the student with my hand held to my ear indicating that I can’t quite hear them. I use caution with this strategy as some shy students may shut down if asked to repeat themselves.
2) Ask a question based on the student’s idea. This strategy might take the form of “Based on what _____ said, how could we ______?” Or “So, if what ______ said is true, how does that change our thinking?” With this strategy, I’m trying to move the conversation in a particular direction and am using the student’s idea to move us that direction. Of course, to remain neutral, I try hard to use this strategy with both ideas that I think are on track and those that I believe to not be on-track. I can tell very quickly whether or not the class has heard the idea I am asking about based on their answers (or lack thereof). If they haven’t heard it, back to number 1.
3) Ask the class, “What do you all think of that idea?” This strategy also requires caution and I recommend only using this strategy after having developed a classroom culture in which critique of ideas is expected and encouraged as well as strategies to focus critique on ideas rather than people. Like strategy 2, I can tell quickly whether the class heard the student’s idea.
4) Ask the class, “Let’s think about this idea, how could we rephrase it?” This encourages other students in the class to repeat/rephrase the student’s idea. By implementing this strategy, I hope to keep the focus on student thinking rather than my thinking. This strategy allows me to draw students’ attention to an idea without repeating for the student.
Language in the classroom is too often overlooked. Student thinking is mediated by their language. We should try hard to keep it their language, not ours.