Hearing is Believing

By Dale Mann, Ph.D.

It’s no secret that teachers do a lot of talking in class. Since Ned Flanders’ documentation of classroom talk beginning in the 1960s, it has been widely understood that teachers talk about 80% of the time in a classroom for lower-achieving students and 55% of the time during classes for higher-achieving students. Flanders’ work can be summarized in the “rule of two-thirds”: during about two-thirds of the time in a classroom, someone is talking. Next, the chances are two out of three that the person talking is the teacher. Finally, when the teacher is talking, two-thirds of the time she will be lecturing, giving directions, and controlling students.

But there is a big gap between teachers talking and students hearing. Between the air conditioner, the bare floors, the traffic outside, the classes passing in the hallway, the whirring of laptops, and kids murmuring, the average classroom can reach 55 to 75 decibels of ambient sound, depending on grade level. Most of the time, teachers strain to close that gap by talking more loudly, but consider that a jet engine from 75 feet away is 140 decibels. To be heard by all children in an ordinary early-grades classroom, a teacher would have to project at half the volume of a jet engine, all day long, every day.

Also, the farther sound travels, the less intelligible it is. That means that the farther students are from the teacher, the more of the message that is lost. The research department of the Dade Public Schools in Florida puts the price paid by students in the back of the class as follows: “…(S)tudents sitting in the back of the class…may miss up to 30% of what their teacher says…” That’s like being absent from an hour and half of instruction during each five-hour instructional day.

To see how Lightspeed Technologies’ Flexcat classroom audio system could help address these issues, Interactive Inc. undertook a yearlong quantitative-qualitative analysis of nationally distributed groups of Flexcat users at all levels of K-12 schooling. The quantitative data came from self-reports and from extensive on-site observations and interviews with K-12 teachers in urban, suburban, and rural districts around the country.

A classroom installation of Flexcat looks something like the following: There is a speaker seven feet up on a bookcase and it projects “all-call” volume. Each small-group table for students has a pod that serves as both a speaker and a microphone. The pods are battery operated and last all day on a single charge. The sound from the pod in the middle of a small group is remarkably localized with unambiguous, unavoidable clarity. The teacher’s messages to one pod are not audible to students in other groups.

How Flexcat Helped Teachers

The average teacher we spoke with used Flexcat to monitor students five times a day. A majority of the responding teachers concluded that using the tool had made some positive difference with their “hard-to-reach, hard-to-teach students,” while two-thirds of the teachers said they used Flexcat both to check on-task behavior and to confirm the quality of student work.

Two-thirds of the teacher respondents thought that, “The on-task behavior of my students has increased since I started using Flexcat.” And, as one teacher said, “When I see a group that’s off-task, that’s where I put the pod.” Two-thirds of the teachers we interviewed agreed that “management of multiple small groups is more efficient with Flexcat” and that Flexcat made project-based learning more feasible.

Nine out of 10 teachers concluded that students were more likely to stay on task if they knew their teacher was watching and listening. Perhaps most powerfully, 100% of the teachers agreed that they were “better able to catch students doing good” by using the pods to listen in to small group activities.

The fact that the pods allow teachers to listen in to student conversations makes Flexcat, as one teacher put it, “A window into their brain that you don’t get from paper and pencil. Or from a standardized test. What, really, does a ‘B’ tell me? If I can listen to their logic and their train of thought, then I know where they went wrong and right.”

Dale Mann, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at Columbia University (Teachers College and the School for International & Public Affairs) and managing director of Interactive, Inc. Since 1985, he has concentrated in developing and evaluating the gains from e-learning, a field in which Dr. Mann has been identified as one of America’s ten most influential leaders. Want to follow Lightspeed or Interactive Inc. on Twitter? Follow them @lightspeedtek and @interactiveinc.



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