October 9th, 2013

Unraveling the Messages Our Behaviors Send to Students


How we teach begins and ends with behaviors. It’s good to remind ourselves of that every so often. Most of the ingredients identified as the components of effective instruction—things like clarity, organization, and enthusiasm—are abstractions. They’re intangible, without physical form. Their presence or absence is conveyed by the behaviors that have come to be associated with them.

What makes the focus on behaviors particularly powerful is that when it comes to changing your teaching, you don’t have the more daunting task of changing what you are—in my case, not terribly well organized when presenting content—but you can work on changing what you do. You aren’t trying to “be more organized,” you’re trying to use more internal summaries, skeleton outlines, and transitions identified with statements, emphasized with a pause, and underscored by moving to a different place.

And yet as we consider our behaviors, we realize how dauntingly complex they are. What any behavior means is determined by the person who does it and by the person who observes it. But that behavior doesn’t always mean the same thing to both of them. Although most users and observers equate gestures with enthusiasm, some people see gestures (especially repeated ones) and conclude the person is nervous. When the observer sees a different meaning in the behavior, then that behavior is not attached to the intended abstraction.

Moreover, typically the presence of an abstraction, take clarity for example, is not the function of a single behavior, but the aggregate of multiple behaviors. So for students to conclude that you have clarity, regularly providing definitions might not be enough. You may also need to be able to say the same thing in different ways, offer examples, partition complex concepts, identify steps in a process, and so on. How many behaviors equated with clarity does it take before an observer determines that you are being clear? That depends on the observer and most observers aren’t aware enough of the behavior-abstraction connection to tell you how many you need. When some students credit you with being clear and others do not, in addition to associating different behaviors with clarity, they are also disagreeing on the number needed.

So, not only do we have to consider that behaviors are interpreted differently and that a varying constellation of behaviors indicate the presence of a given abstraction, but we must also add to that list the influences exerted by the context in which the behavior occurs. What are the circumstances that surround the use of a given behavior or collection of behaviors? You may walk over to a part of the room so that you can better hear what a student is saying, but if a student nearby is texting, your behavior may be threatening. Maybe that student deserves to feel a bit threatened, but the meaning he’s attaching to your presence illustrates how context also shapes the meaning of a behavior, and most of these context variables aren’t ones teachers can control.

Finally, we can throw into the mix that fact that sometimes teachers (and people in general) do certain things without knowing that they’re doing them. Say it’s a repetitive behavior like pushing up sleeves, counting change in a pocket, or walking back and forth. Students can look at any of those actions and conclude that the teacher is nervous. And they’re probably right. But it does engender modest amounts of anxiety to think that behaviors can communicate messages without any involvement on our part.

You could read this and wonder how there’s ever any successful communication in the classroom or elsewhere. Fortunately, most of time, the majority of students will see a behavior set and equate it with the intended abstraction. That’s why it makes sense to think about teaching abstractions in terms of behaviors. Chances are good that if you start regularly using behaviors associated with clarity, students will decide that you are a teacher who explains things clearly. Chances are good, but not guaranteed.