What's the problem?
Chatter. Students talking about what they did last night, what they are going to do tonight, the latest gossip, and so on. Sometimes it is even about the topic of the session where multiple conversations develop between small groups of students sitting together. This is one of the perils of grouping them around small tables, and it is the variant I most commonly suffer from.
It is a problem because the students are excluding themselves from the main theme of the session, and they may be distracting their colleagues.
What does it mean?
It is not usually deliberately disruptive, and most students take a gentle rebuke in good part. For some younger students it just means that they have not seen each other for sixteen hours at the start of the day, and they have to catch up. It does however indicate that they have not internalised the ground rules of the class, assuming that you have made them clear.
Given the generally benign nature of the problem, a major issue for the teacher is to avoid alienating students by handling it clumsily.
How can I handle it?
At the start of the class
Although the tactics for handling late-comers suggest not plunging into the main business at once, you can still use ritualised devices which suit you to indicate that you are entering the zone where the ground-rules apply.
- "OK, we'll get started. First thing—please check that your mobile phones are off, as usual!"
This does not actually say anything about talking, but the whole set of ground-rules is being invoked by reference to a simple one. You can now draw attention to others as necessary. (The advantage of this particular stratagem is that it calls for a response of rummaging in bags and pockets to check, so the students' movement is a confirmation that the message has been heard and understood).
During the class
There are two major variations, here. One is off-task talking during plenary sessions (those involving the whole class), and the other during group work.
- In groupwork, there is no way of eliminating it entirely, no matter how motivated or mature the students. "Zero tolerance" is not an option, at least partly because what is "on" and what "off" task is not always clear (and students come up with wonderfully ingenious justifications when challenged—you may find yourself wondering why they can't apply the same intellectual effort actually to doing the work!)
- However, clarity of instruction is paramount: if they are not sure what to do, they will inevitably drift. So would you.
Similarly, timing matters. If they have too long to do a simple task, they will fill up the time with social chat.
There's another side to this, though. When asking professionals to work on issues involving their own experience, I stay well out of the groups' way. I may even leave the room: it is a mark of respect and confidentiality.Visiting groups, to show a benign and constructive interest in their efforts, is important. Set them a task and then sit down at the front of the class, and you are asking for drift.
- And sometimes you have to go with the flow. Set up a group exercise in full awareness that there will be a lot of irrelevant chatter, but use it as a safety-valve: better it should happen then, than in the main plenary session.
In plenary session, there is no real alternative to confrontation.
- But make it proportionate. A gentle reminder is often all that is required: "Hang on! There's more than one conversation going on here! I'm sure that this one (meaningful gaze at culprits) has something to add, but can we just deal with the point Lisa is making, first?"
- Make sure that after responding to Lisa's point you return to the sub-group and ask them what they wanted to add: you are being consistent, and putting the matter in the context of simple conversation management rather than accusing the sub-group of deviation. If they do not have anything to offer, you can legitimately remind them of the ground-rules. If they do have a point, remind them even so, but work with it.
- And make it positive.
- Don't draw attention to the probably irrelevant nature of the conversation (unless you are forced to do so by the incontinent giggling of a member of the group, when the traditional, "Would you like to share the joke?" gambit is sufficiently hallowed by experience in school as to make it acceptable if potentially humiliating).
- Do refer back to the topic. "I know this is a controversial/difficult area about which a lot of you will want to express an opinion/have problems; but the great thing about doing it in a group is that everyone can benefit from each other, so we need some order about how we do it. Raise your hand, and we'll get round to you."
If you need a general call to order, then have one. Just make it non-accusatory, ritualised or even jokey (with a serious subtext). My own preference is for the traditional call of the Speaker of the notoriously rowdy UK House of Commons: "Order, order!"