In our schools and colleges we want our students to pay full attention to us during lecture and full attention to their work during other activities in class. So when we hear any noise other than what we expect, we rush to the judgment that they are developing a bad habit and disrupting the normal functioning of teaching and learning in the classroom. But the reality might be something different than what we expect from our students. It is hard for us to see any other reasons for students to make noise in the class, other than a lack of attention, not understating our accent or ideas, lack of motivation, or just lacking the discipline in themselves or respect for teachers. I learned something else the hard way.
When I was teaching compulsory English in a class in Pokhara some years ago, I could not understand why three of my students, who I knew were academically successful students, constantly made noise. I wondered if my teaching and the classwork that I gave them was not interesting enough for them. I felt offended because it seemed that they were trying to undermine my authority in the classroom because I was a newly appointed teacher in the college after a teacher left in the middle of the year. Day after day I changed my strategy and teaching technique, and yet they were busy in making noise. Not that they interrupted the entire class, but they were still very distracting to me.
I consulted senior colleagues about the problem and no one was able to explain without being in the class. Someone said that they could be inattentive because they were sons of affluent families in town and they might have private tutors to teach them the content of my course afterwards in the day. That made me wonder why they would come to class in the first place, because if they didn’t want to I had no ways to oblige them.
After a while, I got a few opportunities to meet with those boys, when I asked them why they made noise during class. At first they tried to evade the question and then pretend to not know about the noise I was referring to. But one of them, Sasanka, apologized for the problem without telling me the reason for the noise. These students asked for some advice about the chapter that they were studying, and I responded to their needs.
When I came home that evening, I started thinking about how to integrate these students with the rest of the class and how to encourage them to be attentive in class. I kept trying my best, using different ways to make the class interesting and engaging for all students. One of the things that I did to engage this group of students was to give them specific activities after inviting the whole class to join the conversation, form discussion groups, or share ideas with the whole class. For instance, I told them to write a summary of a reading or respond to comprehension questions at the end of the chapter. Interestingly, the noise suddenly went away.
This incident made me realize that students not only make noise for all the bad reasons that we tend to think about. They may make noise in the attempt to be more engaged about what is going on in the class, the activity that we have given them—or for that matter that we have not given. Some groups bond well, and they engage themselves in critical discussions of the topic at hand. They need to be intellectually challenged. Yes, students may also start making noise when they don’t understand what they are being taught, like they may stop doing the activity they’re asked to do and start doing something unproductive if they don’t understand the given task well. These days, when I hear noise coming from any part of the classroom, I start thinking about positive causes of the noise, or positive things that I can do about the noise by challenging students to be “in class” intellectually and emotionally.