Recently, I attended a faculty meeting reviewing the procedures of our in-school tutoring program. The speaker explained the value of the program and the importance of keeping students engaged and motivated throughout the 30 minute period.
At one point in the presentation, she said that students need to focus on the lesson instead of “just doodling” or “just talking”to their neighbor. I certainly understand her point. They should be involved in the lesson in a variety of ways: active listening, engaged writing, dynamic participation or critically reading.
But the use of the word “just” threw me. Dictionary.com defines the adjective “just” as “guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness.” It defines the adverb “just” in a variety of ways: “within a brief preceding time; but a moment before”; “exactly or precisely”; “by a narrow margin”; “barely”; “only or merely”; and finally, “actually; really; positively.” In this particular faculty meeting, I believe the speaker used “just” as an adverb, applying it to demonstrate that students were “only or merely” doing something other than concentrating on the lesson.
To use “just” in this case is a disservice to our students who need to doodle or talk while processing. To minimize the doodling or the talking to a “just” somehow makes these activities seem challenging or problematic for the teacher in the room. After all, the inference can be made that if students are “just doodling” or “just talking” then there is no authentic learning going on.
I disagree. The act of moving the pen to make shapes and the act of moving the mouth to make words signifies that the student is indeed, processing and listening. According to Sunni Brown, author of the book The Doodle Revolution, doodling is “a thinking tool.” She goes on to say, “It can affect how we process information and solve problems.”
As you observe your students work, how many of them are drawing rainbows and flowers in the corners? Or tripped out cars along the margins? It’s this kind of movement that encourages the brain to process and move from one idea to another.
Brown cites a specific student in her research: “Doodling in meetings and lectures helps ease tension for Samantha Wilson, a high-school teacher and graduate student from Southborough, Mass. Drawing squiggly patterns that are 'very vegetal, scrolling and organic,' with shaded blocks and spirals in red and blue pen on paper, also allays boredom, she says.” While some students might twirl their hair or tap their feet to process, other students create patterns and symbols.
Would you tell a student to fold his/her hands in his/her lap thus causing an almost stoic reaction? Would you walk over to a student and remind him/her not to tap his/her feet because it’s annoying? We wouldn’t, because we understand that these are just some things kids “do” to process. Why isn’t doodling viewed the same way?
The same argument can be applied to talking. According to Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey and Carol Rothenberg from their book, Content-Area Conversations, “Partner talk is the bread and butter of a classroom filled with the talk of learning. Teachers most commonly invite students to ‘turn to a partner’ to discuss the topic of the moment.” But, what happens when the topic strays to weekend plans or Angie’s new homecoming dress? We’ve been taught that proximity is crucial in extinguishing this kind of behavior. We walk over to the students and ideally they would immediately go back to the lesson topic. Right? Let’s say they don’t. Let’s say they continue to talk about the weekend. Why can’t we allow them to finish that conversation and gently re-direct them back to the lesson topic?
When you’re in a professional meeting, is all of the conversation centered on the selected issue? Does anyone stray from the issue and perhaps mention a personal comment? If so, what’s wrong with that? One could argue professionals as well as students are creating a sense of community; a sense of learning about one another thereby giving them an opportunity to become risk-takers in more challenging and thought-provoking conversation.
In closing, you know your students better than anyone. You know their level of “just.” Let’s not be so quick to label the “just doodling” or “just talking” activities as off-task behaviors. After all, if doodling and talking signal processing, then distribute the scratch paper and encourage the comments because that is what learning is all about.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.