Education is the process of facilitating learning and communication is the exchange of information, it seems that it would be impossible to educate without being able to communicate. Good communication means that you receive the same message as was transmitted, this is important in teaching any subject but doesn't always happen. I can think of a particularly funny if rather trivial example:

Teaching about conduction in the first year I used the term lattice to describe the regular arrangement of atoms in a conductor. When revising the topic with the class in the second year a student asked a question.

Can you explain where the lettuce is?

For a whole year he thought that there were lettuces in conductors.

Not as silly as it sounds really, especially when you look at the PhET simulation with its green lattice atoms

Effective communication is what we are after but what forms of communication are we using?

Talking and listening

I haven't done any research but I guess that as a teacher about 90% of our communication is by talking. I am a native English speaker and have been teaching in an international setting for almost the whole of my teaching career, this has resulted in a limited vocabulary and fairly clear speech. I would have thought that that would make me easy to understand but that's not really the case. New students often find teachers who speak English in the same way that they do more easy to understand even though its not the way people speak in England. Being a native speaker also means that I have the ability to speak very fast. Rate of talking is proportional to level of enthusiasm. There are certain cultural biases that also come into play, my sense of humour sometimes gets in the way of clear communication.

Each year I have one or two students who can hardly speak a word of English, this makes communication rather difficult. Theoretically they should be able to follow the physics by looking at the diagrams, simulations and equations but that is only really possible if they have a very good background. Students in this situation will often say that they basically learnt nothing during the first year of the course but managed to catch up during the second (some never catch up of course). My school has now changed the way we cater for these students, who now take 3 years to do the diploma, using the first for extra English lessons and English immersion. Now it doesn't matter if they don't learn anything in the first year (apart from English) since they will do it all again.

Last year I had one student who was almost totally deaf, I had to make sure that I faced the front whilst speaking but apart from that it hasn't been difficult. Everything important gets put on the board so there is always a back up. Biggest problem is not communicating with me but with the rest of the class, sometimes not hearing that someone is answering a question.

When students speak in class it is either to answer a question or ask a question. In some cultures it is considered rude to ask your teacher a question since you are implying that they haven't explained something well enough. In other cultures it seems that it is ok to interrupt the teacher to point out that they have made a mistake. It all goes wrong when a student tries to adopt a behaviour from another culture. Pointing out a mistake can be done politely or aggressively.

Dark sarcasm is probably best avoided in the classroom.

Just as some students find me difficult to understand I sometimes can't understand what they say. As educators its not enough to pretend you understood, smile politely and never ask that student to speak again, we need strategies to improve the communication. Maybe ask the student to use the board to explain with diagrams.

Body Language

Body language is very important but culturally dependent. Not so culturally dependent as speech though. I found out years ago that the best way to get everyone to laugh is to forget about puns and clever use of words, facial expressions and strange body positions are much more universal.

Reading and writing

Reading from the SMART board can be problematic when I forget to write neatly. I could use the writing to text feature but this is time consuming and if the students can't read it then the computer can't either. Always good for a laugh though.

Listening and taking notes is often very difficult for second language students, this is where the SMARTboard can be a great help. Save the notes onto your internal network and students can read them later. You can either save as pdf or as notebook files. If you save as notebook they will have to have some sort of reader but the notes retain more features such as animations and the writing to text feature can be used.

Apart from reading from the board students have to read from a text book (same thing really for my students). All text books at this level have the same physics content but don't all use the same level of language. Not quite the same variation as in other subjects though. When my daughter did IB I couldn't understand some of the university level texts she had to work from. Reading a physics text isn't quite the same as reading a novel, probably best done with a pencil in hand and paper on the desk to work through examples and exercises. Whilst reading you go through an active process of self questioning:

If pressure is due to the change in momentum when molecules hit the walls of a container then if the container gets smaller there should be more collisions so the pressure should increase. I wonder if its possible for the volume to get less but the pressure stay the same? For this to happen the molecules would have to slow down. Let's read on and see if that is true.

More often than not a text book is just used to help solve problems. Flick through the pages, find the equation stick the numbers in and get the answer.

With online resources it's possible for students struggling with English to use google translate to help the complete tasks like problem solving (just reading the problem not solving it) and practical work.

We don't see a lot of writing from our students, I always encourage my students to explain the steps in their calculations but they don't listen. The exam marking scheme doesn't encourage this, full marks often being awarded for a bald answer. I try to explain that this is fine if the answer is correct but what if its wrong. So much negativity. Explanations are best written as bullet points

  • Changing current in primary gives
  • Changing B field in secondary
  • according to Faradays law this
  • induces and EMF in the secondary

Terrible English but understandable and easy to mark.

The main writing task that our students have to undertake is writing lab reports. This is where we sometime see the actual level of our student's English and it can be quite an eye opener. A lot of my students really struggle to formulate a clear research question.

  • What is the relationship between light intensity and the maximum velocity of a toy solar powered car?
  • What is the effect of light on the velocity of a car?
  • How does light from a lamp affect the speed of solar powered cars?
  • Does the weather affect car speed?

The most difficult part of a practical report is the conclusion and evaluation but that's not just because of language.

To make this process easier it is a good idea give your students a standard format and share a lot of good examples with them.

Diagrams and animations

I like diagrams, my book has over 1000 and this website has nearly 4000. It would be extremely difficult to teach the subject without them. I once taught a blind student HL physics and you might think that this had to be done without diagrams but it wasn't. I described diagrams, drew them on special tactile paper and traced them out with the student. In doing so he managed to construct "images" to help his understanding even though he had been blind since birth.

We use them all the time but students aren't so good at reciprocating. Maybe they are limited by using computers and mobile devices all the time, never learning how to use drawing applications. I do all my drawings in paint, well worth learning how.

If a picture is worth a thousand words what's an animation worth. I increasingly use animated gifs when trying to explain things with movement of giving instructions on how to use a piece of software. I used to make screen casts with narration but now I find gifs more convenient. Again this tends to be one way communication, maybe students don't have the screen capture application (I use Camtasia).

Social media

Not all schools would allow it but I use my blog for answering questions that come up in class and sharing interesting (and funny, mostly funny) things that my students say. I ask them at the start of the course if its OK if I write about them on my blog, no one has ever objected, quite the opposite they all want to be on it. Makes them check my blog regularly which exposes them to other interesting physics posts.

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