The Supposed Evils of Sidetalk


The text: “Causons bavardage,” from MAIF, a French insurance provider (translation: “Let’s talk chatter”)
The media: blog post/article
The thought: Sidetalk or chatter in classrooms is a widespread roadblock to productivity. There are ways to identify and mitigate it.
The lesson: Teachers might do better to embrace the learning power of student chattiness, instead of stifling it.

Pourquoi les élèves bavardent-ils ?
Explication qui revient le plus souvent : ” Un élève bavarde d’abord parce qu’il s’ennuie “.


Why do students talk so much in class?
The most recurrent explanation: “Students talk in class primarily because they are bored.”

These infuriating, generalized lines tell only half the story. Although I’m hesitant to make generalizations about the entirety of an education system, I did spend time teaching and observing in a public French high school, and I did also read François Bégaudeau’s Entre les murs. A motif common to both of these is teachers’ ongoing struggle to quiet the incessant sidetalk (supposedly) inevitable in all classrooms. Many French teachers, and probably many teachers worldwide, spend a great deal of energy on attaining the (supposed) holy grail of classroom management: a silent class.

Silence is not the natural state of the average student, at any age. Chattiness is a social behavior, and I disagree that it comes primarily from boredom.* A good classroom should not be absolutely silent; instead, there should be enough opportunities for students to chat with each other about the subject matter that they won’t have time to digress into idle chitchat. This permission to chat freely about academic material is sometimes called “buzzing” in American, or at least Californian, school culture.

The MAIF article goes on to cite widespread disrespect for French teachers by their students, and tells tales of failed classroom management descending into unrecoverable chaos. As a student, I would certainly become bored, yes, and consequently lose respect for my teachers if I were yelled at or sent out of class every time the noise level reached above a whisper.

Entre les murs

It’s certainly true that well-behaved students may appear to be the most hardworking and productive. But generalizing the well-behaved learner as the best of all learners is like generalizing a sheep’s follower mentality to be the most effective in the entire animal kingdom. Everyone learns differently, and many of us learn effectively through discussion. The flaw in the reasoning of “Causons bavardage” is in its insistence that talking in class is only ever bad, never good. I shudder to think that an entire country’s educators make the same generalization as MAIF.

The end of the article makes some huge concessions about its initial closed-mindedness, which I’ll translate here unofficially so that they can speak for themselves.

Selon Florence Ehnuel, il est primordial de poser une réflexion sur la façon de gérer la classe.
” D’abord en mettant en place une pédagogie adaptée via des travaux en groupe, des pauses, des activités variées et ensuite en repensant le cours magistral qui ne peut plus aujourd’hui être qu’un outil parmi d’autres ” Yann a entendu parler du co-enseignement, mesure qui consiste à faire intervenir deux enseignants dans une même classe. Ainsi, ces derniers supervisent des activités différentes à des moments distincts.
Enfin, tous les témoins de ce dossier insistent lourdement sur la formation du corps enseignant en terme de gestion de groupe, qu’ils estiment très insuffisante et inadaptée à la réalité du terrain.

According to Florence Ehnuel, it is essential to consider methods of classroom management, “first by enacting  teaching practices adapted via group work, breaks, and a variety of activities, and then by rethinking the traditional lecture style, which nowadays should only be one tool among many.” Yann [a music teacher] mentions the discussion of co-teaching, a method that consists of introducing two teachers in one class. In this model, the two teachers lead different activities at specific times.
Finally, readers of this report strongly emphasize teacher training in the realm of classroom management, which said readers find very lacking and poorly adjusted to the reality of the field.

*Translation note: not to argue semantics, but it’s also possible that here, d’abord simply means “first of all.” I chose “primarily” for the sake of making my point.


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