Are Sheep Birds? What is the Importance of Student-teacher Interaction in Classrooms?

I was teaching science with a class of 5- and 6-year-olds last week. The children had just visited the local natural history museum and were learning about the classification and grouping of living things. The lesson was about birds, and the question I wanted the children to be able to answer was, ‘What makes a bird a bird?’

I began by asking the children if they knew what birds were. Some did, some thought they did, and some didn’t. One boy said, ‘A sheep is a bird,’ and another agreed. I asked why and others joined in and told me that there were lots of animals and birds living in the world and named a few animals, sheep (again), birds, cows, and others. Some of the children disagreed and named some birds, such as eagles and parrots, but none could tell me why a sheep wasn’t a bird.

This became the starting point of the lesson and allowed me to explain some of the common features of birds and that there were many types of birds. I gave some examples, showed some photos, played some video clips, and then we all looked out the window to see birds flying past or perching on branches.

I explained six things common to all birds. Features, beak/bill, laying eggs, wings (not all birds fly), two legs, hollow bones. I asked the children to explain these features to their partners and to me. ‘These are some of the things which make a bird a bird.’

I then showed the children a picture of a sheep. Explained how it gave birth to live young and was covered in fur/wool and asked the children to explain to partners again and me, ‘Why is a sheep not a bird?’ and they could all do it. They could explain why a sheep isn’t a bird, why people aren’t birds, why cars aren’t birds, and why tables aren’t birds, but why swans, pigeons, and sparrows are. Chickens had to be clarified as several children didn’t realize the food they eat comes from the bird, even though it has the same name.

The entire lesson was based on interactions between the teacher and pupils. Questioning to establish understanding and misconceptions. Explanation to support learning and understanding. Assessment to establish if the class, and individual students in the class, understand and can explain and apply their knowledge. Everyone could.

It is quick and easy to do this. A show of hands isn’t enough. ‘Who knows what a bird is? Hands up!’ doesn’t tell a teacher anything. When a teacher can establish where the students are in terms of understanding simply by asking, asking students to tell a partner, and giving feedback to the class, the focus of teaching and learning can be crystal clear.

A teacher who frequently interacts with students can model their thinking, their choices of words and phrases, and their ‘live’ explanations in real time, adapting, expanding, and deviating as required. Students also have regular opportunities to explain their understanding, turning thoughts and ideas into words for an audience that is able to react, confirm, challenge, and correct. When students are explaining what they know and think, teachers can respond immediately and guide them toward a strong understanding of any concept or content.

I hadn’t intended to teach the lesson about birds using sheep. It was the students who took me to that point. It allowed me to build on background knowledge and misconceptions and also to assess their understanding as we moved forward together. Next time I teach this lesson, I will start with questions: ‘Is A Sheep A Bird? How do we know? Why? Why Not?’

A lot of the value and significance of student-teacher interaction can be explored through the work of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky’s theoretical framework concludes that social interaction plays a critical part in the development of cognition. Vygotsky believed everything is learned on two levels. Through interaction with others and then integrated into the individual’s understanding. Learning comes from interaction with others. Explanation, clarification, correction. Teachers who value interaction don’t simply tell students what they need to know. They listen, adapt, and constantly invite students to share their own understanding. Do they have the language they need to compose the sentences required to convey meaning and clarity to someone else?

Vygotsky also has written much on ‘The Zone of Proximal Development,’ a space that exists between not knowing something and understanding it deeply. Teacher-student interactions are vital and enable teachers to know where to go next when to take some steps, when to re-teach something or when to move more quickly.

Without interaction, I could have simply taught my lesson about birds and told the students what they needed to know. Would some students have still thought a sheep was a bird? Possibly. Would some students have realized that chickens were birds? Perhaps.

It’s quick and easy to interact with students throughout any lesson. Asking questions and listening to answers can provide constant feedback to all teachers and mean that any lesson becomes a unique experience and a shared journey toward learning for students and staff alike.

At the end of the lesson, I asked one of the students who thought sheep were birds why they weren’t. ‘Well, for a start, sheep have four legs, so they can’t possibly be birds,’ he said as other students began to join in with other reasons.

Student-teacher interaction can be the very essence of teaching and learning itself. Simple questions can elicit the most powerful responses and act as a golden thread through any successful lesson. ‘What do you think? Why? How do you know? What else do you know about this? What don’t you know? What aren’t you sure about? What questions do you have?’

There is nothing more powerful!

About the Author

Chris Williams has been teaching for 25 years in primary and special education and now works with school leaders, teachers, and students at schools all over the world, focusing on removing barriers to learning, language and explanation skills, and teaching through interactions. He is the founder of Chatta, a teaching approach based on image and spoken language. Chatta has been voted into the world’s most impactful education innovations for three successive years by Helsinki-based education influencers and innovation-seekers, Hundred.

Recent Posts