“With all your getting, get understanding”.

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· The benefits of “The Paraphrase Rule” in communication.

Effective communication between teachers and students is essential to avoid misunderstanding. Communication is more that “teachers talk and students listen.” It is more than simply the words exchanged between individuals. The understanding, to achieve wisdom, is underscored in Proverbs 4:7.

The Meta-communication

In all interactions, a message is sent and a message is received. Sometimes teachers believe they are sending a particular message, but their non-verbal cues – such as body language, gestures (shrugs and sighs), tone and choices of words, or lack of clarity – may send out a completely different message. The message transmitted may be enhanced or misconstrued through what is called “The Meta-communication”.

Students may respond emotionally to the meta-communication without stopping to think further. For them, “The teacher said X, and I know she means Y”. Perhaps, from the students’ point of view, the meaning implied was received from the teacher’s posture and not the words actually spoken. The first principle of communication is that people respond to what they think was said or meant, not necessarily to the speaker’s intended message. Improper communication misses the intended meaning and cause confusion.

The Paraphrase Rule

There are exercises teachers can try in classrooms and lecture halls to practice sending and receiving messages accurately.  A teacher may – occasionally – encourage efective communication by using “The Paraphrase Rule” in the discussions culture. That is to say, in a discussion, before any participant responds to the teacher or peers, they must first anticipate summarizing what the previous speaker had said. If the summary is unclear, indicating the speaker was not understood clearly, the speaker must explain again. The respondent then tries again to paraphrase. The process continues until the speaker agrees that the listener has heard the intended message clearly.

The Paraphrase Rule has benefits. People must listen more carefully to each other (through active listening), since they must paraphrase correctly before responding. They also learn to be articulate in their communications by hearing and appreciating how others perceive and interpret the messages through the feedback loop. Sometimes two people find they only think they agree or disagree on a subject. Often one person agrees with something the other person never meant to say, or disagrees with something the other person never said at all.

Teachers practicing the paraphrase rule in a workshop

[In worse case scenarios in some social or family settings, some people tend to believe they had heard an insinuation – which was never the case – and react negatively to it. Such people tend to be belligerent anyway, and can’t wait to jump to conclusions. People often experience such challenges in their relationships.]

Understanding the real problem

The technique of paraphrasing is more than a classroom exercise: It can be the first step in communicating successfully with others. Before teachers can handle appropriately any student misunderstanding, they must know what the real problem is. For example, a pupil who says, “This book is so boring, WHY must I read it?”, and then pushes the book aside may really mean, “The book is too difficult for me. I can’t read it, and I feel inadequate.”

A teacher who responds to the “WHY must I read it?” question – with some righteous justification for the need to read and the brilliant choice of reading material – has missed the point. The student may feel even worse as a result: “Now, not only am I inadequate, I’ve also missed out on this wonderful task the teacher thinks is so important for me. I might just as well put the book away!”

To prevent such a negative posture, it’s appropriate for teachers to apply what I’d call “The Yes Rule”, and response positively: “Yes, the book may be difficult to read at this point.” That appreciation may put the youngster’s mind at ease. At least, the teacher has met them half way – perhaps with a smile to complement the message. The teacher may then assure the class that most important things appear hard in the beginning, however, there’s the enjoyment pending, and “We will work together at this to a cheerful end”. That positive tone may satisfy others in the group who are likely to experience similar difficulties in reading too.

The profile dimensions for Critical Thinking

At the basic levels, paraphrasing is a technique to satisfy the second tier in the Profile Dimensions stressed in the Ghana Education Service (GES) Syllabus: 1. Knowledge; 2. Understanding / Comprehension; 3. Application; 4. Analysis; 5. Synthesis; and 6. Evaluation.

It is most difficult to advance – in “the cognitive hierarchy” – to the higher order thinking skills, such as, Application; Analysis; Synthesis; and Evaluation – until the hurdle of “Understanding / Comprehension” is cleared.

Asking and answering questions are integral parts of comprehension for checking understanding. Having both teachers and students learn to articulate their views – and check each other’s understanding and empathize in a disciplined manner – is a great way to see each other’s point of view. It binds people together respectfully, trustfully, and amicably.

Many so-called “smart” people are sometimes the worst listeners, which of course greatly diminish their “smarts”. Active listening and a corresponding feedback reveal whether the original question itself was clear in both its delivery and reception.

In the context of inducing people’s feelings and perspectives, understanding helps to unravel the difficulties in communications. Nothing in the world is so invincible that empathy and mutual respects cannot unravel. It’s all in the method, commitment and practice.

(Email: anishaffar@gmail.com.)

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