An image of a teacher staying mobile in their classroom while engaging with students

How staying mobile in the classroom can keep your students more engaged

Julie Adams Mar 14, 2022

What you’ll learn in this article:

  • How space and social distance impact the learning environment
  • The relationship between body language and meaning
  • Techniques to keep your students more engaged

When you’re teaching from the front of the classroom, do you ever find it more challenging to keep the students at the back of the room as engaged as those at the front? Or that some students find it easier to grasp concepts in a one-on-one setting? We know that the closer you are to someone, the more engaged you are, but why is this the case?

It’s all down to proxemics

Established by scientist Edward T. Hall in the 1950s, proxemics is the scientific name for the study of personal space. It looks at how humans occupy different regions of this space during social interactions.

Hall suggested that these spaces could be used to convey non-verbal meaning about the relationship between the two individuals, their intentions, and the power dynamic between them.

For example, height can be used to communicate authority in a setting. If one person stands while the other sits or lies down, the person standing has placed himself or herself in a position of authority. This standing-sitting dynamic is typical in teaching practice.

In his now-classic book, The Hidden Dimension, Hall devised four interpersonal zones, as illustrated in the diagram below.

A diagram illustrating Proxemics Personal Territory

While teaching, educators will move between zones, depending on the context of the teaching. During one-to-one teaching, it is not uncommon for them to occupy a student’s personal zone as a means of establishing trust.

How can distance impact teaching?

Verbal communication (i.e., the actual spoken words) accounts for a minuscule 7% of the overall meaning of communication (Mehrabian, 1982). The other 93% is made up of non-verbal cues like facial expression, posture, and haptics (touch).

How a teacher positions their body in a classroom can communicate a lot without the need to use words. Some researchers have investigated the impacts and found a relationship between where a teacher stands and the behavior of their class.

“…Standing in the doorway as your students shuffle in. This close contact sets up a naturally occurring single file line that calms them before they enter the classroom and enables a positive learning environment before they even sit down.” (Rulan, 2015)

The farther away a teacher is from a student, the less likely a student will feel connected to the teacher and the lesson. By moving around the classroom, you’re more able to connect with students and refocus the attention of those who may be distracted.

Chin, Cheong & Taib (2017) also found that students enjoyed having close interaction with their teachers in the classroom. They also uncovered that this sense of closeness between students and educators improved learning outcomes.

So, how can you leverage the science of proxemics in your own classroom, to keep everyone alert and engaged?

An image of a teacher engaging with one of her students

Hints and tips to boost student engagement

Student engagement is a complex and changing thing – just like the tides of the ocean, attention spans wax and wane through the course of a lesson. It’s unrealistic to expect every student to be engaged at every stage of the class, but there are small and effective ways to help boost engagement during specific parts of the lesson.

  • Want to create a welcoming atmosphere at the start of your class? Sit down as your students enter the room.
  • For group work, classrooms with grouped tables instead of rows allow you to move around the room and interact with students, encouraging them to participate and engage in the activity.
  • If the class appears distracted and you want to get their attention, stand in the middle of the room and make eye contact with everyone before you start speaking.
  • If your students lack energy, staying mobile during the lesson will help to keep them more alert and engaged. You can ask them to stand up and take a few deep breaths in the middle of class to help refocus their attention.
  • When students are working in pairs or small groups, crouching beside them will help open up communication, as you’re physically at the same height as your students, creating a sense of trust.

Make the most of your classroom

Esteban Nunez, IT Director and Teacher at St. Bonaventure Catholic School in Florida, found that being tethered to his desk when presenting his lessons made it challenging to connect with his students.

He decided to ditch his HDMI leads and try the Montage wireless presentation tool. With Montage, Esteban can now share his screen to the front of the room from anywhere in the classroom. This has made his teaching more mobile and allowed him to better engage with his students.

The mobility you get with wireless presenting makes teaching more dynamic; the teacher can now be anywhere in the room with their device. This gives proximity to students at the back, which keeps all the students engaged with what the teacher is saying and doing.
When a teacher joins the classes from the perspective of the student, it gives a sense of the teacher participating at the same level as the student.

Esteban Nunez – IT Director and Teacher

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