I am at heart the most straightforward, literal person in the universe. I mean what I say, and I say what I mean. And I hear the words that people say, too often without considering the body language and social cues behind the words.
Consider the friendly sophomore from Norte Dame Academy, at the, I dunno, 1988 or so Kentucky State Latin Competition. We met there and had been talking throughout day. Her team's bus was leaving before the award ceremony. She gave me her number, and said, "please call me tomorrow to tell me the results." So, the next day I dutifully called. I gave her the results. I congratulated her. I said goodbye. I never saw her again. Sorry, Lisa.
Or, the wonderful woman in grad school who, after we had hung out together several afternoons, said "Can you come over to my apartment tonight? My roommate will be out. I'll cook you dinner." I accepted. I thanked her for the yummy meal, and left. Sorry, Michelle.
Or, and more pertinent to this blog, the diligent junior in the weekly problem solving sessions that my college paid me six bucks an hour to run. I showed her how to solve a problem involving the work-energy theorem. I asked her if the approach I suggested made sense. She said, "yes." I took her at her word. Sorry, Alex.
I suspect that most readers are shaking their heads at the first two stories, wondering how I could be so clueless. Had I recognized Lisa's or Michelle's body language and tone of voice, events would have turned out less dull, or at least differently. And decades after the fact, I now have the perspective to recognize what I missed. Most people wouldn't have misunderstood these cues in the first place, of course; I had to work consciously on interpreting social subtext, even though such interpretation comes naturally to others.
Over twenty-plus years of teaching, I've similarly had to continually analyze and re-evaluate my students' body language and tone of voice. In 1994 I believed Alex when she told me she understood my explanation. Why would she have said "yes" if the real answer was "no"? In retrospect, there could be any number of reasons. Among others:
(a) I'm a proud, diligent student, and I cannot admit to myself or (especially) to a peer that I don't get something;
(b) I don't quite understand this right now, but I have irrational confidence that if I stare at the problem for another 20 minutes I'll magically see the light; or
(c) I really wish Greg would shut up and stop explaining, and the only way I can tell him that without seeming rude is to pretend I understand.
Nowadays, when I explain something one-on-one to a student, I still ask, "does that make sense?" But I'm ignoring the verbal content of the response. I'm watching for and listening to body language and tone of voice. Students often use words they don't mean. Their tone usually gives their true thoughts away; it's practically impossible for a high school student to send false messages with body language.
What am I looking for in response to "does that make sense?"
When I explain how to approach a physics problem, I always make the student go back to his seat and write up the solution in his own words. So I'm watching how he leaves the vicinity of my desk.
The student who truly understands my explanation can hardly wait to get back to his seat to put his newfound knowledge into practice. He usually moves with confident purpose. Sometimes he'll have a bit of sheepishness about him, because he realizes he should have figured this out earlier.
The student who's still confused walks much slower, with his eyes turned upward or downward. He's in no rush, because either he's still thinking about what I said, or perhaps he's frustrated that I won't just tell him the right answer and he's throwing a wee tantrum.
So, when the confident student comes back a moment later, I can move him along without thinking about it -- he's got it.
But even if the less confident student comes back with a correct answer, I still push a bit. I ask a few more questions to test for understanding. I make him write each step of reasoning explicitly, even though I might have let the confident student slide by with some things implied. I don't harass or embarrass, of course... I simply recognize that this student has shown me through his body language that I have to do more to help him.