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“Lean In”


At professional development trainings at our school, Kelly Young shares pictures of classrooms that he visits. One of the features he often highlights are images of students “leaning-in” at their desks working on a project and/or speaking with other students in small groups.

I used this concept in a short lesson earlier this month that seemed to work well.

First, I asked students to think of an important event in their life, and why it was important. They then jotted down a few notes.

Then, I had students divide into pairs and move their desks so they were facing each other. I asked one student to lean back — a lot. We had a lot of fun modeling and competing how far back a student could lean back in their seat without slipping through to the floor.

Next, the other student told their story to the student leaning-back. Then we reversed roles.

Then, students repeated their stories to each other, but this time, instead of leaning back, each student “leaned-in” on their desks.

I then asked students if they were listening more attentively when they were leaning-back or when they were learning forward. I didn’t get the answer I wanted (which was when they were leaning forward), and everybody said they were listening the same in both positions. However, I then asked in which position the listener was in did they feel most “listened to” when they spoke, and several students said when the other person was leaning-in. I asked students in which position they felt most alert, and practically everybody said when they were leaning-in.

We talked a bit about what advantages there might be to people feeling more listened-to — both in class and outside of school. We also talked about our natural tendencies to lean back when we’re feeling tired or sleepy, and how learning-in might help wake us up.

It wasn’t a “home-run” lesson, but since that time I’ve included “Lean-In’ in instructions for all small group activities, and it seems to me that it’s made a difference — more students seem to be “leaning-in.”

Any ideas on how I could improve it?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Well, we do a lot of cooperative learning in our classes over here in Germany, and with about 30 students per class there is another reason for “leaning in”: we call it the “12 inch voice”. With 15 students speaking at the same time and with the classrooms we have there has to be a strict rule concerning the overall noise and the volume of the speaking. So we train the “12 inch voice”, a speaking volume which makes the words audible from a distance only up to 12 inch. That way the “leaning in” is sort of a byproduct of this rule.
    In addition to this rule we train our students listening-skills, how to listen actively, e.g. with t-charts describing what it looks like and what it sounds like …
    Our experience is always the same as yours: Leaning in and speaking with low volume results in better concentration of the students and a more intense connection between the partners of the pairs (or squares). The overall quality of the cooperation is rising with the implementation of these rules.
    (Sorry for my poor English)

  2. My first and frivolous response would be to ban “leaning in”!

    But if your kids are comfortable with drama, roleplay in particular, I would get them to improvise situations in pairs, with one partner leaning in and one leaning out, and just explore the whole concept. Try again when the partners try to persuade each other to do something. Next time, have the students suggest situations and characters for the pairs as in where the roleplay can occur and between whom eg a bikie and a fish salesman at the circus, and have the kids again use leaning in and leaning out, only this time, make it flexible, and only one can lean in or out at a time ie as soon as one changes, so must the other, while they continue talking or persuading.

    What will the educational outcome be? Well, it might not be immediate, but they will have more understanding of leaning in to persuade, and they will remember the concept. Whether they will choose to apply it, I have no way of knowing. But they might have fun, and they will practise their English!

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