In this post I mentioned a time that I had my small (21 person) discussion based class recorded, and then watched the video with several colleagues (and 3 students I invited who were actually in the class). Someone observed, pretty quickly, that the discussion had a kind of ping-pong feel. The students were all willing to talk (event the student who told me in the previous class that she was ok with being recorded as long as she didn’t have to speak in the discussion), but they were all just talking to me. We were in a circle, so it was entirely possible for them to talk to the whole class, but something I was doing was preventing that, and doing it, anyway, was not what they were used to (all but one were first-semester freshmen). What I was doing, specifically, was affirming, or rephrasing, or gently correcting, or responding to, what each of them said, preventing a flow of conversation. And, of course, responding to interesting things each one said, with something else interesting for the whole class. So, it wasn’t wholly bad, and clearly my motives were good. But it was a failure, something like 21 separate and not that great tutorials, all happening at the same time – and I would say it was a fair representation of my classes up to that point.
So, how to change that? One commenter said “I would love to hear, either in the comments here or in a separate post, what strategies you’ve developed to get past (or to some extent deal with) this problem.” I held off partly because it was summer, but mainly because I wanted to wait till I had, as it were, watched myself in action, to see what I do now that makes class discussions real, full on, discussions, in which students are giving one another reasons, listening to one another (not looking for my approval) and improving as thinkers and talkers. So, the semester has started again and, luckily, I am teaching two smallish classes (one has 26 students, juniors and seniors; the other has 22 freshman).
What did I notice?
I am relieved to observe (and have this confirmed, in one class, by a students I have recruited to observe and critique my teaching) that, indeed, the class discussions have flowed well, with everyone addressing their comments to the rest of the class, and everyone else seeming to listen; with most comments being responses to comments that have been made.
One thing I noticed is that I am very explicit in telling the class this is what is going to happen – I make clear the expectation that they address their classmates, not me, even though I will usually be the person asking the questions and setting the agenda, and moving things along.
I am also very deliberate about the questions I ask. Normally, class discussions are a response to some problem or prompt that I have devised, which related to a problem that arises in the reading, or directly about the reading itself, and which they have written down either on a handout or (if its short, and this is generally better) on a ppt slide. So the questions are usually very specific but, obviously, questions about which reasonable people can disagree – and about which I can expect disagreement in the class – and which require the giving of reasons.
The main thing is this. I need something to inhibit me from constantly jumping in with either i) interrupting reassurance or ii) some interesting, pedagogically valuable, comment (of which many come to mind). So I’ve engineered some sort of gestalt switch in my head. When a student says something, instead of thinking that I am depriving her by not responding (either assuringly or interestingly) I think to myself that I am depriving her precisely by responding – depriving her of the interaction with her peers, the reasons they can give to her, and the opportunity to surprise them. If the conversation ebbs, or if some particular strand is, in my opinion, played out, I step in an prompt the discussion with further questions, and often with low-pressure cold-calling (I also deploy gentle cold calling as the discussion moves along – if someone hasn’t spoken yet, or recently, they obviously go to the top of the queue, but also if someone looks like they are thinking, and haven’t yet spoken, I’ll call on them to see if they have something to say). My rule of thumb is that on average at least 4 people should speak in between every time I say something substantive (as opposed to just calling on another student), and as long as I keep to that, discussion goes well.
Two observations. I have had to learn to resist the incredibly powerful pull of needing to present a neat and tidy package to them, so that all issues are clearly articulated and summed up, and no ends are left loose. I do some summary at the end of a discussion, and always explain the point of the discussion and say what I want them to have learned (except when I want them to be kept in suspense until the next class period). But I try to keep it till late in or the end of the discussion, and I do not (usually) summarize by giving them the full correct truth (Brighouse edition). This is the most difficult thing for me – all of my training and instincts are to tell, not show, and they are good instincts for some purposes but definitely not for leading a discussion. Also: this is made complicated by the fact that sometimes you absolutely should intervene, because sometimes a student says something that really mustn’t get lost in the discussion but will get lost (and its significance thus not noticed by the other students or even by the student who said it) unless you emphasize it. So, sometimes you have to intervene, but much less often than you want to.
This is all so much more mentally taxing than carrying on 21 separate conversations one after another. You have to follow along the whole conversation, keep everything on track, interpret what the students are saying, remember what needs to be highlighted at the end…. and be sensitive to the needs of each student (some of whom need more drawing out, others more reining in, etc). And especially difficult with freshmen who are, typically, more inclined to be deferential and, just because they know less and have less experience, have less to say. But, it does seem to be better pedagogy, and my guess is (though where’s the rigorous evidence?) that more of the learning I want to happen actually happens.
Anyway, that’s my best effort at saying what I do that seems to work better, at least, than what I used to do! There’s nothing magical or remarkable about it, and I learned to do what I do largely by watching other teachers who are better skilled (in particular, 2 of our grad students, and also my now colleague at the Center for Ethics and Education, Paula McAvoy). I wouldn’t even bother writing about except that i) I was asked and ii) I know from talking to students that this is not pervasive practice. Please comment, offer improvements, suggest alternatives, share experiences, etc.