Why have classroom discussions anyway?

by Harry on September 19, 2016

A couple of people observed that, in this post about making classroom discussions actual discussions, I didn’t give any reasons why students actually should discuss. And, I have to say, that when I first started teaching I didn’t understand why, either. Here’s why.

I was a voracious reader and an intent listener. I used to (from age 4 at the latest) demand that my parents let me go to bed early so that I could listen to the radio (not music – but Radio 4: documentaries, comedies plays and, when I was 9, a 13×1 hour radio dramatization of Nicholas Nickleby, on Sunday evenings. By the time I was in college, listening to someone talk about philosophy for an hour was almost effortless – I did the reading, listened carefully, and took extensive notes. I also wrote a weekly essay… So who needed classroom discussion?

And when I started teaching, in the US, as a TA, leading discussion sections, I guess I assumed my students were much the same. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I lived a lot in my own head, and was not especially perceptive about people or the way they learned (despite having been to a good number of different schools, each with quite different demographic profiles; I even managed to attend two different colleges in my 3 years, the first one having closed down while I was there!). The first class I TA-ed had an excellent professor, who was friendly, engaging, and clear. And in section I supplemented her lectures, which more, mini-lectures, focused on details and, to be fair, allowing students to talk more than they could in lecture. The best students did the reading, and were on top of what was going on; and many of the rest remained confused, often because they hadn’t done the reading, but sometimes even when they had. This was clear in their writing, which I graded, and was often quite confused even though they had been in class and section.

How could this be? I have a much better sense of the answer 30 years later (as one might hope).

The students were – and still are – not like me. Hardly any of them are like me. Not that they are less smart, but they have different ways of learning than mine (most of them having not been treated to a diet of BBC Radio 4 for most of their waking hours during childhood, and not having been surrounded by books and the expectation of reading them, and many of them having had other, more appealing, things to do). I now believe that most people can’t listen, usefully, to even a more expert speaker than I am, for 75 minutes straight, and pick up all the nuance, even if they have done the reading which, frequently, they haven’t, there being no penalty to not doing it, or reward for doing it, in lecture-based classes. [1]

But the students were – and my current students are – like me in one way – a way that I didn’t really understand that I was like them. They need to talk in order to learn. They need to hear the words coming out of their mouths, practice making arguments, giving reasons, and hearing reasons from others to whom they do not feel an immediate inclination to defer (i.e. not just me). And, of course, in fact, I did all these things, and learned a lot from them, just not really in class. Two reasons. One is that I had weekly tutorials with one of the faculty (this was the system for Philosophy in the two London colleges I attended); but the other, much more significant, was that after just about every lecture I retired to the student refectory with friends and discussed the lecture and/or the readings and/or the essays we were writing. This, I am sure, is where I learned the most.

My students don’t have tutorials. And most are not habituated to discussing their classwork outside of class. I don’t judge them for this. Most of them have been taught, since middle school, on a kind of factory model – you go to class, you learn things, you regurgitate them on tests (or, very occasionally, in papers) and then you either (if you are poor or working class) go to your job, or (if you are middle or upper middle class) devote yourself to being a semi-professional athlete, or musician, or actor, or debater, or whatever.[2] Learning from (as opposed to getting good grades in) classes (as opposed to from ‘activities’) is devalued both by their families and by the schools that they attended and therefore by them. But even the students acculturated to, or hungry for, intellectual excitement relating to their classes have their time structured in a way that makes it difficult to talk with their classmates. They are taking different classes, have conflicting schedules, and find their community in their dorms or their clubs, rather than in their classes.

So they need to discuss intellectual issues in class, both to do the learning of the discipline-specific content and skills that can only occur through discussion – through practical application if you like – and to get habituated to doing the same outside of class. They need, I think, to be told explicitly why classroom discussion is such an important part of the class, and that they should discuss the material with friends or classmates outside of class – not just when they have a test, but all the time, instead of discussing the much less interesting things that make up small talk. (And, just as a general matter, I have become much more explicit over time about everything I want them to do. Eszter mentions the value of them learning each other’s names, and the value of name tents, but acknowledges that she doesn’t tell them to learn one another’s names – I do, now, and I explain why (because I want them to talk to one another, not just to me)).

After my previous post went online it almost immediately prompted a hallway discussion, during which I revealed that in some of my small classes I say really very little: my ambition is that, on average, I should be speaking for no more than 25% of class time. My colleague looked horrified: “But don’t we want them to learn how to think in a certain way?”. Yes, we do. But how to we get them to think in that way? I am just skeptical that, for most of them, simply being in a room with us, the experts, thinking outloud in that certain way (usually without much expertise, and with no training, as speakers) is optimal for getting them to think in that way. [3] First of all, the more we talk, the less pressure they are under to read carefully beforehand – and the texts we make them read reveal the certain way of thinking much better than our (amateur) lecturing does. Second, as I said, when we talk for long periods I just don’t think they can focus enough (and I don’t think that is a defect in them at all). Third, as I also said, the most effective way to make them think in the certain way that we want them to be able to, is to induce them to talk in that way.

There’s another reason for wanting discussion, which Jen Morton captures in this op-ed. Students vary a lot in how confident they are (and my experience is the same as Morton’s: the level of confidence they have in challenging discussion correlates well with class background). My observation is that confidence, while it correlates with social class, does not correlate tremendously well with competence, and, as I pointed out here some people systematically undervalue their own contributions. So we have a duty to elicit, by whatever means necessary, participation and discussion from all students, regardless of their predisposition to participate: they all need to learn through discussing, and they all need to learn through hearing others participate. As Morton says:

A college education bestows not just cognitive skills—mathematical, historical, and scientific knowledge—but practical skills—social, emotional, and behavioral competencies. Tenacious, confident, and socially competent employees have an edge over equally cognitively talented employees who lack those practical skills.….
One might argue that these skills are most appropriately learned at home, not in college. But here is where inequality rears its ugly head.

Children of middle-class families learn how to navigate middle-class social relationships at home. Children from impoverished communities often do not. This is not to say that children from impoverished communities lack practical skills, but rather that the social, emotional, and behavioral competencies they acquire are ones that are appropriate to their communities.

The differences in these social skills can be quite subtle, such as variations in when and how to make eye contact, or how deferential to be when speaking to authority figures. But their impact can be significant. And because children growing up in poverty in the United States are more likely to grow up around and go to school with other poor children, they have fewer opportunities to interact with the middle class and “pick up” the social skills valued by the middle class—and middle-class employers.

The entire post has been about Philosophy teaching. But I imagine that what I say about the necessity of talking applies to other humanities and social science subjects. Teaching humanities thinking without getting them to talk seems to me like teaching students mathematical thinking without getting them to do problem sets. But even in other subjects, discussion seems to play a vital role. I was struck by an offhand facebook comment my eminent colleague in the Math Department here, Jordan Ellenberg, made the other day about this: something to the effect of: “Make them give their own answers to a problem, then make them discuss with their neighbor, and witness the miracle of convergence on the correct answer”.

I’ve also been talking about small classes of 20 or so. Things are different in the large lecture: personally, I suspect that in my typical large lecture I still spend quite a bit more than 50% of the class time talking, though I do have regular discussion tasks and exercises within a session, and some that last entire class sessions. All of the large lectures in my department are accompanied by discussion sections and, for me, the clue of what a discussion section for is in the name. But, running good discussions requires skill and experience, so one thing we need to think about when we think about improving instruction is how to equip TAs with those skills which, surprisingly often, they have not had the opportunity to observe in practice during their own undergraduate experience and which, typically, they have not practiced before becoming a TA.

As usual: comments, criticisms, refinements, examples, illustrations, welcome!

[1] in fact I still can (though its a not a skill I am proud of). I can even listen to people reading dense text for 75 minutes, which is still done in professional meetings of Philosophers (though I doubt many classes). Although I can do this latter thing, I rarely do it – I think about other things instead, in silent rebellion against a bizarre practice.

[2] Exaggeration being deployed here, but not much.

[3] I gave a 20 minute mini-lecture within my (22 person) freshman class yesterday – and was, frankly, a bit alarmed by the total and complete focus of 22 students, hanging on my every word. But what are they thinking?? (Teaching Midwesterners is particularly treacherous because they are trained to look interested and attentive even when they are bored out of their minds).

{ 50 comments }

1

Manta 09.19.16 at 2:14 pm

[1] I can even listen to people reading dense text for 75 minutes, which is still done in professional meetings of Philosophers (though I doubt many classes). Although I can do this latter thing, I rarely do it – I think about other things instead, in silent rebellion against a bizarre practice.

Seriously, WHY they do it? If I hand’t had the “fortune” to witness it first-hand, I wouldn’t have believed it.

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Chris Bertram 09.19.16 at 3:00 pm

Another great post on this stuff Harry. Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable also has useful stuff to say about working class kids not being confident to navigate middle-class environments (with particular reference to HE).

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Bob Snodgrass 09.19.16 at 3:43 pm

This is an excellent essay and fits with my experience. I went to college, grad school & medical school in the 1950s. I really enjoyed some well organized lectures in both arts and science, although this depended upon me having a positive attitude and not being preoccupied with a crisis of the day (this was rare). I assumed that I could deliver a well organized lecture, maybe with a handout to medical students, but this strategy worked for only the top 10-20% and I needed to get all of them or almost all of them to understand the subject. I learned that getting the students to talk made a big difference probably in both attitude and learning. That’s not compatible with a lecture format and takes more time.
When I accepted the idea that students who were talking or expecting to talk in a small group would be disinterested (for a time) in their phones, student performance improved. Phones and pseudo-events are an issue, at least in the US.

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J McGowan 09.19.16 at 6:30 pm

Thank you. It’s very hard to break the habit of providing information even as all the evidence shows that the information doesn’t reach the students. I am encouraged–and goaded to do better–by your periodic posts on teaching.

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Philip 09.19.16 at 6:43 pm

Thanks a lot for this Harry, I wasn’t trying to be negative about class discussion I was just interested in what you saw the benefits as being. As I said my training as a teacher was in languages so it’s obvious that you want discussion to practise using the target language. I totally get the point about context not giving opportunity for discussion outside of class. I’ve done a BA and MA on small courses in the UK where I had good opportunities for discussion inside and outside of class so I was wondering why you thought in-class discussion was so important. I’m now doing an MA in the UK to be a social worker and value the in-class discussion a lot because unlike my previous degrees I don’t get much opportunity for discussion out of class. The other commenter questioning the value of discussion did their first degree in Europe and had opportunity for discussion out of class.

I went to a pretty average comprehensive school but my dad was sponsored by the Police to do a degree (Political Philosophy), my Mam had been a union rep, and I had two older sisters so we did talk about lots of interesting stuff at home. This was probably different to the majority of my peers at school so I felt more confident speaking out in class than out. I also wasn’t that bothered about grades and I’d rather do something interesting where I had to learn something new than write about stuff I was already confident with (so I also got average marks). So a lot of the stuff that I felt came quite naturally like constructing arguments, using academic language and style etc. I got from my family, teachers, and peers at university as well as working on it myself. On the course I’m doing now everyone has a good degree already but some are much more confident academically than others and some are just more shy at speaking out generally, but the range of backgrounds and experiences that everyone can bring into the discussion is great, so definitely that too.

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Harry 09.19.16 at 7:04 pm

Philip: I knew you weren’t being negative, so had to scour my post for why it seemed that I might have thought you were, and there it is in the second sentence (the ‘either’). Sorry about that! Yes, I feel that I got a lot from home as well, and am vividly aware of how much my children get — my eldest is now away at college, studying philosophy and sociology, and its like she has been preparing for it since she was 3.

I do think that professors at my kind of institution, most of whom (like me) attended quite different kinds of institutions, aren’t really clued in enough to the context and how the larger structures make it difficult for students to behave the way we would like them to!

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Chris Stephens 09.19.16 at 7:50 pm

Thanks for this, Harry. Re: telling students about why discussion is important (maybe I got this from you?) – I ask the students this at the beginning of my course. Suppose this were a class on how to play soccer (football). Suppose I just stood at the front of the room and kicked balls into a net while you watched, and took notes. Imagine even that I’m really good at it – but still, all I did was kick the ball in the net while you watched, took notes, and tried to stay off Facebook. How good would YOU get at kicking the ball in the goal? If I were a good coach, wouldn’t I let you take turns kicking the ball, giving you some feedback, and letting you kick again?

Notice it wouldn’t be enough if there were just two or three times during the term (when I asked you to write a paper) that I let you kick the ball.

Philosophy (as are many other subjects) is as much an activity, a way of thinking – as it is a subject. If you don’t get to practice talking, making arguments, etc. you won’t learn how to do it – or how to get better at it, at any rate.

8

Kaleberg 09.19.16 at 8:02 pm

I think there are two problems here. One is that students can often learn a fair bit by talking about things including how to learn by conversing. The other is that too many students, including a lot of middle class ones, have never learned how to learn from written materials, let alone lectures. Recently, I tutored a number of local middle class white high school students in math and was surprised at how little they could learn by reading. Then I asked if they had looked at their textbooks, a few said they had, but couldn’t make sense of it. I figured I’d give them a lesson in how to learn from a textbook. Talk about learning by conversing. I took a look at their textbooks, and they were a horrible hodge podge of interrupted narrative, insets, boxes, irrelevant examples and a complete lack of any sense of priority or presentation. I had to concede that their textbooks were worthless. With the wretched state of high school textbooks these days, I imagine few college students are likely to have any skills in learning by reading, and I’ll suggest that they have a similar problem learning by listening.

Radio 4 almost certainly did a better job than the typical high school textbook committee.

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Yankee 09.19.16 at 10:28 pm

Perhaps the thing is not so much speaking as being listened to.

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Alan White 09.19.16 at 10:32 pm

Harry, I agree with others that these posts on student discussion are very useful and provocative in the sense that it challenges a lot of old-fashioned beliefs about the university classroom.

Your bit of autobiography intrigued me in forming a hypothesis about learning and inquiry, at least for certain types of people. (Warning: I’m an idiot as far as any ed psych is concerned, so please take that into account.)

I came from a relatively poor and poorly educated Southern background, and as a rural child having no out-of-school friends learned to play by myself. Early on I developed a sort of internalized social discourse–imaginary friends, role-playing, story immersion, etc. As my reading skills improved I found that I engaged texts like someone trying to talk to me. Of course, it seemed natural to try and talk back! So when I read–right to today–I constantly feel like I am in a conversation.

I agree that many students will profit from conversations in class. But one thing I try to get my students to do is learn how to converse with texts–and converse with themselves in thinking things through. Reading provides a natural interlocutor. But thinking things through often requires that we present a back-and-forth elenchus within us. After all–I assume that (at least) some middle and later Plato is not just reportorial–it’s reproduction of an internal dialogue of his own making!

Do you think that encouraging this form of internal conversation is at all important? Again, this all falls out of my own experience (encouraged by your own), so I’ve no idea if it’s worth anything.

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Adam Hammond 09.20.16 at 12:20 am

An unspoken position will always feel (to the holder) rational and fully supported. It takes real expertise to be able to think through complete, rational structures. And, even if we achieve that expertise the rationality only extends to the subject areas of our expertise.

I posit that it is IMPOSSIBLE to think through an argument, entirely in your head, about a subject which you are not expert in already. You have to write it out and look at it hard, or you have to say it to someone who does you the favor of paying attention.

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CogSci 09.20.16 at 1:57 am

One class in which I made a concerted effort at encouraging discussion I began with a discussion about why class discussion is useful (or not), what some of the attendant problems are, and how the students would suggest solving those problems. Having them generate the reasons for discussing seemed to make them believe it more than if I had just told them the reasons. There were 2 students who missed that first class, and they were noticeably less keen on participating in discussions. Both treated it, as usual, like a chore they had to fake their way through.

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bruce wilder 09.20.16 at 2:18 am

Perhaps the thing is not so much speaking as being listened to.

This!

Also, when someone taught me how to be a skilled responder to an academic paper or talk (make up a picture or metaphor that expresses the original argument and explain how the analogy works; also don’t be a smartass), I wished I had had the lesson much earlier.

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Meredith 09.20.16 at 5:59 am

“Teaching humanities thinking without getting them to talk seems to me like teaching students mathematical thinking without getting them to do problem sets.” But we want them to talk to each other, not just to us. Does that go on out of class? If when how? How to know, measure? How to create a world of being listened to? (Also, listening.)

Love this: “(Teaching Midwesterners is particularly treacherous because they are trained to look interested and attentive even when they are bored out of their minds).” HA!

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Meredith 09.20.16 at 6:13 am

Reading more carefully now…. Alan White’s comment hits home to me. Though my autobiography is very different from his, I feel utterly and entirely with him about conversation with texts. I realize that, to the degree I am really good as a teacher, that reader-text interaction iss what I model for my students. Different teachers provide different things.

16

John Quiggin 09.20.16 at 10:04 am

Echoing Manta, why would anyone do this, and why would anyone sit still for it? Are there academics who benefit from being read to rather than reading?

Why not assign the paper as reading and use the meeting time for discussion?

17

harry b 09.20.16 at 1:24 pm

Radio 4 was an incredible educational resource in those days, and still is today really. And I agree, textbooks are by and large dreadful. Most students arrive at college NEVER having read a real non-fiction book, and having no idea how to discuss/interpret it. To the extent that freshman students often refer to the (real) books they read in my class as novels.

And this is one reason why it is so hard to achieve the goal Alan sets for them. But I totally agree about conversing with the text. For my freshmen I also require them to co-author a paper, and am very explicit that the process of discussing with each other is a model for discussing things with themselves when writing.

I think Meredith’s point is valuable — different teachers provide different things for their students, which is both why faculty diversity matters and why we need to discuss these issues together so as to figure out what one another are providing (and find out own place, if you like).

On philosophers reading papers. This has been unnecessary and wasteful since at least the invention of the xerox machine, and probably before. I don’t know. It is extraordinary. I once saw a discussion on Leiter’s site about the relative merits of talking and reading, and one person actually said “well, if you read, you get to say more” as if saying things that no-one listens to was somehow worth doing.

On listening — I agree, and maybe I don’t emphasize enough to them that they need to learn to listen to, as well as talk to, each other. I’ll work on that today!!

18

harry b 09.20.16 at 1:25 pm

Just an addition: I think the error that lies behind reading to an audience rather than asking them to pre-read and use the time to discuss is connected to the error of lecturing to students rather than making them pre-read and discuss…

19

Philip 09.20.16 at 3:34 pm

Alan, I was thinking along the same lines about an internal dialogue for forming an argument but never put in my last post. I think it is something that can be developed through well managed discussion. I try to participate by making worthwhile contribution but not dominating the discussion, not appearing patronising (I know I can sometimes), not appearing to be grandstanding, not going off topic or making too obvious points etc. Often I will run through an argument in my head and if I get to an obvious answer I don’t say anything, if I think it is a good point I will make it if there is an opportunity, if I am unsure then I’ll ask a question or make a mental not to look at it later. This is difficult when also listening to others’ contributions and can get tiring after a while so eventually I’ll either tune out other speakers or stop worrying about making a contribution myself.

I think I said in another one of Harry’s posts that I question myself whether I really need to make a certain point or ask a question in a discussion and if the answer is no I keep quiet. Whereas there is a woman on my current course who is very bright and makes some excellent contributions, she just finished a large psychology course where she said she very rarely spoke out in class but is comfortable with our group and she makes herself say something in every session.

For me a lot of this again goes back to my childhood where the discussions I mentioned before often just ended up in talking over each other, squabbling and arguments so you really had to decide if a point was worth making and then put some effort in to make it. So I guess I liked discussion in school because it was easy to get my point across if I wanted to as most other students were often pretty reluctant or even if there was a good debate I wasn’t phased by it.

20

Alan White 09.20.16 at 4:37 pm

Thanks Philip and Harry.

Phillip what I try to do in my classes–particularly PHI 101–is to get my students engaged not just in discussion, but discussions that relate to one another over time and all the classes. In part this is a function of my “single-topic” intro which tries to exhibit how to think about a complex topic (for me, free will) in comprehensive and deep ways. I can’t recall who said it above but one thing I heartily approve of is Q&A discussion at the beginning of class to pull together what we have recently discussed as part of that ongoing effort. I frequently characterize what I wish overall to achieve is a semester-long exercise in what it’s like to gain expertise in a complex topic. It doesn’t work for everyone, but then again I guess nothing really does. But I do think it beats the heck out of the typical PHI 101 survey course.

21

Charlie 09.20.16 at 5:44 pm

Just chiming in to add that this post is very good. Sending it to grad students new to teaching.

22

Manta 09.20.16 at 8:07 pm

@15 harry
“Just an addition: I think the error that lies behind reading to an audience rather than asking them to pre-read and use the time to discuss is connected to the error of lecturing to students rather than making them pre-read and discuss…”

In my field, it’s unusual to assume that the audience has read the material you are presenting.

23

Moz of Yarramulla 09.20.16 at 10:23 pm

In my field, it’s unusual to assume that the audience has read the material you are presenting.

In my experience expecting students to read and think about the required reading is a mistake, even in engineering. But in feminist studies it would have been considered offensive by the students. But in all my studies, it was the working with other students outside formal instruction that delivered most value.

Being “that one guy from class who comes to the cafe afterwards” was hard, but rewarding. It meant, among other things, that many women in my classes understood that my critiques were always informed, even if not always based on a common understanding of the material. For example, my reaction to GynEcology was that since the author wanted not to be understood, it was a waste of time to engage with the book. As with people who write entire bibles on grains of rice, you can admire the effort without accepting the motivation or wanting to engage with the result.

With engineering, some of the material required a great deal of work outside class, and doing that with other people reduced the workload to manageability. I venture that it would be impossible to stay in the top 10% of the class working along, there just aren’t enough hours in the day (when you’re competing with very smart people, just being very smart doesn’t make you special).

24

LFC 09.20.16 at 10:26 pm

harry b @14
Most students arrive at college NEVER having read a real non-fiction book, and having no idea how to discuss/interpret it.

Whether students arrive in college having read many ‘real non-fiction books’ or whether they arrive having read few or none, most students could probably benefit from some tips on how to approach reading — basic stuff that many people sooner or later figure out on their own, e.g. (just to take one example), don’t sit down and start reading at p.1 but first get an overall sense of the essay/book/article/chapter etc. (Timothy Burke has on his blog site a permanently linked piece called “how to read in college” which I glanced at a long time ago and which seemed useful, though I don’t remember it in detail.)

[Thought about saying more on various matters, but given my reluctance to get too autobiographical, I’ll leave it at that.]

25

Slanted Answer 09.20.16 at 11:06 pm

A couple more thoughts on the “philosophers reading their papers” issue.

The explanation that I was given for this practice wasn’t quantity, but quality. The idea was that, because philosophers are very concerned with precision and putting claims just the right way, they are more inclined to read papers than just talk through them. The worry being that speaking more casually increases the chances of not putting claims as precisely as possible.

Relatedly, and regarding John Quiggin’s question about assigning the paper beforehand, I do wonder if the “bloodsport” reputation of philosophy discussion (i.e. that philosophers are known for being much more attacking and critical in Q&A sessions than other disciplines) is a factor here. I’ve known philosophers before who have given talks at departments that did pre-reads. They said that you show up for the talk and people just bombard you with criticisms. If those types of experiences are common in philosophy, I could see why people would be inclined to read papers, even at the expense of losing some of the audience.

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magari 09.21.16 at 2:52 am

It’s also much simpler for a social scientist to say “here’s my theory, here’s my model, here are my statistical methods, here’s the results”. Or, “based on my ethnography of X, I found Y, and it should make us think Z”. Theorists/philosophers build rather more complicated stories, conceptual precision is the name of the game, as is exegesis of prior texts. Reading is helpful to keep it all straight.

For the record, I read at conferences, but a manuscript I have written exclusively for that purpose. It’s a “conversational” adaptation of the paper.

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Meredith 09.21.16 at 3:49 am

Earlier this evening, a department get-together with students to welcome back those who studied abroad last year/spring or over the summer and with students who might be interested in study-abroad in the next year or two. Students are overloaded with informational sessions, but this was a departmental event, not dean-organized, and was held in an intimate lounge with an extravagance of cookies and seasonal fruits (apples!). Events like this meant so much to me more than 40 years ago. I think they still matter. Whether students who’d studied abroad spoke briefly about their experiences (“reintegration” for them — a meme in foreign language departments) or profs pointed to other experiences available beyond those current students’ programs, or we just chatted around (most of the evening), this.

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phenomenal cat 09.21.16 at 4:17 am

In a pedagogy seminar I heard a lit professor claim that the usual structure of university instruction was backwards. That is, he believed discussion based instruction was of greater benefit for undergrads and lecture based instruction benefited grad students more.

Of course, being a grad student at the time I didn’t agree. But the claim stuck with me and I eventually came around to seeing his point–I think. It may well be that undergrads gain more from having to speak–and be heard–while grads gain more from having to listen and be responsive.

“I’ve known philosophers before who have given talks at departments that did pre-reads. They said that you show up for the talk and people just bombard you with criticisms. If those types of experiences are common in philosophy, I could see why people would be inclined to read papers, even at the expense of losing some of the audience.” @21

Yeah, this is definitely a thing and not just in philosophy.

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John Quiggin 09.21.16 at 5:20 am

@21 Economists are at least as bad as philosophers in terms of ‘blood sport’. The apocryphal extreme case is the story of a seminar where the title slide provoked such vitriolic debate that the time was exhausted before the presentation proper could start.

That said, I can’t imagine the reaction to someone who tried to read a paper aloud. I’d imagine they’d be lucky there was anyone else left in the room after five minutes

30

Manta 09.21.16 at 9:13 am

21 Slanted Answer
“A couple more thoughts on the “philosophers reading their papers” issue.

The explanation that I was given for this practice wasn’t quantity, but quality. The idea was that, because philosophers are very concerned with precision and putting claims just the right way, they are more inclined to read papers than just talk through them.
The worry being that speaking more casually increases the chances of not putting claims as precisely as possible.”

(Most) mathematicians don’t read papers instead of giving a seminar.

” I’ve known philosophers before who have given talks at departments that did pre-reads. They said that you show up for the talk and people just bombard you with criticisms.”

If a talk of mine garnered such a strong interest, I would be flattered.

31

Duke Vukadinovic 09.21.16 at 1:41 pm

Hi Harry,

Great topic!

In my opinion, the best classroom discussion are those that enable students to invent, create, imagine, take risks, and dig for deeper meaning!

On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer that teachers should listen to what students say. But in the real world of the classroom, with its many pressures and demands on a teacher’s time, it can be difficult to pay full attention.

Keep up with great work!

32

phenomenal cat 09.21.16 at 5:26 pm

“The apocryphal extreme case is the story of a seminar where the title slide provoked such vitriolic debate that the time was exhausted before the presentation proper could start.”

In a number of ways I could see this sort of thing being preferred, especially for the apocryphal presenter.

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Slanted Answer 09.21.16 at 5:56 pm

“The apocryphal extreme case is the story of a seminar where the title slide provoked such vitriolic debate that the time was exhausted before the presentation proper could start.”

At least no one got threatened with a fire poker…

34

kidneystones 09.22.16 at 1:27 am

Hi Harry, Thank you very much for this. I thoroughly enjoyed the OP and the discussion. I’ll address three points from the OP in no particular order. All three are equally crucial.

1/“The best students did the reading, and were on top of what was going on; and many of the rest remained confused, often because they hadn’t done the reading, but sometimes even when they had. This was clear in their writing, which I graded, and was often quite confused even though they had been in class and section.”

2/“Learning from (as opposed to getting good grades in) classes (as opposed to from ‘activities’) is devalued…”

3/ “I have become much more explicit over time about everything I want them to do. Eszter mentions the value of them learning each other’s names, and the value of name tents, but acknowledges that she doesn’t tell them to learn one another’s names – I do, now, and I explain why (because I want them to talk to one another, not just to me).” Excellent!

To begin: In a very real sense the persona we bring to the classroom will shape much of what occurs within that space. The students each bring their own expectations about what ’their instructor/professor/teacher” will be. That’s a big topic in itself which I’ll set aside entirely for the moment.

The general rule I operate from is that the more insecure and fearful the student, the greater their need for structure, organization, simplicity, and safety. Yes, that word. For many students, the seminar discussion setting is a terrifying arena where their deficiencies, real and and imagined, are to found out and exposed by the chief inquisitor. Three guesses who that might be. It is, therefore, essential that all students begin their seminar experience with success. How can we achieve this? (Start by thanking them for showing up in the seminar/class and making them feel welcome. eg.’Congratulations, you found the room. That can be confusing.’)

‘I have become much more explicit….about everything I want them to do.’ (3 above).
Yes, to this, all caps. Taking control of seating arrangements, what devices can be used and which need to be turned off and stowed away serves to two purposes. We control the environment to suit our needs and we establish our authority over each of the students. The instructor is the Alpha female/male. Which takes us back to persona, and so…

“Learning names…’ All names, yes, yes, yes. We’re in complete agreement, Harry, in many cases. But this is not, with respect, anywhere near close to enough. Why not? I cannot help my students if I do not know who they are as people. Therefore, all students entering the class write a short bio and explain in detail their reasons for taking the course, what they hope to learn, and their familiarity with course material. Accepted reasons for taking the course include: ‘I couldn’t get into the section/course I requested’ and ‘It’s required.’ I read these and discuss each point with every student. I now have a clear idea of their backgrounds, and (rarely) which may be willing to plagiarize/lie. Not a gradable activity, in fact, so students usually don’t have an incentive to lie.

As Alpha (male, in my case), I impose certain codes of behavior in the seminar – first and foremost is the need of a safe space for error, inquiry, and discussion. Yes, that word. It is on the instructor and the instructor alone to ensure that all students feel safe and secure in the discussion space – including those who do not do the readings. The first 2-3 classes are devoted to this exercise for several reasons, the most important being that any sacrifices to time management and other priorities made in this effort are more than rewarded by much higher levels of participation and confidence by all over the subsequent 10-12 weeks. I make it clear that stronger students will not receive grades for showing knowledge, but for imparting that knowledge with peers and nurturing weaker students in seminar settings. Why? Because I don’t reward students for arriving in the course week 1 with much superior skills than others. Weaker students are expected/instructed to be both civil, receptive, and (hopefully) appreciative. Sharing does not mean talking down to. Very few actually do.

Leading to ‘many of the rest remained confused, often because they hadn’t done the reading’. This, as Alan and others have noted is the nub of the problem, and is part and parcel of point 2: Learning from (as opposed to getting good grades in) classes (as opposed to from ‘activities’).

Based on my experiences, the best students require practically no encouragement to read, although some do. Almost all students do require near constant support on a personal level to maintain their investment in themselves and their studies over the course of the term. The experience needs to be personal. This does not in any way mean that all students will discover how fortunate they are to be in my presences for 15 weeks. What will result, if I’m careful about the dynamics I create in weeks 1-3, is that the disinterested will understand the minimum work they need to do in order to pass, and I will understand their motivations and how best to fit these students into various activities.

For more than 20 years I greeted each student at the class door and asked ‘did you do the readings?’ There is/was never a punishment for failing to do the readings, or the hw for that matter. Students who do not do the readings are paired together, in most cases. Students who do the readings work together. Your point ‘Learning from (as opposed to..’ becomes sharper and clearer for the uninvolved by the social dynamics of sitting in class with others electing to get less from their time in school, whatever the reason, in close proximity with peers with different priorities and organizational skills benefiting from preparation and outside class industry.

The key is to be welcoming and accepting of almost all. Many students may not enjoy the material, or the class. That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like me unless I give them some good cause. I try to avoid doing so. When and where I err, I apologize. I teach a number of required undergraduate courses and seminars. Attendance and participation are excellent, for the most part. Students bring their personalities, foibles, and strengths to the seminar/discussion space and are each aware of individual goals and shortcomings. The environment is collaborative and supportive. The students do the work and the readings, as they wish with the consequent outcomes. I provide individual feedback, context, guidance, support, and correction as needed.

Thanks again to you, and to all commenting here.

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Phil 09.23.16 at 9:25 am

I started doing a teaching qualification earlier this year – after five years’ employment as a lecturer, albeit part-time – and have come down with a bad case of Carl Rogers. Rogers’ view on teaching was that it was generally a waste of time and sometimes actively counter-productive; his view on learning was that people like lecturers could facilitate it and create situations where it was more likely to happen, but that to do this they needed to abandon any and all ideas about ‘teaching’ (see previous point). So, you get the students talking (preferably about the subject, but getting them talking is the main thing); you offer resources (references, AV materials, a bit of lecturing if that’s what they really want); you engage with them, call them by their names & generally treat them like people; and you never, ever tell anyone they’re wrong. And… stuff happens. Apparently.

Teaching starts on Monday. At this stage I’m usually going through my Powerpoints & seminar plans to make sure it all makes sense, but also to make sure I’ve got enough stuff to fill the time (I’ve got three separate exercises, but what if they do each one in five minutes? what if I ask for questions and nobody has any?). Now, I’m in the weird position of wanting to chuck out all my Powerpoints and seminar plans and just go in there and do it… but at the same time worrying about Powerpoints and seminar plans and what on earth I’m going to do if I ask for questions and nobody has any. So thanks a bunch, Carl Rogers.

Does anyone have any experience of introducing just a bit of Rogerian practice into a structured teaching context, or know someone who does?

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James Wimberley 09.23.16 at 1:09 pm

I’m not trying to derail a good thread, but I do wonder if this is relevant to the disaffection of young progressives from Hillary Clinton in the US campaign. One poll in June had many student debtors preferring Trump to Clinton on the issue. Some are supporting Johnson. In either case this reflects an unwillingness to read the policy position papers on the candidate’s websites, or any long-form journalism analysing them. It’s as if they have disconnected the system 2 Tortoise brain entirely, leaving the system 1 Hare entirely in charge, feeding off a diet of unchecked tweets. It’s not time commitment – many of the same people will put lots of energy into inane exchanges on blog comments with negligible new information.

An election campaign is not a classroom with a wise Guardian like Harry in charge. But is there any way of promoting a political discussion that would incite participants to actually read stuff first? Why not ban comments without links? (I left off a link on the two brains because I assume that everybody has read Kahneman.)

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James Wimberley 09.23.16 at 1:24 pm

Afterthought on establishing the teacher’s Alpha dominance. This is analogous to he suspension of disbelief in the theatre. The students are adults, and can see the situation as a consensual and temporary artifice. Maybe write a placard on a stick labelled “The Forest of Arden” on one side and “Moral philosophy 102” or whatever on the other. The placard is not enough to take you into the forest. It’s an invitation to the audience to give it a try. From then on, it’s up to the playwright and the actors to make the illusion stick.

38

TM 09.23.16 at 7:00 pm

“and you never, ever tell anyone they’re wrong”

How do you help students learn from mistakes then? This is actually the most serious complaint that I have with teaching culture in the US (in my modest experience of course) – students too often are never told about their mistakes because it only upsets them, it will lead to bad evaluations, and anyway it takes too much time to properly grade papers and provide serious feedback. I’m sure many people here will protest but I have seen this pattern too often to be merely outliers.

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Phil 09.23.16 at 10:26 pm

TM – I’m not an expert, but I think Rogers would say that there are other ways to get the information across – “I think the way I’d put it is…” or skate by it and say “that’s interesting, what do other people think?”. My instinct is to reject this approach as too soft – they may never get the message that what they originally thought was wrong! – but is it so important for them to get that message?

More broadly, I think it’s a good idea to avoid setting people up to fail. A bad habit I’ve fallen into in the past is asking questions in mid-lecture but using questions with definite right/wrong answers – all you need is for someone to volunteer the wrong answer and you’ve turned an opportunity for participation into a public put-down.

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JBL 09.23.16 at 11:46 pm

Phil, I teach mathematics and often pose questions that have unambiguous right and wrong answers. There are lots of possible responses to a wrong answer other than “no, that’s wrong.”
http://maateachingtidbits.blogspot.com/2016/09/5-ways-to-respond-when-students-offer.html

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kidneystones 09.24.16 at 12:19 am

@37 Thanks for this, James. Yes, to the consensual nature. No, however, to the suspension of disbelief. No, too, to the idea that people in their early 20’s are adults, as you and I might understand the term. Some are, of course, but many aren’t.

There’s a sense among many university instructors that organization, planning, and review of the instructor’s output in the classroom is entirely unnecessary. I’m in the other camp. Free exchanges of ideas and information is essential. That may not take place where students are checking their social media accounts every five minutes.

I stand before a room full of undergraduates once a week and spew from the podium. I enjoy the material and do my best to ensure the students understand why I’m talking and they’re listening. I cannot control what they do during the class, and that includes restricting cell phone use. In smaller seminar settings, I talk far less and the students learn from each other and the material. Keeping them on task and prepared may occur magically in your classes. I’m compelled, however, to put a fair amount of energy and time into designing activities for optimal learner outcomes.

Cheers.

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kidneystones 09.24.16 at 12:22 am

An afterthought to James. I went back and reread your comment. There’s more there to agree with than not. Cheers.

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Phil 09.24.16 at 10:05 pm

JBL – thanks, that’s a good resource; I think it’s driven by a very similar “when students give you lemons” philosophy.

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Philip 09.25.16 at 2:12 pm

Phil, the training I’ve had on teaching theory is patchy so I’m not too sure how it fits in with Rogers, but something around discovery method might be usefuk. It could be very structured to lead students to a correct snswer or freer to help them learn how to get yo an answer. Sorry, I can’t link to resources as I can just think of language learning stuff.

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JBL 09.25.16 at 2:23 pm

Phil, yes, sure. Although some of these techniques work just as well whether students give right or wrong answers. At least in the context of mathematics, “tell me why you think that”-type follow-up questions can turn lemons into lemonade but they can also make students with right answers think more, and reveal subtle confusions that don’t show up in shorter answers.

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Philip 09.25.16 at 3:11 pm

JBL, that’s similar to the line I was thinking along. From the structured end of the scale you would, for example, get students to identify the use of a certain tense in a text, identify how to form the tense, identify the meaning in the text e.g. matching to a timeline, apply a general rule then move towards a practice exercise. On the less structured end you could have students critically read a variety of texts and form a written or oral argument. With the teacher helping with unfamiliar vocabulary or usages, checking understanding, helping identify how the texts are structured, helping identify how arguments link together, synthesising etc.

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lindsey 09.26.16 at 5:14 am

(Teaching Midwesterners is particularly treacherous because they are trained to look interested and attentive even when they are bored out of their minds).

haha. yeah, it’s a real thing. I remember once you told me that either I was paying really close attention or else I am very good at making it look like I am.

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kidneystones 09.26.16 at 11:03 am

Discuss this: http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/trailguide/la-na-trailguide-updates-09242016-htmlstory.html

I’ll be serving this up to my students tomorrow:

“Donald Trump had nothing to say at his rally Saturday about the recent police shootings of black men that have mobilized civil rights activists across the country — but he did talk talk about what he sees as the “new civil rights issue of our time.”

In Trump’s view, it is school choice.

“Too many African Americans have been left behind and trapped in poverty,” Trump said in Roanoke, Va., stressing that he, not Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, will foster better schools and create more jobs for African Americans.

“I will fight to make sure every single African American child in this country is fully included in the American dream. That includes the new civil rights issue of our time: School choice,” he said.”

The failure year after year, and decade after decade, to provide African-American communities with safe neighborhoods and safe schools that nurture and protect children is an ugly stain that too many educators do not want to discuss. Because that discussion raises profound questions about what caring educators can actually accomplish. Democrats utterly in hock to teacher’s unions seem generally unwilling, or unable, to broach this topic. I’m looking forward to hearing what my students have to say.

This issue will win the election for Trump more than any other.

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harry b 09.26.16 at 2:47 pm

Lindsey at 47: so which was it?

Its ok, I know which it was. I should get you to come here and watch me teach, and you can tell me if I’ve improved…. (seeing you soon, right??)

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TM 09.26.16 at 3:00 pm

ks would you mind leaving us alone with your Trump propaganda? This thread is completely unrelated you know?

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