Icebreakers

by Harry on September 4, 2019

Its the first day of class for me. Both my classes this semester are small—20 or fewer—and in such classes I always begin the first several classes with icebreakers so that they get used to talking in front of the group and learn each others names. A good icebreaker is brief (I allow 5-7 minutes for the whole round)—so it must be pretty easy to come up with a quick answer—but revealing (because I want them to get to know each other). I have a small collection of them. Here’s a sample: please add more if you have them!

Name a novel you haven’t read that you think you should have read
Name a novel you have read that you think the rest of us should avoid reading
What would your choice be for a final meal?
Name a song or singer or band that you are embarrassed that you like [1]
If you had been raised in a different country which one would it have been?
Of the 50 states, which is the one you are least interested in visiting?
If you had to rely on a past England cricket captain to get your country out of the mess it is in, which one would it be? [2]

[1] Surprising how often Justin Beiber and the Jonas Brothers turn up here, both of whom seem entirely un-embarrassing to me. Someone usually mentions Taylor Swift, enabling me to reveal that I have seen her live.
[2] This one has a right answer, but I don’t know what it is—Brearley or Jardine, I imagine. Unless your country is Albania, of course, in which case it’s obviously Fry.[3]

[3] just in case there the irony operators aren’t working, I hasten to add that I don’t really ask this one. I don’t even ask them to name their favorite Edrich.

{ 27 comments }

1

Jeremy 09.04.19 at 2:03 pm

I also have small classes (capped at 16), and I email them a few days prior to ask them to bring in a judgment of theirs that they think is among the most controversial (i.e., the others in the class are likely to disagree). I qualify the prompt: it has to be classroom appropriate, it has to be something they’re happy to have us talk aloud about for a bit, and they don’t have to believe it at the core of their being.

The judgments range from pineapple on pizza to views on abortion to the Patriots being the best football team of all time. When a student presents their view, the rest of us are permitted only to ask questions, not to debate it.

It’s an interesting way of getting to know them, and it gets them comfortable talking about controversial ideas in front of each other. It also segues nicely into a discussion of our expectations for classroom decorum, the principle of charity, etc.

2

Kenny Easwaran 09.04.19 at 3:17 pm

When I teach epistemology, I ask them to say something they know now that they didn’t know a year ago. It’s fun not just as an icebreaker, but also to get examples of very different types of knowledge (some will just name boring facts, but more often it’s something like “I now know how to pump a bike tire” or “I grew up as a vegetarian but now I know I like meat”).

3

RobinM 09.04.19 at 5:45 pm

Jardine? Isn’t he the equivalent of BoJo or maybe Cummings? If the latter, I suppose BoJo would be his Larwood?

For those for whom cricket is a puzzle, I quote from Wikipedia:

“During that series, England employed “Bodyline” tactics against the Australian batsmen, wherein bowlers pitched the ball short on the line of leg stump to rise towards the bodies of the batsmen in a manner that most contemporary players and critics viewed as intimidatory and physically dangerous. Jardine was the person responsible for the implementation of Bodyline.”

4

Alan White 09.04.19 at 9:22 pm

More good stuff Harry.

I struggled to get to know all my students simply because there were so many–class size beyond 25 makes social interactions of all sorts more unmanageable, especially when one teaches multiple classes of 35-40. I most identify with your remarks with my experiences in logic, where students averaged 15-20 and I always got to them them much better than my other classes. One remark I’d make is also consider your particular student cohort: I would never ask questions about favorite novels and such because so many of my students have never read one. You’d be surprised how many 101 students remarked to me over the years that Nagel’s very brief What Does It All Mean? was the first full book they’d ever read (they’d very often say “novel” because they didn’t know the difference).

One I asked was a variant of Jeremy’s above: what topping would you simply never tolerate on a pizza? (I for one love Hawaiian pizza!)
Favorite movie/movie that’s a guilty pleasure? (Tough for me: maybe 2001/Message in a Bottle?)
Favorite word/least favorite? (“time” as reflective of my philosophical interest/”me” used in a subjective case or perhaps now “fake” as in the news)
When was or will be the best time to live–or is it now? (for me after 2020, or at worst, after 2024 assuming I’m still around (and no, I’d not really say that, though it’s the truth)–I’d like to live long enough to see people on Mars)

I often also used anonymous surveys at the beginning of particular classes to determine the level of understanding of what would be studied. I recall in philosophy of science always asking–at a given location, what time does the moon rise? One reply I have remembered–which of course I could not connect to a person–was that it was 6 pm. Though that’s something of a trick question, such replies did remind me how I could not be presumptuous about my students’ levels of understanding things.

5

Antoine 09.04.19 at 9:32 pm

Well I’m not a prof but I was a student in France and every class at every start of every term started in exactly the same way: grand a grand un petit un petit a. And so on. We don’t do foreplay.

6

J-D 09.04.19 at 10:16 pm

A good icebreaker is brief (I allow 5-7 minutes for the whole round)—so it must be pretty easy to come up with a quick answer—but revealing (because I want them to get to know each other).

I wonder what it reveals about me that I do not find it easy to come up with a quick answer to any of those questions. Asking me one of those questions would be more of an icemaker than an icebreaker.

Do any of your students respond by freezing up?

7

Thomas Lumley 09.05.19 at 1:04 am

For slightly larger groups where you don’t expect everyone to speak (and where you have space), this one has been successful
https://ropensci.org/blog/2018/11/01/icebreaker/

You ask a series of questions, and get people to position themselves along the spectrum of responses — starting with something general and innocuous like dogs vs cats. You then pick people and ask them to explain briefly.

8

Harry 09.05.19 at 1:20 am

Jardine is unfairly maligned. He comes out of the story rather well, and inspired merited (and reciprocated) loyalty in his professional players, not least Larwood. The establishment behaved appallingly (as, in general, it has until quite recently).

J-D: interesting. Sometimes people say they want to pass and can I come back to them. But rarely two sessions in a row. I try to make the environment friendly and comfortable.

9

SusanC 09.05.19 at 8:06 am

Of the 50 states, which is the one you are least interested in visiting?

I assume your class is in the US. That’s quite hard for an non-Us person like me to answer.

Already visited: California(lots of times), washington state (lots of times), Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Florida, Minnesota, Arizona, Utah, New York, Colorado (only because my connecting flight was cancelled due to snow[*]), maybe some others that have skipped my mind.

Would like to visit: Alaska, Montana, maybe Oregon. I’m going for “Nebraska” as my least-likely to visit. I bet there’s lots to see in do in Nebraska, though (cue outraged CTers from Nebraskaon how their state has been maligned).

[*] “only visited it because my plane out couldn’t take off” is perhaps not a very strong endorsement of Denver.

10

SusanC 09.05.19 at 8:08 am

P.s. I’ve also spent a week in Atlanta, Georgia.

11

SusanC 09.05.19 at 8:39 am

Name a novel you have read that you think the rest of us should avoid reading

Too much trash SF to mention, but I’m going with Justin Cronin, The Passage. Possibly also worth a mention: Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code. ( If I remember the last time CT played this game – people pretend to be self-deprecating about all the trash they read, while really demonstrating they’ve read the classics of junk science fiction).

12

hix 09.05.19 at 12:11 pm

What then would be embarassing if not a manufactured Disney teenage star with a non believable holier than you brand? There are worse cases no doubt, but those seem not a good starting point to admit to likeing – Böhse Onkelz or whatever the US equivalent is probably not a good opening even if its true and youre truelly distant from their politics.

13

Harry 09.05.19 at 12:23 pm

Also, on Jardine: they won, despite Bradman. (And Bradman averaged 50ish, so its not as though he was savaged).

Sorry, this shouldn’t be a Jardine thread.

14

Matt 09.05.19 at 12:38 pm

I bet there’s lots to see in do in Nebraska,

Lots of cattle feed lots, farms, boring prairie, etc. Having been though Nebraska 5 or 6 times, it is certainly high on my list of states I’m not eager to return to. Even North Dakota was more interesting.

15

TheSophist 09.05.19 at 7:44 pm

One game I’ve had success with as an icebreaker is “You’re king/queen of the world. What is the first thing you change?” (My own answer to get the ball rolling is usually ‘forbid classes from starting before 9:00am’.)

16

J-D 09.05.19 at 10:43 pm

J-D: interesting. Sometimes people say they want to pass and can I come back to them. But rarely two sessions in a row. I try to make the environment friendly and comfortable.

It’s not the environment that’s the problem, it’s the content of the questions. How do people answer questions like those? I don’t get it. (I don’t mean that I don’t know what kind answers people would give–after all, if you asked me to produce a list of possible answers, I could do that easily enough, it’s just a list of novels or a list of countries–I mean I don’t get what the process is by which people come up with their specific answers.)

I also have small classes (capped at 16), and I email them a few days prior to ask them to bring in a judgment of theirs that they think is among the most controversial (i.e., the others in the class are likely to disagree). I qualify the prompt: it has to be classroom appropriate, it has to be something they’re happy to have us talk aloud about for a bit, and they don’t have to believe it at the core of their being.

Now, that I could do, no problem. That question? I get that.

What’s more, I get how somebody’s answer to a question like that has a good chance of being revealing.

But I don’t get what’s likely to be revealed about people by their responses to questions like ‘What would your choice be for a final meal?’ or ‘Name a novel you haven’t read that you think you should have read’.

Or, if you ask ‘Of the 50 states, which is the one you are least interested in visiting?’, what does it reveal about a respondent if the answer is Minnesota? Wyoming? California? Ohio? Delaware? New Mexico? Alabama? New Jersey? I don’t get it. SusanC thinks Nebraska is probably the one which she’s least interested in visiting: that reveals nothing about SusanC to me. SusanC has read The Passage by Justin Cronin and thinks nobody else should read it: that reveals nothing about SusanC to me.

By contrast, I know that my opinion that there should be no minimum age requirement for voting is extensively disagreed with, and I like to imagine that it reveals something about me: am I wrong about that?

My response to the question ‘You’re king/queen of the world; what is the first thing you change?’ might also reveal something about me, because it’s ‘I pinch myself and wake up’.

17

ph 09.05.19 at 11:18 pm

One point – ice breakers (and almost all discussions) can/should be done while standing preferably – like at a party, bar, or busy restaurant. Most natural conversations between strangers begin that way, and more than one student (and teacher) has allowed that it’s harder to fall asleep in that position. Students begin by interviewing each other using the questions from the board, or from a printed handout. The handout is effective because that way each can write down the partner’s name and her/his responses – re-telling and introducing others can be useful and helps students listen more attentively to each other.

18

SusanC 09.06.19 at 7:34 am

These particular questions might not be all that revealing, because they have standard socially acceptable answers (at least, standard for a particular social class and subcultural association). Like we can all distain Justin Bieber and trashy vampire novels, and admit to a lack of enthusiasm for spending a week’s holiday in Nebraska.

We get it. Some people will write Nebraska off and never give it another thought. Or another chance. But we also know that there are enlightened truth-seekers out there willing to take the time to find out what makes our beautiful state so appealing, charming and disarming. Welcome enlightened truth-seekers!

… and that’s from a web site trying to persuade you to visit.

19

Z 09.06.19 at 8:10 am

Professionally, I belong to a different tradition – the same as Antoine above – and true to form, I don’t do foreplay: my icebreaker will be “Here are seven problems that arguably belong to combinatorics, whether or not it is apparent that they do so.”

But if I imagine myself in a different system, then I wonder about some of the items of the list you proposed Harry. Aren’t questions 2, 4, 6 and to some extent 3 too likely to incite negative emotions? Somebody mentions that Nebraska is the state they are least interested in visiting. Everybody laugh. Except one student, somehow. Someone says he is ashamed of liking Disney movies theme songs. Isn’t there a risk that another student will now be ashamed of it? A student says she has read The Einstein Enigma and regrets it: cheap, uneducated, utterly predictable conspiracy theory rip-off with a sprinkle of pseudo-science to go with the heavy dose of ridiculous theism. All in all better suited for pre-teens out of Sunday School. How does that make her neighbor who read it and loved it feel?

Now perhaps that is the point: you want them to enter into intellectual confrontations on controversial topics during the semester, so maybe it is a good idea to have them enter into confrontations about topics very few people consider important. But still, even if the ultimate aim is to have a class comfortable with future confrontations, it seems to me a better strategy is to give a positive spin rather than a negative one to the icebreaker questions (as in “Name five undeniably positive things about the last novel you read that you did not particularly enjoy or about a state in the US you feel not very compel to visit”).

20

nastywoman 09.06.19 at 8:11 am

There is no better ”Icebreaker” than Queen Anne!

”The people” love her – as she answers every question – you like to ask –
AND she has traveled the American landscape ALL the way from one coast to the other – getting begged at the Grand Canyon to run for President –
and in front of the ”Jefferson Rotunda” in Charlottesville to lead the ”Young Americans Revolution”

And now in London – greeted by Europeans to save the UK from the Brexiteers.

So -if you REALLY need an Icebreaker – ask for QUEEN ANNE
-(and Prof. Bertram has her ”number”)

21

Trader Joe 09.06.19 at 12:46 pm

Not to be too off point, but since we’re on Nebraska….I’ll put in a positive plug for Omaha.

The downtown has an excellent ‘old town’ market with loads of nice shops and quality restaurants, craft beers and a mammoth antiques arcade. There is also a big artist mall with a wide range of disciplines represented along side of Thomas Mangelson’s home gallery (wildlife photographer who is amazing, check the website).

About 10 minutes outside of downtown is the Henry Doorly Zoo which is often ranked second only to San Diego as best zoos in the U.S. A huge conservation program (backed in part by Mutual of Omaha and the wild kingdom TV franchise). Not far away is the Strategic Air Command museum which lovers of cold war intrigue and supersonic fighter jets will want to visit.

Bottom line – if you gotta go Nebraska, go Omaha.

22

Chris Bertram 09.06.19 at 12:59 pm

Good to have these focused ideas. I usually ask them to say something interesting about themselves and this usually works, so long as the first person to answer isn’t too bashful. In the past few years, they seem remarkably keen to volunteer information about alternative nationalities they have or could get, suggesting some practical thinking re how to escape from Brexit Britain.

23

Matt 09.06.19 at 1:59 pm

Somebody mentions that Nebraska is the state they are least interested in visiting. Everybody laughs. Except one student, somehow.

On either my first day in law school, or at a quasi-mandatory orientation (I can’t remember now), in a big auditorium, with all of my class-mates, the dean of admissions was talking about what a diverse class we had. “We have people from all over!” he said. “We even have someone form Idaho!” (I was the “someone from Idaho”. It didn’t make me feel bad, but I might well have given a laugh and a F.U. if it would have been possible then.)

24

J-D 09.07.19 at 12:55 am

Good to have these focused ideas. I usually ask them to say something interesting about themselves and this usually works, so long as the first person to answer isn’t too bashful. In the past few years, they seem remarkably keen to volunteer information about alternative nationalities they have or could get, suggesting some practical thinking re how to escape from Brexit Britain.

I have a friend who has told me about her eligibility for German citizenship, but if you asked me to tell you something interesting about her, that’s not what I would mention.

In Homecomings, by CP Snow, Lewis Eliot hosts a dinner party at which his former pupil-master, Herbert Getliffe, suggests that each diner answer the question ‘If you had your life to live over again, what would you do differently?’ Getliffe himself tells a story about how if he had his life to live over again, he would not go to the Bar but would instead become a clergyman. His wife talks about how she has loved her marriage to Getliffe and would do the same over if she had the chance. I can’t remember what (if anything) anybody else says, but Lewis Eliot’s wife Sheila, who clearly suffers from some form of depressive illness, although I don’t recall any specific psychiatric diagnosis being offered, is so obviously traumatised by the question that they are forced to change the subject in embarrassment.

You never know what apparently harmless question is going to turn out to be traumatic for some respondents. I can easily imagine some people being traumatised by being asked ‘What is something interesting about yourself?’

For that matter, ‘Of the 50 States, which are you least interested in visiting?’ seemed harmless to me at first thought, but now I’m thinking of Louise’s reaction in Thelma And Louise to mentions of Texas.

“We have people from all over!” he said. “We even have someone form Idaho!” (I was the “someone from Idaho”. It didn’t make me feel bad, but I might well have given a laugh and a F.U. if it would have been possible then.)

Now I’m imagining the icebreaker question being, say, ‘Name a song or singer or band that you are embarrassed that you like’ and one response being ‘Get stuffed’. It would certainly reveal something about the respondent.

25

SusanC 09.07.19 at 11:48 am

A warm up question that was asked, when I was a young grad student, is: which language do you consider to be your first language?
Context for this: seminars are held in English, but well over half of the grad students are speaking English as a foreign grad. (And which language te students consider their first varies greatly)

This is the sort of question one has to be careful that it is not construed as discriminatory, and I’m not sure I’d ask it. (When I was a student the intent was surely not discriminatory … it’s more on the lines of… ok, this is an international class, and the majority of students are going to be speaking in what is for them a foreign language).

( I have been very occasionally known to hold discussions with students in French, if it turns out that all the students present at the time are French speakers).

26

Jonathan Goldberg 09.08.19 at 3:16 am

At my age my BS tolerance has expired. I drop the class.

27

Harry 09.08.19 at 2:01 pm

#25 — that is not the general response.
I can’t respond to much here, but in general there seems to be a lot of overthinking here. The prevailing norm is that described by the France-based commenters here — learning is seen as a highly individualized activity and the classroom is seen as a sink-or-swim environment. The icebreaker is a small (and brief, though frequent) way of sending a contrary signal, ensuring that everybody speaks, early, and that they start to learn the regrettably unusual skill of speaking (about something pretty trivial and not very revealing) to everyone in the room (and not just to me). The emphasis is on them learning one another’s names. By the fourth (or, this time, due to a logistical screw-up during our first session, the fifth) class, they will have a lot of information about how one another thinks, they will each have spoken to the others, and they will be up and running as a class.

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