Tag Archives: discussions

Classroom Discussions: From “Civil Attention” to Real Participation

Steve Volk, October 9, 2017
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Why Discussions?

From a series of futuristic pictures by Jean-Marc Côté and other artists issued in France in 1899, 1900, 1901 and 1910. Public domain.

Because research over the past 30 years has demonstrated that student learning (from retention to student confidence to higher order thinking) is facilitated by active learning and student engagement. [Chickering and Gamson 1987; Pascarella and Terenzini 1991, 2005; Kuh et al, 2005]

Because the person who is doing the work is the person who is learning.

Because the participating classroom is a place where students learn citizenship skills, including how to articulate their positions, how to discuss with those with whom they disagree, how to take responsibility for their actions.

Because even in the best lectures, delivered by the most entertaining faculty at the very top of their game, student attention will flag at a certain point and students will mentally check out.

Because we’re doing more than preparing students to be good at going to school. Learning is more than “making deposits” in our students’ brains [Freire]; learning involves helping students become aware of their learning (metacognition) so as to be able to transfer knowledge and skills to other domains.

Because all students, even the most shy, will have to find their voice when they graduate: they will have to learn to advocate for themselves, to speak up and, often, to speak out.

Need More Why’s? 

if you’re still looking for reasons why discussions are a valuable classroom practice, here are fifteen further benefits of discussions as gathered from S. D. Brookfield and S. Preskill, Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, 2nd ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2005), pp. 21-22.

Discussion, they argue:

  1. Helps students explore a diversity of perspectives.
  2. Increases students’ awareness of and tolerance for ambiguity or complexity.
  3. Helps students recognize and investigate their assumptions.
  4. Encourages attentive, respectful listening.
  5. Develops new appreciation for continuing differences.
  6. Increases intellectual agility.
  7. Helps students become connected to a topic.
  8. Shows respect for students’ voices and experiences.
  9. Helps students learn the processes and habits of democratic discourse.
  10. Affirms students as co-creators of knowledge.
  11. Develops the capacity for the clear communication of ideas and meaning.
  12. Develops habits of collaborative learning.
  13. Increases breadth and makes students more empathetic.
  14. Helps students develop skills of synthesis and integration.
  15. Leads to transformation.

Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, The Wise Boys: or, The Entertaining Histories of Fred Forethought, Matt Merrythought, Luke Lovebook and Ben Bee (New York, Edwd. Dunigan), 1842.

Some Cautions and Challenges 

  • Talking/discussion does not automatically lead to or result in learning, as we well know. If we allow it, discussions can lead nowhere and serve no learning purpose. A recent article by Amber Finn and Paul Schrodt (2016) identifies five factors that characterize effective discussion facilitation on the part of faculty. Good facilitation provokes discussion, organizes discussion, questions students, affirms students, and corrects students. (You can download their “Teacher Discussion Facilitation Instrument” here.
  • Facilitating good discussions isn’t easy, but neither is it impossibly difficult.
  • Accept that promoting effective discussions requires working through contradictions: think of them dialectically:

          Students don’t much like it when a few students absorb all the class’s air time by constantly           talking; on the other hand (see below), they are often willing and even happy to let others talk,           and even talk constantly.

          Discussions require a classroom environment where students feel – dare I say it without           provoking a “precious snowflake” attack – safe, yet learning demands that we challenge           assumptions and preconceptions, which can make students uncomfortable.

Consolidation of Responsibility

In Discussion in the College Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2015), from which much of this article is fondly and gratefully lifted, Jay Howard writes about the difference between students “actually paying attention” in class versus those who pay only “civil attention.” Just as we know the normative rules of behavior in specific spaces (don’t touch the paintings in a museum, move to the back and face forward in an elevator, etc.), so our students know how to create the appearance of paying attention in class: they look at (or toward) us, take notes (or at least pretend to), and try not to make it totally obvious when they check their phones. Such behavior, identified by Karp and Yoels [1976], is called “paying civil attention.” (I once had a student with a head of long and curly hair. Occasionally, as I droned on, he would attach his pen to the locks of hair falling over his face and “take notes” by moving his head around, letting the pen make marks on the paper below. Now that was really pushing the boundaries of “civil” attention!)

L. A. Vaught, Vaught’s Practical Character Reader, 1902.

Anyway, the problem, as Howard points out, is that as long as students adhere to these norms, our assumption (except for hirsute note-taking) is that they are actually paying attention. They’re not, or at least, many aren’t, and the challenge becomes how to move students from “civil” to “actual” attention. We all know that discussions are an excellent way to do this. So, what are the best ways to do engage all our students in productive discussions?

Who speaks up in class? Well, actually, very few students, if the research is any indication. Karp and Yoels [1976] found that, in a “typical college or university classroom,” a small number of students accounted for 75-95% of all interactions. Perhaps things have changed for the better lately since their research is a bit musty? We should be so lucky. Howard, Zoeller, and Pratt [2006] reported similar findings more recently. They studied 15 sections of an introductory sociology course taught by 9 different instructors at “a large Midwestern university.” In a “typical” 75-minute class, they found 49 instances of student verbal participation. Fantastic, no? Not really. In an average class, 70% of the students didn’t intervene at all. Of those who spoke, 6 of the 39 students in class accounted for 92% of all student interactions.

Many colleges and universities created First Year Seminars to give entering students a small-class setting in which the skills of discussion could be encouraged. When Sheryl Baratz Goodman, Krista Bailey Murphy, and Mia Lindquist D’Andrea of Ursinus College (2012) studied a First Year Seminar course with only 15 students enrolled, they found that a majority of students adhered to “a norm of silence.” In other words, they didn’t see themselves as obligated to participate in the conversation. In the literature, this is called “consolidation of responsibility,” meaning that the majority of participants turn over the responsibility for engaging in discussion to a few of their peers. (This can produce the contradiction I flagged at the start: students are both annoyed with their peers who talk all the time and are grateful that they are there.)

Why does this happen? There are probably a lot of reasons why this happens from the perspective of the student, including the possibility that they aren’t prepared for class. Factors of gender and race clearly enter in, although not always in the ways that one might imagine. I’m more interested in locating what we are doing as instructors to actually make it easier for students to bow out of a discussion and turn over the responsibility of talking to others. And, of course, I’m interested in what we can do to make the classroom a more participatory environment that encourages actual attention through discussion. First, what we might be doing wrong.

What We Do That Makes It Easier for Students to Sit on the Sidelines

There are a number of things we do, consciously or inadvertently, which signal to students that we’re not actually interested in what they have to say. For example, we:

  • Don’t leave much time for discussion during class;
  • Shoehorn discussion into the last few minutes of class when everyone’s attention has moved on;
  • Don’t prepare students for discussion or hold them responsible for what is discussed;
  • Keep calling on the same 3-4 students, the ones who are quick to raise their hands, or turn to those same students when no one else responds (“Josh, you should know the answer to this!”);
  • Do nothing to rein in the dominant talkers;
  • Respond sarcastically or curtly to students whose answers are incorrect or not the best;
  • Ignore certain students because, consciously or unconsciously, we don’t expect much of them.

Illustration from The Anvār-i Suhaylī or Lights of Canopus (1847)

Making Student Participation Both Valued and Welcome:

More positively, we can encourage a broad base of student participation in discussions by:

  • Stressing the importance of student discussion to student learning. As we begin to align our syllabi to class, departmental, and college learning goals, it is important to be able to articulate why we do what we do, i.e. why we structure classes as we do; why we assign the readings we do; why we have specific assignments, and why we encourage discussions in class. Bringing students early in the semester into a “discussion on discussions” can help them understanding the impact on learning that (well-prepared) discussions can have.
  • Emphasizing the social nature of learning and stressing the evidence that the fact that they have a lot to learn from each other; indeed, that’s why they are in our liberal arts colleges and not just reading a textbook at home.
  • Helping students become aware of the ways they learn, and how discussions are one aspect of that.
  • Having standards for discussion and, if you choose, well defined rubrics by which you grade classroom participation. Some discussions can be loose and unstructured, a kind of “throat clearing” form of engagement before getting down to the business at hand. But for important discussions, students need to know that they are taken seriously, and that they need to pay attention to their peers. (You can do this by having students take notes of their discussions and report back to the class.) In Q&A type discussions, ask students for evidence to back up their arguments or to highlight the experiences that have generated their comments. The best way to have productive discussions is to establish a model of good discussions and to keep students to it.
  • Making discussion a part of our classes, not an afterthought intended only as a break from the lecture.
  • Demonstrating from the beginning class that we won’t allow a “consolidation of responsibility” to happen, that we won’t let a few students carry the conversational burden – even if those few are happy to speak up and the others are happy to let them do so.

Supporting Productive Discussions

There are lots of things to be done. Here are a few, many of which you probably know already – but it never hurts to review!

  1. Modify any classroom geography that discourages discussion: No matter how “bolted down” the classroom setting (e.g. theater seating, chairs nailed to the floor, etc.) you can improve discussions by hacking the room to encourage communication.
  • Pull the chairs into a circle or horseshoe, where possible;
  • If you can’t move all the chairs, have students cluster in groups of 3-5 students;
  • If you can’t move ANY of the chairs, have students sit on their desks to face and talk to those sitting around them. When students can look at other students, we increase the chances that more will talk.
  1. Take your time: Students, particularly those who aren’t quick to raise their hands, need time to think about answering, particularly if the questions are complex.
  • Pause for 30 seconds (it will seem like an eternity) before calling on anyone;
  • Give students a minute to write their comments before calling on them;
  • “Think-pair-share” – the “go-to” method here: a minute to write; 1-2 minutes to share with the person sitting next to you; 1-2 minutes to report back. (More on this here.) These methods also allow you to call on the quieter students rather than only calling on the ones who raise their hands: “I saw your writing away, Yolanda. Can you share it with us?”
  1. Provide feedback that can build and expand student confidence. Research [Fassinger 1997] has suggested that the variable that best explained student participation was student confidence: not an overvalued sense of their own worth, but the confidence that their input is valuable, will be taken seriously, and won’t provoke peer disapproval. (This last point is critically important but deserves a separate article!)
  • Supportive feedback is not just the “great job, Sonia,” type of comment. If other students don’t know why Sonia’s comment was awesome, they won’t learn from it, nor learn from the discussion. Reveal why you thought it was a good answer: “Great job, Sonia. You connected Weber’s notion about the state and the legitimate use of violence with the conversation we’ve been having about the Kurds.” [For more, see here.]

    Andrew Comstock, A System of Elocution, with Special Reference to Gesture, to the Treatment of Stammering, and Defective Articulation (1846).

  1. Help the class learn from mistakes.
  • If a student serves up an incorrect answer, you can either correct the information (“No, it was actually in 1917”), or ask someone else (“Nice try, Ellen. Anyone else?”).
  • When dealing with more complicated concepts, not just facts, it can help everyone, including the student who answered, to probe a bit further to see where their answer came from, since many could harbor the same (incorrect) idea: “Hmm, not sure I get that, could you add more?” “What makes you say that?” “Can you point to some evidence to back up your argument?”
  • When the answer has little to do with what you’re discussing and you want to keep the student, and the class, on track, you can ask the student to describe how it connects to what you’re discussing. (This approach can at times produce startlingly interesting insights, as students, not experts in our fields, may make different connections than we do. And sometimes, of course, it’s just off base.)
  1. Control the “compulsive communicators” and increase the confidence of quieter students to support their entry into the discussion. As argued above, most instructors and students have come to expect and even accept that a small number of students will dominate discussions. Sometimes these are students who have taken the responsibility to prepare for the discussion; sometimes they are students who dominate discussions by either preventing others from entering in or by driving others out. In both all cases, you want make sure early in the semester that it’s not OK for a few students to be doing all the talking.
  • Help all students prepare for discussions and hold them responsible.
  • Encourage other students to speak up and don’t let compulsive communicators dominate discussions: “Let’s hear from someone who hasn’t yet spoken;” “I’m waiting for someone in the back row to speak up;” “John’s already answered twice: I need someone else.”
  • Walk over to different parts of the class and pose questions from there.
  • Encourage quieter students by giving them time to think (one-minute papers, etc.).
  • Avoid getting into a back-and-forth with a compulsive communicator: “Who wants to respond to John’s argument?”
  • Talk to compulsive communicators after class (in your office) and explain why you appreciate their comments (if you do), but you’d now appreciate it if they could to sit on their hands for a bit to let others talk. If you think there are different issue involved (e.g., a white student who continues to dominate the conversation and is oblivious to the indications that students of color aren’t talking and are becoming frustrated, etc.) explain what you think is happening and why it’s important for them to be aware of how their domination of the conversation impacts the class.

    Tiago Ribeiro (Braga, Portugal), 2009. Public domain.

  1. Experiment with well-established approaches.
  • “Muddy Point papers”: Reserve the last 2-3 minutes of class for students to write on a slip of paper what they found most confusing about that day’s class. Collect them, and begin the next class with some of the questions raised, particularly if a lot of students wrote the same thing. “A number of you found my explanation of recombinant DNA less than enlightening. Can someone try their hand at explaining it?”
  • “Most Important Point papers”: As with the muddy points, ask students to write what they thought the most important point covered in the class was. While these are usually anonymous, you can ask that they sign the slips they handed in and, in that case, begin class by asking a student to explain why she thought the specific point she raised was important; it’s a good opening to call on the less talkative students. The added value of this approach is that students can always duck the “muddy point paper” by saying that everything was crystal clear, no problems at all.
  • Online discussion boards: Similarly, have students answer questions online, collect them before class, and ask some students – again, the least talkative – to go over the points they raised in the homework. (More on this here.)
  1. Attend to the needs of students for whom English is not their home language. Fast-paced discussions, cold-calling, and a culture that favors hand-raising can silence or confuse multilingual students.
  • It is particularly important to understand that students for whom English is not their home language can benefit from all the approaches outlined above, particularly giving students time to think before they answer, putting them in small groups to discuss specific questions before the group reports back to the class, and using on-line forums outside of class and short writing opportunities in class. This is yet another indication of the value of universal design principles: when we think about how to make our classroom environment fully inclusive, we benefit all the students.

By Way of Conclusion: Forms of Silence

Paul Goodman

I just came upon Paul Goodman’s discussion of speaking and silence in Maria Popova’s most wonderful “Brain Pickings” blog. In Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry (1973), Goodman  enumerated nine kinds of silence, reminding us that silence itself can be productive, and that the goal here, as always, is student learning, not student talking. There are forms of silence, just as there are ways of talking, that we want to encourage.

Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.

—–

References

Brookfield, S.D. and Preskill, S. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Chickering, A., and Gamson, Z. “Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” AAHE Bulletin, 1987, 7 (39), 3-7.

Fassinger, P.A. “Understanding Classroom Interaction: Students’ and Professors’ Contributions to Students’ Silence.” Journal of Higher Education, 1995, 66(1), 82-96.

Finn, A. N. and Schrodt, P. “Teacher discussion facilitation: A new measure and its associations with students’ perceived understanding, interest and engagement.” Communication Education, 2016, 65 (4), 445-462.

Freire, Paolo. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Ed. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000.

Goodman, S.B., Murphy, K.B., and D’Andrea, M.L. “Discussion Dilemmas: An Analysis of Beliefs and Ideas in the Undergraduate Seminar.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 2012, 27(1), 1-21.

Howard, J. Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015.

Karp, D.A. and Yoels, W.C. “The College Classroom: Some Observations on the Meaning of Student Participation,” Sociology and Social Research, 1976, 60(4), 421-439.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J.H. , Whitt, E.J., and Associates. Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Pascarella, E.T., and Terenzini, P.T. How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights from Twenty Years of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

The Sounds of Silence: Approaches to Other-Oriented Listening

Steve Volk, February 20, 2017

cage_4-33As long as we’re talking about Frank Zappa…

In 1993, Zappa recorded John Cage’s 4’33” as part of A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute [Koch International Classics]. You might remember 4’33” as a recording of silence, or better put, as a composition scored for any instrument or combination of instruments in which the performers don’t play for the prescribed amount of time. It’s not, in fact, a composition intended to produce silence since, in performance, listeners hear the environmental noise that they normally ignore at a concert (except, of course, for the continual hacking and rustling that goes on). “There’s no such thing as silence,” Cage said, recalling the première of the work. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” Kyle Gann [No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s ‘4′ 33″’  (Yale, 2011)] described Cage’s composition as “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.” In other words, 4’33” explores how the absence of the expected, in this case “music,” can act to heighten our awareness of things that otherwise might have eluded our attention.

I have been thinking about the role of silence in the classroom, somewhat peculiarly in the part it can play in supporting discussions, dialogues, or any other non-monologic teaching. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about whether silence can help students hear. As with Cage’s composition, the relationship between talking and silence in the classroom is not a binary, both are part of a singular process.  Silence can be employed to encourage hearing as well as talking. (I’m reminded of an anecdote recalled by Catherine Blyth in The Art of Conversation. When Solon, he of ancient Athens, in a test of wits was asked to remove the best and worst bits of a sacrificed animal, he selected just one item: the tongue.)

Silence in the classroom has been addressed by a number of scholars. Donald L. Finkel, for example, in Teaching with Your Mouth Shut (Heinemann, 2000), suggests ways that instructors can teach by removing themselves as the center of the students’ attention. At this time, however, I’m particularly concerned with whether silence can encourage what I would call “other-oriented” listening, which I used to think of as “real” listening, and therefore add to productive engagement in the classroom.  Because, beyond a doubt, in the world at large there’s way too much talking and not enough listening.

One of many such signs scattered around the Bodleian Library, Oxford

One of many such signs scattered around the Bodleian Library, Oxford

In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, John C. Cavanaugh, the president of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, argued that we need to be teaching our students how to listen, or, more precisely, what he termed the skill of “contemplative listening.” Contemplative listening, Cavanaugh writes, “is not the same as ‘listening’ in the colloquial sense. The latter, which tends to be the default way listening is practiced, is rooted in how listeners are consumed with how a conversation affects them.”

That last part really resonated: consumed with how a conversation affects them. Anyone who has led a classroom discussion knows exactly what this looks like. You ask your students a question. Hands go up. As the first to be called on offers a response, the others who had their hands up don’t appear to be listening to the speaker. Their faces tell you that they are thinking of something else, probably how they will answer when eventually called on. They’re thinking of how the conversation will affect them. This is pretty much the same if you “stack” those who want to answer in a queue or if you have the current speaker determine the next speaker. Both techniques can help remove you as the central hub of classroom discussions (allowing you to teach “with your mouth shut”), but they don’t address the challenge of getting students to listen to each other in order to actually develop the discussion. Students often remain focused on what they had planned to say rather than moving with the conversational flow. And, as a result, class discussions don’t develop into truly dialogic spaces capable of generating new understandings or fresh insights. Don’t get me wrong: discussions aren’t a waste of time; but they could be more productive if students actually listened to their peers.

Image taken from "Lilliput Lyrics," R. Brimley Johnson, ed, illustrated by Chas. Robinson, 1899, p. 277 (British Library)

Image taken from “Lilliput Lyrics,” R. Brimley Johnson, ed, illustrated by Chas. Robinson, 1899, p. 277 (British Library)

It’s not a great surprise that students aren’t better at other-oriented listening. Truth be told, we’re not particularly good at it either. Perhaps it’s our training to be critics, but we, too, are often busy planning how we’ll respond rather than listening to what a colleague has to say. (Think back to your last faculty, department, or committee meeting. OK, don’t.)

Cavanaugh argues that traditional-aged students often haven’t developed an ability to “separate one’s personal needs and interests from those being expressed by the speaker.” (And once again I’d say, it’s not just late adolescents: Physician, heal thyself!) He cites the neuroscience research pointing to the late development of the integration of emotion and logic which is central to contemplative listening. I’m not familiar with that research, but I do know that there is a growing tendency to remain in our own “echo-chambers.” And in this aspect research has clearly shown that our conversations/reading/viewing – whether virtual or face-to-face – are increasingly with people who share our perspectives. To the extent that we only listen to what we want to hear, we are self-oriented thinkers, unable or unwilling to hear the unexpected, the uncomfortable.

Impediments to Other-Oriented Listening in the Classroom

Still, there are structural reasons that make other-oriented listening in the classroom harder for our students. Classroom interactions obviously don’t follow the same rules as one-on-one or small group exchanges, with a relatively “natural” flow of talk among conversational partners. Although, as Blyth worries, it is possible that conversation itself, “especially face-to-face [conversation] – for thousands of years the core of human interaction – is being pushed to the sidelines.”  Even given that, or perhaps because we are becoming less adept at the “art of conversation,” good classroom discussions, unlike other social interactions, require that the participants’ have prepared for them. And we all know what that can mean. But there are circumstances we impose that also lessen the likelihood of effective listening.

  • When students know they are expected to participate in class discussions, particularly if participation makes up a part of their grade, they can become more focused on the act of participating, on intervening in the conversation, than on whether what they have to say helps the discussion advance. Their interventions don’t depend on having listened to previous speakers, and they will largely focus on what they have been planning to say even as the discussion has moved on.
  • Students often recognize that they are being evaluated by the instructor (and their peers) more for what they say than for their ability to foster a discussion. They have received a message, often accurately, that it is more important to impress us than to contribute to generative discussions.

So, what practices can we employ to help our students build their capacity as other-oriented and contemplative listeners? How can we circumvent the barriers that make classroom discussions less about individual speakers and more about collaborative engagement?

Some Quick Fixes:

Listening. Photo by launchmemphis: Flickr Creative Commons

Listening. Photo by launchmemphis: Flickr Creative Commons

There are some quick fixes that we can use to help students become better listeners. In general, these involve explicitly raising for class members the challenge of taking responsibility for the generation of a productive discussion by closely listening to, and then addressing, the arguments and themes raised by the previous speakers. For example, think about:

  • Having each speaker sum up her comments at the end of her intervention and, if possible, raise a new question to be answered.
  • Encouraging the next person in the queue to begin his comments by focusing on the question raised by the previous speaker.
  • Adopting a modified Socratic approach. As you know, the Socratic method involves teacher-student interactions based on a shared dialogue in which both are responsible for pushing the conversation forward through questioning as a means of finding foundational beliefs, values, or principles. Socratic approaches often allow us to find new meanings through  persistent questioning. In a modified approach, students, more than the instructor, would be responsible for advancing the process of continual questioning of assumptions, and they could only do this by paying particular attention to what the previous speaker has said and thinking more deeply about its values and understandings.

But here is where silence can help. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to encourage contemplative listening in the midst of a conversation is to employ silence. Think of John Cage. Use enforced silence to help students focus before answering, not just after you ask a question, but after the first student offers an answer and before you call on others, with the explicit instruction that no one will talk for a minute (it will seem very long) after the previous speaker to allow everyone to think of what was said, to write comments, and to respond explicitly to what was said. I can guarantee you that this won’t be easy, but don’t be faint of heart and give up after what will undoubtedly be your first disastrous attempts at it. Stay with it.

The Longer-Term: Classrooms as Learning Communities

You probably have more ideas than I do about helping students develop more other-oriented listening approaches in a classroom, and I’d be eager to hear them. But to address this issue on a profound level we have to consider some of the structural factors mentioned that inhibit deep listening. These are not just, or even, about the number of students you have and whether only small seminars are capable of generating other-oriented thinking skills. What we need to take on board is whether we are structuring our classes in ways that encourage deep listening. To return to a point I made above, except in large lecture classes, most of us, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, include a “class participation” component as part of the final grade. I did that for years without providing students with helpful – OK, any! – feedback on how their participation would be evaluated. And, when I finally did provide some feedback in the form of a rubric, I mostly stressed quantity (were they active participants?), their ability to stay on topic, and whether their interventions were informed by the readings or other assigned work. I never commented on whether they helped the class generate a productive discussion or if they raised further questions for their peers to address. In my approach, I probably convinced students either that quantity was more important than quality, or that the “quality” of their interventions was an individual feature, disconnected from the whole group’s ability to reach new understandings. I find my own practices even more curious since the very quality which I didn’t explicitly raise with students — the ability to advance a discussion — would always be at the top of my list when writing student recommendations.

@GwynethJones. Flickr Creative Commons

@GwynethJones. Flickr Creative Commons

If we are interested in supporting other-oriented listening, a listening that moves students away from thinking only about how the conversation affects them, a practice of hearing that opens them to other perspectives, we need to structure classrooms as learning communities where all participants are held responsible for producing knowledge, deepening understandings, and solving problems. As I wrote in an earlier post, “When we invite students into our community (both in our classes and on the campus as a whole), we are affirming that everyone has the responsibility (and the privilege) of being both learners and teachers and that we reject the binary that insists that only we, who stand in the front of the class, are responsible for teaching while they, who have come here as students, can so easily excuse themselves from that responsibility.”

At one level,  this involves moving from what Paulo Freire called the “banking,” or information-transformation model of teaching to a more learning-centered, inquiry-centered model where, as Jeffrey Wilhem writes, teachers and students “work together to co-construct knowledge according to disciplinary standards as they learn and use disciplinary concepts and procedures.” To the extent that students become co-responsible for classroom learning, and to the extent that the different experiences and knowledges that they bring with them are valued, we can create a space where listening becomes an essential foundation for talking.

John Cage used silence in his compositions to help us hear what we weren’t listening to. Other-oriented listening in a collaborative classroom can also be based on the promotion of silence, both the absence of talking that allows students to think about what others are saying before speaking themselves, as well as the silence that involves stilling one’s inner voice to a sufficient degree so that they (and we!) can actually listen to what others are saying. If the work of the classroom is the work of the all its participants, then let’s cultivate a silence that helps students tune out “how a conversation affects them” and focus instead on how they can further a discussion that will support everyone’s learning.

Locate and Contextualize: Facilitating Difficult Discussions in the Classroom

Steve Volk, September 26, 2016

All images from Lewis Caroll, "Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There" (London: McMillan, 1871)

All images from Lewis Caroll, “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There” (London: McMillan, 1871)

As part of a class assignment, two Muslim students from Middle Eastern countries attended a Catholic Mass in Philadelphia. What happened next was sobering. The students were members of a course in religious studies, “Religion in Philadelphia,” taught by Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez of Temple University. In the course Alvarez sought to introduce her very diverse students to a variety of religious practices and institutions in the Philadelphia area.

I’ll quote from the article that Alvarez wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Fostering Open Communication in a Culturally Diverse Classroom”) to describe what happened next:

They were enjoying the beautiful building and taking in unfamiliar practices — holy water, repeated kneeling and standing, communion lines — when a parishioner photographed them with her cellphone and then abruptly left. After the mass ended, they ran into her outside the church, where she asked them if they spoke Arabic — yes — and if they were Catholic — no. When the students walked to their vehicle, multiple police cars stopped them.

The incident thankfully ended without further offense to the students when they explained the nature of their assignment for their religion course. But it left them, their classmates, and the instructor deeply shaken. While the professor had prepped both the students and the institutions they would be visiting in a responsible and professional manner, Alvarez was left to wonder whether “in today’s xenophobic climate” she could “continue to assign interfaith exchanges to my diverse students?”

Acknowledging the Moment

alice2It’s probably fair to say that most of us whose lives are absorbed with teaching and learning share that concern. It is no exaggeration to say that the current political climate, and – let’s be frank here – the Trump campaign in particular, are making our job as educators that much harder. Calls to ban Muslims, introduce racial profiling, support stop-and-frisk policing, wall-off the U.S.-Mexican border, apply torture to suspected enemies, disqualify judges on the basis of ethnic origin, and other atrocities that Trump has endorsed, strike at the heart of democratic and human rights that are a vital part of national and international law and challenge the inclusiveness that is an essential ethical and moral underpinning of the educational process itself. (For a forceful rebuttal to the argument that college administrators and faculty must remain on the sidelines of all political contests, see “Help Stop Trumpian Calamity” by Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University.)

If the heightened xenophobia and fear exhibited across sectors of U.S. society has led faculty members to wonder if they can still conduct their classes in the ways that are necessary and have proven most fruitful to the learning process, the persistent killings of black men and women, and the concerted attempts by many students (and faculty and staff) of color to get higher education to respond in a serious fashion to a history of grievance and exclusion, are also shaping the classroom environment. All of this can make faculty feel, at times, that we are walking on eggshells, uncertain how to approach difficult topics (see below on what makes them “difficult”) or when a comment will head us in directions we feel ill prepared to pursue. All of which can lead to the feeling that we should keep our distance from such themes or rapidly steer away from them when they come up.

This is not to say that we are not used to teaching through discomfort – indeed, learning is often most successful when we create a context of discomfort that calls forth deeper questions and new answers. But, to be honest, most of us aren’t all that skilled at engaging topics that are outside our own comfort zone, ones we fear will be potentially explosive. And for most of us, race is often at the very top of the list. [(Among many others resources on this, see Beverly Tatum, Can We Talk About Race? (Beacon 2008)]. Why does race, in particular, offer itself as a “difficult” conversation? Derald Wing Sue, et al argue that difficult dialogues on race:

represent potentially threatening conversations or interactions between members of different racial or ethnic groups when they (a) involve an unequal status relationship of power and privilege, (b) highlight major differences in worldviews, personalities, and perspectives, (c) are challenged publicly, (d) are found to be offensive to others, (e) may reveal biases and prejudices, and (f) trigger intense emotional responses…Any individual or group engaged in a difficult dialogue may feel at risk for potentially disclosing intimate thoughts, beliefs, or feelings related to the topic of race.

It is important to be clear that “race” and, therefore, the “dialogues about race” that take place in U.S institutions of higher education, are relevant to every class that is taught, not just those that have “race” in the course title. Because we teach in institutions that are a part of a larger history of exclusion, and because we claim, even if we fall short of the mark, that we value inclusion, we are called upon to “talk about race” (i.e., recognize what is going on) when we look out at the students sitting in our classes and see who is there and, more importantly, who isn’t. We are called upon to “talk about race” (i.e., take steps to change our practice) when we devise our curriculum and see who is represented and who isn’t, when we examine our pedagogy and realize what kind of learning it attends to and what kind is pushed to the margins. In short, the discussion of race happens even when it doesn’t happen. So no one gets a free pass from this discussion.

These were some of the things that crossed my mind as I read Alvarez’s disheartening narrative. And so I wondered:  If the world outside our classrooms is becoming less hospitable to the conversations and interactions we need to have, and if we worry about how these essential discussions will happen in our classrooms if we are nervous and worried about missteps and feeling unprepared to have them, where will they happen?

Approaching Difficult Discussions

alice3The heart of Alvarez’s essay is not what happened to her students, but the advice she offers in order to engage these difficult conversations so that the pervasive xenophobia does not set the tone of her classes. She observes that encouraging these discussions requires “helping students develop an awareness of their own cultural narratives and differences,” and that we need concrete strategies if we’re going to do this. (I would only add that she could easily add “faculty and staff” to the category of “students.”) These strategies, she continues, “include explicitly clarifying the assumptions and methodologies of academic inquiry, breaking down required skills into components that are addressed at the assignment level, and, most crucially, making the classroom a safe place for discussion so relationships can grow and empathetic engagement can occur.”

“Yeah, right,” you’re probably thinking. Easier said than done, and bromides aren’t going to help me when I’ve opened the door to something I’m not prepared for.  And certainly we all know of examples (of colleagues, if not ourselves) where attempts at such discussions, or even less challenging ones, crashed off the rails. There are no guarantees that these discussions will prove useful for our students or ourselves; but there probably is a guarantee that avoidance of critical topics is abrogating our responsibilities.

Location and Context

Among the many suggestions that Alvarez raised to help educators think about engaging difficult discussions in the classroom, I found one in particular to be quite helpful. Faculty, she writes, should “instruct students in how to locate and contextualize their comments, and to model such behavior themselves. At a minimum, this involves indicating whether statements are based on experience, observation, academic research, or some other source.”

Her examples are illustrative. One student’s broad assertion that “Christians believe that Jesus is returning soon,” can, with purposeful questioning by the instructor, be located and contextualized into a more grounded, and limited, claim: “When I was growing up, I was taught in Baptist churches in Western Pennsylvania that Jesus is returning soon.”

She suggests that faculty help students specify the context or location of a statement they make or questions they offer. For example, when a student in Alvarez’s course stated that “Muslim women hide when men enter the home,” she asked that it be rephrased to help locate where that statement was coming from, whether it was generated by something the student read or observed, for example. A follow-up rephrasing that: “I read in an article by Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud that African-American Muslim women in Philadelphia in the 1970s often moved to the kitchen when men entered the home,” provides specific context for the assertion and also locates its origin in a research article.

Personal experience can also be brought in as part of the evidence, but it is to be contextualized as just that – personal experience.  Alvarez quotes from one of her students who responded to the first comment that, “When I was growing up in a Sunni home in Kuwait, my mother moved to a private area of the home when unrelated men entered.” Or, as another added, “In my extended family in Turkey, women welcomed friends and neighbors into their homes and ate with them as long as male relatives were also present.”

By contextualizing and locating statements or questions, broad claims that often leave us either speechless or wanting simply to close off the conversation can be further examined, contextualized, and evaluated on the basis of the evidence: direct evidence, reported evidence, academic evidence, cultural evidence, visual evidence, etc. Such an approach can move the discussion from a series of unsupported statements to a conversation based on evidence, while allowing students to “hear one another’s comments as unique experiences.” This kind of opening can easily lead, if one allows, to a deeper examination of what counts as evidence in our disciplines, as well as what might get left out or become undervalued, and whether critical voices in the discipline have explored ways to compensate for this.

alice4Further Suggestions

Beyond locating and contextualizing, Alvarez and others offer some suggestions that can help us think about how we can use these discussions to help generate greater understandings, light as well as heat:

  • No class member should be asked, or assumed, either by the faculty or other students, to speak for a whole group.
  • Don’t load the weight and responsibility of explaining racism on students of color; explaining homophobia on queer students; explaining Islamophobia on Muslim students. Audre Lorde put it quite succinctly: “People of color are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions.”
  • Be aware of the ways that unconscious stereotyping and implicit bias impacts how we “see” our students, even if we are sure that we are not doing this and certainly don’t intend to stereotype. (CTIE’s workshop on “Implicit Bias,” on September 29, will address these issues.)
  • Respond to questions and situations honestly: “I’m unsure right now,” or, “Frankly, I’m uncomfortable with that, too. Is there a way we can talk about it?”

These conversations are not easy to have, and it is likely that some will go awry. But as the public conversation becomes more degraded, it increasingly falls to us take on and model discussions that need to happen. As the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano reminded us, describing what he called the “looking glass [upside down] school” which “teaches us to suffer reality, not change it; to forget the past, not learn from it,” we can do things differently if we put our minds to it. Perhaps, Galeano continued, there is “no disgrace without grace, no sign without a countersign, and no school that does not beget its counterschool” [Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World, (Picador 1998)]. Creating the space for difficult discussions is one way to foster those increasingly needed “counterschool” spaces.

Let’s Talk About It: Fostering productive class discussions

Steve Volk, September 6, 2015

There are no general rules for stimulating a good class discussion…OK, so there are. But they are not so much rules as a set of understandings, things we probably all know but don’t always remember to practice. Of all the topics that faculty are interested in, particularly new faculty, this is the one I get most often. I’ve written about this before (for example here and here), but it’s a good question to consider again.

Do you believe? I don’t think we would be here if we didn’t believe this, but to state the obvious: Discussion (by which I mean both the back-and-forth with students that takes place within a more lecture-driven pedagogy and longer discussion-centered classes) will probably not go the way we hope if we don’t believe there is any pedagogical utility in student discussion, If we solicit student input only when answering our questions or when asking us to clarify points we raise in lecture. That certainly was the standard when I began teaching; I no longer think it is.

Good discussions are built on an understanding that students learn by taking an active part in their own education. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, criticized what he called the “banking theory” of education in which “the students [and he was talking about adult learners] are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits…But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

Discussions work best when we see them as a central part of student learning and make them an important aspect of our pedagogies.

Habits form quickly. We all know that by the second class of the semester, 90% of the students will be sitting in the same seat they occupied in the first class. And this will continue all semester; it becomes a matter of habit. The same is true about talking and listening. Many (if not most) students will quickly fall into the habit of talking…or remaining largely silent. In our smaller seminars, particularly the First Year Seminars, we almost always have every students speak during the very first class: they may introduce themselves, suggest why they are interested in the class, discuss some aspect of their background, or speak of what they hope to get out of the class the class. Those are good things to know, but the basic idea is to get the students talking so that they quickly feel comfortable with their own voices.

We don’t do the same in larger classes, often because there are too many people for everyone to speak, but the same proposition holds true. If students learn from the start that their primary role in class is to listen and not speak, it will not prove surprising that they won’t engage as easily when we do ask them to enter into a discussion  with their classmates. (To be sure: there are always those who are not only willing to talk, but often dominate any conversation, leaving little room for others – but more on strategies for dealing with this later.)

The bottom line is that if you understand that discussion is essential to student learning and want to encourage rich discussions in your class, make sure that your students develop the habit of talking from the very start and try to build in opportunities for discussion continually, not just on one day a week or only at the end of the lecture.

Slow is better. Except in seminar settings, and even there, student voices are most often encouraged when we ask students to answer a question we pose. Certainly there are a lot of times we ask so-called “known answer” questions as a way to discover whether they did the assigned reading or can fill in a specific piece of information (although asking such questions can produce a deadening stupor, as anyone familiar with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off will recall: “Anyone? Anyone?”).

More often we ask questions which require students to think more deeply about an issue but don’t necessarily want to break the class into smaller groups to discuss them. In these cases, the answer is neither obvious nor easy, and unless you want the same hands to shoot up each time, you need to give the students time to think and consider before answering. You can say, “wait a few seconds before answering,” but you’ll still get the same hands going up. Instead, have them write their answers or briefly discuss with the person next to them. Not only does that give them time to think, but it also makes it easier for you to call on a student who doesn’t normally talk in class. “Katie – I see that you’re writing away. What did you come up with?” (There are teachers, to be sure, who adopt what I would call the “enforced” Socratic method, like Professor Kingsfield, the contracts law professor in The Paper Chase.  And there is some value in that method – not the Kingsfield humiliation approach, but as a way to see that students come to class well prepared.) But understanding that students need time to prepare responses to complex question (as do we), is one way to get broader participation and more informed responses while avoiding both “Anyone-Anyone” moments and discussions that always revolve around the same few students.

Anatomy-Poster-French-head-238x300Save the harder for later. I have noticed that in seminars in which students are expected to take the lead in discussions, they often start the class by asking what I would consider to be the most difficult questions, the kinds of questions that usually require the students to synthesize the subject matter and come to a conclusion before the discussion has even begun.  And I also realized that I often did the same thing: I would open the discussion (at 9:00 AM, no less) with a question that not only couldn’t be answered then, but was certain to stop any discussion dead in its tracks.

When planning for student participation in class, whether a lecture-centered class or a discussion-based seminar, try to begin with those questions that are both easier to get at (perhaps descriptive or informational questions) and build to the more analytic, synthetic questions as the student, you, and the discussion get warmed up. You will generate more participation and bring along more students.

Good scaffolds make good buildings. Moving from the back-and-forth question and answer of a lecture class to a seminar-style discussion or any class in which student input is primary, the best chance to generate a productive discussion is by helping students prepare with clear expectations and prompts to guide them through the readings or other homework. What should they be looking for? How should they be preparing for the discussion? Will they be expected to lead the discussion? Will you set the pattern of staying (largely) silent or can they count on you to “rescue” them when the discussion stalls in silence?

And when you give students a set of prompts to be thinking about, try to stick to them when you open the discussion. More than once I realized that I gave my students a set of questions to help them prepare the reading and then I asked a completely different set of questions in class. It’s not that we have to stick unalterably to a scripts that we have written, but if students see no relation between what you’ve asked them to think about and what you’re asking them to talk about, they are not likely to generate a good discussion.

Responsible talking, responsible listening. Whether in a seminar setting or having divided your class into smaller groups, it is useful to employ some practices to support the discussion. There are two key roles in the discussion section: responsible talking and active listening. To support the first, give the students a sense of what it means to be a responsible participant in the group. Obviously, it means being prepared for the discussion by having completed and thought about the reading, trying to stay on topic, and encouraging others to talk as well. It also means attempting to move the discussion forward. Which brings up active listening. A good discussion is built on the fact that students are not (just) queuing up with a Medical-Illustration-Hearing-NLM-211x300set of things they want to say even though those points have already been made. They are listening to their colleagues in an active way so that even if they repeat some of what has been said, they also try to move the discussion to a new point. (For tips on active listening, see here.) You can do some things to support this by having students adopt (and exchange) certain roles in the discussion. You might want one student to be a note taker and another to be in charge of facilitating the discussion or reporting back to the class. (You can find different report-back strategies here.)

Unless you assign regular discussion groups at the start of the semester, you can encourage more participation by arranging discussion groups to have different students in them each time, particularly if you find that students always sit in the same seats and you tend to form discussion groups by having students talk to those sitting closest to them. While quick discussions will inevitably rely on turning to one’s neighbors, for longer discussions you might want to mix the groups up, setting them up by “counting-off” or other techniques. The latest suggestion I read on how to do this comes from George Williams in ProfHacker who uses playing cards to establish groups in a large class. (For example, to set up groups of four, pass out the cards and have those who draw the same number form a group. This may seem an unnecessary waste of time, but students might also find it intriguing.)

Finally, if you are interested in different ways to assess student discussions, please refer to the Article of the Week for February 18, 2013 (Assessing Student Discussions). You can find this on CTIE’s Blackboard site.

Do you have other ways to encourage student discussions? Share them with us by posting a comment.