Monday, September 5, 2011

Discussion Strategies that Might Work: Part One

I have these priceless little moments of Eternity while I’m teaching when I seem to be given a God’s-eye view of myself and of my class filled with students and I will feel like the overly excitable Othello greeting Desdemona at Cyprus – it’s too much joy, a bliss that becomes a burden with my awareness that it may never be duplicated. Where else, I wonder, will I have this kind of fun again?
Almost every time I’m granted this gift, it comes during a class discussion, and given the exuberance of the moment, “discussion” is about the most withered, bland, hollow word possible. “Communion” would be more accurate, because the “I-ness” of the 20-something students and their teacher has morphed into a charged “We.”

When I reflect back on these moments, I remember intimate, almost mesmerizing eye contact; smiles of recognition; scattered laughter, often of the ah-hah variety; brows furrowed in concentration and anticipation; hands raised, queued up as other voices await their turn; I hear my voice, if at all, answering a question with another question or saying, “Okay, let’s go to Fred, then Stacy, then Hank, then Lily. Go!”

My work, in these moments, has become the game I was sent here to play. I am become a (male) midwife – a midhusband? – of ideas, a tour guide for insights, a trainer for mental aerobics, an aging Yoda trying to turn the Farce of public education into the Force.

So for purely selfish reasons, I prefer discussion to lecture – not that I can’t get quite a kick out of the latter as well. But it’s not just fun: We have known for many decades that students retain very little from lectures, that they learn more when they learn actively, i.e., when they have a larger role in the learning process, and that students remember most the classes in which they spoke (as opposed to chatted) the most.

Learning is more meaningful and lasting when the learners are involved in the arduous search for the concepts to be learned. I suppose we could save time by telling them up front the “meaning” of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, but think of how much more a part of them that speech will become if they work through it and arrive at a meaning of their own.
Perhaps we’ve all heard this too many times by now, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat this saying, most often attributed to Lakota lore: “Tell me and I will listen, show me and I will understand, involve me and I will learn.” Discussion classes, done well, involve everyone with even a trace of a desire to be involved.

Here are some suggestions to help you start and maintain an engaging conversation with a room full of young people:

* Unless your discussion is purely exploratory (“Let’s see what we all know about nuclear fission! Joey? Anyone?”), be sure to provide adequate information or background – through lectures, handouts, assigned readings or such – before the session. In most cases it’s not a good idea to erect a discussion on the foundation of a fairy’s wing, or to try to forge wisdom out of fumes.

Early in my high-school teaching career, as I was leading into Huckleberry Finn, I tried to evoke some feedback on the Reconstruction Era. A more serious student, prepared to take notes on whatever motes of knowledge our discussion produced, asked, with pen poised above his paper, “Was Reconstruction before the Vietnam War or after the Vietnam War?” Even I knew then I should probably put things in a little context before we talked further.

* Hospitality is vital. Figuratively speaking, you need to send students invitations to contribute, greet them warmly when they do, thank them for their help and protect their vulnerability. Remember that they’re taking a risk when they publish an idea, insight or opinion in the presence of other teenagers, i.e., some of the most judgmental humans on the planet.

Their comment may sound stupid to their classmates. It may sound stupid to you. It may even be stupid. Let’s say for the moment that it is.

Unlike the brains of the responder’s classmates, yours has developed a capacity for empathy. Your immediate task is to channel your inner Meryl Streep and act as if the comment is perfectly valid, that it does not make you want to laugh out loud, now, then share the hilarity with your spouse when you get home, then remember to enter it into your log of Student Howlers.

You need not, on the other hand, act as if the comment is right on target. Rather, try nodding pensively and saying something like, “Hmm. You may be on to something. I’ll have to think about that a little more. You keep thinking, too. And thanks for you comment. Someone else?”

The task of discouraging classmates from ridiculing the comment needs to have been accomplished back on the first days of school when you were building rapport and establishing a community of mutual trust and respect. If you’ve done that, anyone who mocks another student during a discussion will feel like an idiot.

“You’re among friends,” I remind them early and often. I start saying this on the first day and keep saying it, implicitly at least, from then on, especially before a discussion.

It’s tempting to say here, “Don’t be intimidating to your students or they’ll be afraid to say anything, and if they do say something, it’ll just be what they think you want to hear.” But I’m not sure we always have much say in such matters. If you’re very tall and have a deep voice, for example, that’s not likely to change. Some humans are just flat out more intimidating than others.

You can, however, carry your education, your knowledge, your wisdom as a gift to be shared, a living, breathing search engine at the disposal of the class rather than as a shield to protect your dominance. Most students are already pretty sure you know more than they do, so have some modesty about your advantage. The truly well-educated person has good reason to be humble about all s/he has yet to learn, as well as the protean and contingent nature of what s/he already “knows.”
If students feel intimidated by you or they think you’re dismissive or will make light of their responses, they won’t talk; if they do, it’ll just be what they think you want to hear. This means discussion classes are usually better later in the academic year. This also means you have to work on building a kind of rapport that encourages conversation.

Before we go any further — you know, we could have our own discussion if you’d submit some questions or observations.

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