Classroom Participation Part 1: What Happens During Class Discussions?

Last week, The Atlantic ran an article titled, “Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School,” a statement that offends me as both an introvert and a teacher. The article, written by New Hampshire teacher Jessica Lahey, is a thoughtful argument in support of including class participation as an element of grading. I hate class participation points, and it isn’t just because I’m shy or anxious. I hate forced class participation because I hate forcing students to engage in activities that they find unpleasant. I strongly believe that education should be mostly enjoyable and never unbearable.

Participation points are typically awarded in exchange for contributing to class discussions. In my opinion, traditional class discussion has very limited benefits for students. Imagine this scenario, based on countless experiences I had in school:

Mr. A’s students are reading Lord of the Flies. Today, Mr. A has asked his class to discuss symbolism in last night’s reading. Amanda is having trouble understanding the definition of “symbolism,” and she begins by expressing confusion and impatience. Mr. A asks his class to help Amanda understand symbolism. Thomas, a gifted student, explains symbolism correctly but does not emphasize the details that most confuse Amanda, simply because he doesn’t quite understand Amanda’s confusion. Amanda becomes more confused and is now somewhat embarrassed, but she bravely admits that she still doesn’t understand. Most of the class begins to lose interest. A couple more students try helping Amanda, but no one realizes exactly what she’s missing. Finally, Mr. A is forced to move on. He asks the class for an example of symbolism from last night’s reading. Several extroverted students offer examples, some of which are wrong. By now, most of the gifted students have completely lost interest in the discussion. Mr. A asks leading questions in order to help the students discover information, but his weakest students are completely lost and his strongest students are bored and angry. The rest of the discussion is dominated by students of average ability. These students are able to gain some knowledge, but they aren’t given the opportunity to practice more advanced thinking because their gifted classmates are disengaged and alienated by the current level of discourse. Everyone who spoke gets a point for participation, even though most of what was said was, frankly, inane. Amanda is still totally lost, and some of the gifted students have decided to stop listening in class.

Have you or your children/students had similar experiences with class discussions? Do you find my characterization of class discussion inaccurate or offensive? Leave a comment or tweet at me!

Coming up in this series:
Introverts, Anxiety, and Class Participation
My Alternatives to Traditional Class Discussion

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