Class Participation Part 4: Can We Fix Class Discussion?

Welcome to what I expect will be the final installment of my series on forced participation in class discussion!

One More Example of How Class Discussions Fail

Class discussions can be used to achieve a variety of objectives, and there are several “teaching methods” that rely of class discussion. One simple method used for class discussion is concept attainment, “the search for and listing of attributes that can be used to distinguish exemplars from nonexemplars of various categories” (Bruner, Goodnow, and Austin, 1967). Here is a very simple example of a lesson using the concept attainment teaching method:

Mr. A writes a word on the board: Hat. “What are some things you notice about this word?” he asks.

“It starts with an H,” says a student.

“It has three letters!” shouts another.

“Good,” says Mr. A. “Okay, what about this word?” He writes Home on the board.

At this point, most of the students have guessed that Mr. A is listing words that start with H. Some of the class begins to lose interest.

“Have you guessed what the words have in common?” asks Mr. A

“Yes,” replies much of the class. One student explains, “They both start with H.”

“Hmm, that’s true,” says Mr.A, “but let’s keep looking at the list.” Mr. A writes another word on the board and asks more students to guess what the words have in common. He then begins listing words that don’t belong on the list. He encourages his class to offer any ideas they have about the lists, and he allows students to politely challenge each other’s theories. Eventually, Mr. A’s whiteboard looks something like this:

YES
Hat
Home
Drum
Student

NO
Hairy
Red
Run
Sing
Quick
Quickly

I’m bored just describing this scenario.

The theory behind this activity is that Mr. A’s students will more thoroughly understand the concept of nouns and will retain their knowledge longer than if they’d simply been provided with a definition and list of examples. That may be true. However, to many students, slow generation of knowledge is excruciatingly boring. Mr. A encourages all his students to participate in the discussion, so the weaker members of the class struggle to make guesses and are often explicitly wrong. Mr. A is a nice man and a good teacher, so he works with these weaker students and avoids saying “No, that’s incorrect.” Thus, other students become confused, and the discussion takes most of class. Worse, Mr. A requires each student to offer at least one guess during the discussion, and he gives additional points to students who are especially engaged, so the extroverted students babble on and the introverts lose points. Anyone who doesn’t have a guess is forced to make one up. Several students, included those who are introverted, shy or anxious, gifted, or suffering from ADD/ADHD completely lose interest early in the discussion and miss any relevant information.

Here’s the strangest thing about this kind of discussion: giving the correct answer ruins the exercise! Imagine that Jahruba, a gifted student, immediately understands the list once Mr. A explains that “hairy” does not belong on it. He raises his hand and says, “All the words on the list are nouns.” It’s been five minutes, and Mr. A scheduled half an hour for this activity. He wanted his students to explore possible answers and slowly come to understand the lesson. Jahruba just ruined the whole exercise, so Mr. A can’t help but act a little angry as he stutters, “Well….yes…uh…but I wanted you to think about it longer.” Jahruba understands that he has done something wrong, so he stops raising his hand as often, and Mr. A worries that Jahruba will ruin future activities, so he avoids calling on him when he does raise his hand.

How Can We Fix The Exercise?

Having lived through public school, I’ve seen the above scenario play out a thousand times. Here are some tips for teachers who want to engage students in discussion without torturing them.

1. Ask a question and let students privately answer.
If the purpose of your discussion is to guide students toward a correct answer, give students a chance to write the answer down and hand it to you. If the student is right, let her opt out of the discussion.

2. Keep student responses focused.
If a student is so off track she’s prolonging the discussion and confusing her peers, cut her off. You can be polite about it, but be sure to be firm!

3. It’s okay to say “that’s wrong”!
Praising every guess confuses students and discourages active thinking. Thank every student for his participation, but be clear when an answer is wrong

4. Encourage peer support, but point out even subtle errors.
It’s great to allow students to answer each other’s questions, but watch out for subtle errors in each answer. If you find an error, praise the student for the rest of her answer and then explicitly correct her mistake.

5. Ask specific questions.
Kids who don’t speak up during discussion may simply not have anything to say. Asking a specific question can help. Instead of saying, “What do you think about the US Civil War, Jenny?” try asking Jenny whether she believes that the war was primarily about slavery. If she says, “I don’t know,” give her a little guidance and then ask a related question.

I Want to Hear from You!

Teachers: do you “force” students to participate in class discussions? Why or why not? How do you keep your students focused and interested?

Parents: do your children complain about class discussion? What are your thoughts?

Homeschool parents: did you consider class participation when choosing to homeschool?

Post a comment or tweet at me. I’ll RT or respond!

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