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 nounsĀ 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!

Class Participation Part 3: Introversion, Shyness, and Social Anxiety

This is the third installment in my Class Participation series. Today, I’d like to discuss how forced participation in class discussion affects introverts, shy kids, and students with social anxiety.

Introvert, Shy Kid, or Student with Social Anxiety Disorder?

The term “introvert” is most useful when considered as distinct from “shyness.” Introversion relates to the desire to engage in social interaction, whereas shyness relates to difficulty engaging in social interaction. One of my favorite definitions of introvert is “someone who is energized by being alone.” In this context, an extrovert is someone who is energized by being in a group. I’m an introvert, so I’m easily exhausted by large groups. I often crave time alone. Extroverted friends have expressed confusion about my desire for alone time. I’m similarly confused by these friends’ desire to spend the majority of their time surrounded by others. “If I’m alone, I get depressed,” says the extrovert. “If I’m surrounded by others, I get tired,” says the introvert.

The most important thing to remember about introverts and extroverts is that neither is better that the other. It’s unnecessary and potentially harmful to try to force someone to switch from one to the other.

Shyness or social anxiety can occur in both introverts and extroverts. Shyness can prevent students from expressing themselves and engaging in positive social interaction, so it may actually be beneficial to lovingly encourage shy students to “come out of their shells.”

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is distinct from shyness primarily in that people with SAD experience “fear and avoidance… so severe that they significantly interfere with … daily functioning, school, work, or relationships.” Social Anxiety Disorder is a serious disorder that must be diagnosed by a mental health professional.

Should a teacher allow her students to opt out of class activities just because the student doesn’t like the activity?

All children are born with temperaments and tastes, but it’s important for adults to encourage and allow children to try a variety of activities and personas in order to facilitate emotional growth and self-discovery. Parents know to insist that their children try at least “one bite” of new foods. We know to take children to ballet class and soccer practice and chess club because young children really don’t know what they’ll end up loving. But, when a child clearly expresses an opinion about something that they’ve tried, it’s important to listen. Remember, children are human beings, and they do understand suffering and pleasure. If your child adamantly insists that she hates soccer, you probably shouldn’t sign her up for the team next year. (Obviously issues like these can be somewhat complex, and parents have to use their own judgement. A child who hates vegetables, for example, is likely to benefit from continued exposure.)

We all know that classrooms can be overcrowded and teachers can be overtaxed. As I’ve mentioned, class discussion is a relatively easy way to ensure that students are engaging in some way with class material. I dislike class discussion for several reasons, but today I’m focusing on whether it’s appropriate to force introverted, shy, and anxious students to participate in discussion.

Introverted children who are not disordered are unlikely to suffer psychological harm due to forced participation in discussion, but they’re also not particularly likely to benefit from traditional discussion. As an introvert, I learn best working on my own or in a small, intimate group of intelligent peers. Class participation tends to bore and alienate me, and I only speak up when I have something relevant and unique to say. Reducing the grade of students who share selectively is, in my opinion, absurd. However, a dedicated teacher might engage introverted students by directly asking them specific, interesting questions, or by asking whether they agree with the dominant discourse of the discussion.

Shy kids will suffer when forced to participate in class discussion, but they may also benefit from gentle encouragement. A shy extrovert in particular is likely to thrive in a supportive classroom with a teacher who slowly increases the amount of required participation in class discussion.

How much can a teacher help a student with Social Anxiety Disorder?

As with all anxious children, students suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder can greatly benefit from gentle encouragement. Incremental increases in participation in class discussion may help a student with SAD reduce the severity of her disorder. However, a teacher without proper training is NOT a therapist and should not be prescribing a therapy regimen. I can’t stress this enough: a child with Social Anxiety Disorder should be under the care of a mental health professional, and that professional is likely to prescribe exercises designed to help the child manage her anxiety. Teachers of anxious students should educate themselves, treat their students with respect and empathy, and work with the parents and therapists of their anxious students.

Everyone needn’t be the same!

It’s common knowledge that students have different learning preferences, tastes, and strengths. Trying to homogenize students is futile and, more importantly, bad for society! We need students who love limelight and students who work backstage, students who love reading and students who prefer creating, students who obey and students who rebel. Every student deserves the chance to be her best self. Moreover, school should be enjoyable! Hard work and joy are not mutually exclusive. While it’s important for teachers to push children out of their comfort zones, students should never be punished for anxiety, and they should not be expected to become little copies of their teachers.

Coming up: how to make class discussion effective and enjoyable for everyone

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