Saturday, 30 January 2016

On Class Discussions and Participation

In nearly every classroom we see it--a handful of students who always raise their hands to participate, and a majority who do not. For some, it may seem "uncool" to appear keen in class. Some may be naturally shy or introverted. Others may simply not know the answers or have ideas they wish to share. Others still may be off-topic or not engaged mentally in the topic of discussion.

How do we, as teachers, engage everyone in discussion while remaining respectful of our students and their individual needs?

I recently read an article by Alfie Kohn about this very problem. You can find the article at this link: . 
We've all encountered teachers who call on students they think are distracted or not engaged in the lesson, whether through film, television or real life. I would imagine that most of us can agree that putting students on the spot in this way can cause fear and anxiety. Personally, this is not the way I wish to approach my students. I want my students to feel safe and respected. I want them to feel like they have room to take chances, make mistakes and learn and grow without being subjected to humiliation for their efforts.

So then, how do we engage all students in class discussion?

The students themselves understand these patterns

Since it is their learning that is at stake, inviting students to come up with solutions for class discussions as well as questions related to the concepts being studied is a meaningful and respectful way to ensure that they are invested in the process. However, finding solutions may take time, especially with students who are used to more typical classroom discussion. In the interim, as students are left with the challenge to think of solutions, some of the following ideas can be worth trying out.

In the meantime...

One method is taken from Susan Winebrenner's book, Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom. Winebrenner proposes a name card method. The benefits of this method are that each student has a chance to confer with a partner before answering a question, and that the random shuffling of cards helps the teacher to avoid bias in choosing students to participate. The method works like this: each student's name is written on an index card. When the teacher asks the whole class a question, he or she gives the whole class 30 seconds to discuss it with their elbow partner. Then the teacher shuffles the deck of index cards and calls on the student whose name is on top. The student can then answer or consult further with their elbow partner if they are at a loss for an answer. The teacher repeats this for several students, and then the class looks at the answers and discusses the relative merit of each.

Some teachers I know have developed a system in which students have a signal that they wish to talk, such as might be shown by cards or cups on their desks. Rather than raising their hand while someone else is talking, they show their signal and wait their turn. It is a little bit like using a talking feather in a sense. A talking feather is a First Nations tradition in which a feather is held by the speaker; while the speaker has the feather, they may speak. When they are finished, they pass it on to the next person such that each person has a chance to speak without risk of interruption.

For a class discussion, rather than specific questions, the idea of the talking feather or a similar method may cause less interruptions in the flow of the conversation. 

Some further ideas to engage students that I've seen have included having a question box as well as a comment box where students who feel their ideas were not yet heard can write them down and have them brought up in the next class. This can also act as a review of the previous day, and can preserve anonymity for students who lack confidence. The students can choose whether they let the teacher know who the question or comment came from, but the teacher promises to preserve their anonymity from the class as a whole. The teacher can then pull out the questions and comments and the class can address them. Ideally, as less confident students hear that their input is valued, they will gain enough confidence to begin to contribute without using the boxes.

Of course, much classroom work is also done in groups. The challenge here is to encourage students to ensure that quieter students are allowed to contribute as much as the more outspoken ones. It is a lifelong lesson that is important to hone. Society works best when all voices are heard. Some teachers actively assign roles for group work, and these roles change from one assignment to the next. Encouraging students to find their own ways to address this challenge can help them build collaborative skills that will last a lifetime.