Building Effective Classroom Discussions #1st5days

12 Sep

I will admit it. I steal many of the great ideas I use in the classroom. If you want to be a better teacher, you probably find inspiration from others, too.

Steal, of course, is a harsh word. I always give credit. But,  while I know I am a creative teacher in my own right, I have no problem using someone else’s great idea.

Early in my teaching career I attended a Building Success workshop sponsored by the College Board, and the facilitator gave this suggestion. (I would give his name if I knew it; I have tried to find it). Early in the school year, he posts the following list somewhere in the classroom:

  •      – The correct answer
  •      – An educated guess
  •      – A wild guess
  •      – A blank stare

He then begins class by asking students to consider the list and answer the following question: “Which response do you learn the most by giving?” I have stolen his idea every year.

The exercise always sets the stage for richer learning. The students’ usually respond in predictable ways. Some will say the panic of not having an answer and only being able to stare back (or offer a wild guess) creates useful stress. They will work really hard to get the answer from other people and therefore cement the idea in their minds. Others say the correct answer being affirmed by the teacher can help. The majority of students, however, claim an educated guess helps them learn best. I agree.

We discuss WHY an educated guess helps us learn. First, too much stress blocks learning. When we are embarrassed or fearful or ashamed, walls go up and our mind shuts down. When we make an educated guess, we’re comfortable…and we’re scaffolding—trying to understand new information by accessing old information that is already in our long term memory. We learn best when we use concepts and information we’ve already mastered to shape new learning. Explaining some of the brain research that goes into their learning helps set the stage for why I operate my classroom using certain systems.

After I’ve explained these concepts, I usually give a spiel that goes a little something like this:

“Because we know certain things about how the brain learns best, there’s one type of answer I will NEVER accept in this class. Giving this answer—in my mind—is worse than dropping an f-bomb. If you give this answer, I will be on you in an instant. It’s one of the few things that sets me off. Here it is… ‘I don’t know.’ A knee-jerk response of ‘I don’t know’ (or using any of his ugly cousins like ‘I got nothing,’ ‘Pass,’ or a blank stare) insults the glory that is your brain, and it insults the work we do. Now, there are going to be plenty of times where you won’t necessarily have a response. If we’re asking each other good questions, we’ll have several moments like these in every class. So here’s what you can say instead of ‘I don’t know.’ Say, ‘I’m not sure but…’ or ‘I’m having trouble coming up with an answer, but it could be…’ When you use such phrases, we’ll all know that you’re taking a guess but feeling a bit shaky. Nobody will laugh at your answer. Nobody will think you’re stupid. We’ll all be in a ‘murky’ spot at some point, so saying, ‘I’m not sure but…’ will take some of the pressure off and alert us to your state of mind…keeping you in a mindset conducive to learning. Remember, it’s actually a really good sign to give such a response. It means ‘sticky’ learning is about to happen.

I frequently get back on this soapbox and remind students of the type of responses I admire. Helping them drop the knee-jerk IDKs from their lexicon is an ongoing process, but the results are palpable. This classroom “rule” is vital in creating a culture where risk-taking and mistakes are honored and rewarded.

I really do make a big, big deal of it when students say, “I don’t know.” I’m a nice man. I don’t really get mad. I do, however, get histrionic, saying something like, “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOHhh no you didn’t! You just dropped the f-word in front of my grandmother!!!!???? What!?!?” Then, I help the “offending” student come up with a different response, asking more personalized leading questions. I also remind everyone that, “I’m not sure but…” would have been the more appropriate response. Also, if a student is obviously stuck, I might say, “O.K. You look like you need some more time to think, right? I’ll loop back to you, and if you come up with something before I call on you again, just let me know you’re ready to respond.” I then move on to another student and then loop back to the other student very soon. It’s key to remember to come back to the student, or the “loop back” becomes a free pass.

Do NOT Ask for “Hands”: 

I rarely take hands to begin class discussions. Instead, I use a randomizer. In my mind, I pick one student in class and decide to count to her left or right. The students never know whom I have picked. I then call on a different student and ask for a number between 1-10. (Note: When I ask a student for a number, I might call on someone whose attention has obviously drifted, but I NEVER play “gotcha” when calling on students. Shaming students by pointing out to everyone else their attention has drifted is a caustic, ineffective teaching practice. To get “drifters” back with me, I might ask them for a number, use my proximity to bring them back, or discreetly ask them stand up and stretch for a few seconds.)

Once I get a number, I simply count from my previously selected (but secret) student. I never rig this system either. I take seriously my promise to keep this method truly random.

I also try very hard not to react to the first two to three answers students give. Instead, I want students to consider their peers’ ideas before swooping in with my opinion. After several students have responded and reacted, I might offer my opinion or ask for volunteers.

By banning “I Don’t Know” and randomly calling on students, I help create an environment that ensures many more students are engaged in critical thinking. These simple steps go a very long way to creating a student-centered environment filled with engaged, collaborative learners.

2 Responses to “Building Effective Classroom Discussions #1st5days”

  1. Alma Luisa September 12, 2012 at 9:12 am #

    Simple, and very practical suggestions for classroom discussions, thanks for sharing!!


  1. Alternative Classroom Discussion Formats | Robin Neal - May 25, 2013

    […] that I can sometimes slip into default mode, especially when it comes to class discussions. I know how to foster a well-paced, inclusive discussion that avoids the Select Few dominating the di…. I don’t, then, feel particularly impelled to change the format. But, boy, I’m glad that I […]

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