Managing Risk in Class Discussions

The words “open” and “secure” don’t often find themselves in the same sentence; in a risk society that organizes itself around projections of financial, biological, environmental, and even moral risk to the lives of individuals, populations, businesses and economies, these two words are diametrically opposed.

Eric Ritskes at Beyond a Degree: Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed, however, has recently posed the question of how instructors might balance the two in classroom discussions, and, I gotta say that I like his approach to the subject. Eric bluntly calls attention to the barriers to creating a truly “open” learning environment, barriers that include not only the instructor’s own politics, but also the power play involved in any group work. Anyone who works with others will be familiar with these power dynamics, yet the clarity with which Eric at Beyond a Degree approaches the subject brought the point home to me in a new way. Eric criticizes any who might claim to offer a truly “open” and objective learning environment and their “naive belief in objectivity,” and he rightly points out that “[w]e all have our agendas and politics.” I would go even further in this regard and suggest that we should all have our agendas and politics in the classroom; we should be aware of them to be sure, and aware of how we want to share them with students.

Eric’s post at Beyond a Degree highlights another important point: power in the classroom can be held disproportionately not only by the teacher, but also by certain students. “[P]articular students,” he notes, can “dominate the air space, choose who gets represented how, and deny space to others.”  This power play may be intentional and aggressive, or it may be unintentional and accidental. But whatever the intent of the students involved, the results can be equally alienating, frustrating and hurtful to students who find themselves without a voice with which to speak or a space in which stand.

So, I thought I’d bring the discussion Beyond a Degree began last week to Dry-Erase Writings, and share with you one strategy for balancing (as best as one can) openness and security in a large group or class discussion. I originally learned of this strategy from a former colleague, Erin Aspenlieder (now an educational consultant at Simon Fraser University) and was more recently reminded of it by Marie Vander Kloet, an educational consultant here at McMaster. Here’s my take on it:

Assigning Roles in Large Group Discussions

I randomly assign students the following roles: facilitator, questioner, & public record-keeper, and these roles then rotate each week. More than one student can take on the same role in a single discussion, as well.

I usually assign one student (or two) the role of facilitator. Another few might be assigned the role of querier (they jot down a few questions as the discussion progresses and are obligated to ask at least one question of another student in the course of the discussion). The role of public reporter (she or he keeps a record of the discussion on the board) is voluntary, which allows shier students to participate more frequently, not to mention take ownership over that participation.

A variation that I haven’t tried, but would like to, is to set up a class blog dedicated to these group discussions. The reporter for the week would then post her/his records on the blog, the queriers would post their questions, and students could respond to those questions as they like.

Keeping it Open

There is one role that does not rotate in this scheme: the role of note-taker. I, as the instructor, usually fill this role.This allows me to step back from the discussion and give students the opportunity to take the floor. For this tactic to be effective, it is important that the instructor make her/his role as note-taker or observer clear to the class. As per Erin’s advice, at the beginning of each role-assigned discussion, I remind the class that as note-taker, my head may be bent to my page quite a bit, that I will only be able to participate sparingly, and that this means that if I do not make eye contact or do not respond to students directly, it is not because I don’t value their input. The result is that students tend to address one another, rather than me. My lowered eyes and passive body language sends a clear message that I am neither the discussion leader nor its critic; this, in turn, solicits openness and participation. It’s like magic. I swear. Well, most of the time, anyway.

There is one more benefit to explicitly acknowledging your role as note-taker to the class. Explaining to students that you will not be an active participant in the discussion doesn’t just remind themthat you do not sit in on the discussion as judge does on a court case; it also reminds you— yes, you, the knowledgeable instructor, so accustomed to instructing–that this is not your role in the discussion.  Yes, I am that type of teacher. At times, I actually need reminding to put away my teacher’s gavel. Or, at least to relax my grip on it a bit. Maybe even to stop waving it around at the head of the classroom like a viking with a mace.

Hey, did vikings even use maces?

What am I even talking about?

Similes are dangerous when you’re an idiot.

Keeping it Safe

So you’ve put away your mace or gavel or whatever imaginary symbol of authority you weild in your mind. (My apologies if you’re actually not a total asshole and don’t think in these terms. I commend your non-violent imaginations). Students are talking with one another relatively freely; there are quiet moments in the discussion, and at times the discussion isn’t as lively as you would like it to be. But, on the whole, students in the class are each taking some level of responsibility for the class environment; they feel in control of things, the feel like they can voice their opinions, like anything goes.

Oh shit. Have we gone too far?

Before I send you to bed with nightmares of a class gone wild, or of calm, quiet students turned poltergeist spewers of hate speech by the heady taste of power and freedom, let me explain how this discussion management system balances the opennes it invites with security.

First, assigning discussion roles helps to balance the spread of who gets to speak and when in the classroom. And not just because, for example, whoever is the facilitator or a questioner for the week cannot avoid speaking. It’s also because student comfort can change based on who has the floor. I’ve seen students who are usually very quiet in “open” class discussions suddenly become much more voluble and relaxed during an assigned-role discussion facilitated by a friend, or by someone they’ve worked with previously in think-pair-share exercises.

Another benefit of this system is that it gives students a clear idea of what is expected of them; as a result, they tend to feel safer. Unclear expectations will keep many students quiet. Unclear expectations can also have the exact opposite effect on others: it can encourage some students to stray off topic into dangerous territory, dominate the floor, talk over others, or simply not listen. Making discussion guidelines and role expectations explicit allows students to self-police one another; it also gives you solid, communally-acknowledged standards to refer to in any case where you feel it necessary to step in to steer a discussion away from disaster, or to address any disruptive behaviours with the class.

And that, of course, is the final safeguard this system offers–you as note-taker are not entirely absent, or passive. You can step in if necessary, or revisit a touchy topic in weeks following if you don’t like how a discussion went. And, if you participate sparingly in these discussions–but still participate–students will not forget your presence. They will recognize that a higher authority does preside, ultimately, over the classroom, someone who will work to keep the classroom a safe, secure and comfortable space.

Now it’s your turn. How do you invite participation in the classroom? How do you try to create a safe, equitable classroom? I would love to hear from you.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Managing Risk in Class Discussions

  1. Pingback: Openness vs. Safety in the Classroom « Beyond A Degree

  2. Pingback: Learning How to Talk | Dry-Erase Writings

  3. Pingback: Openness vs. Safety in the Classroom | Eric Ritskes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s