One of my favorite moments in the classroom is when students are thinking about some really interesting problem… perhaps they’ve even posed an extension of a problem in their textbook… and they are excitedly discussing it. They build on one another’s ideas, they inevitably argue, there is a back-and-forth that continues until they’ve really gotten somewhere. Occasionally I will step in to resolve a dispute or get the students to think more carefully about some misconception they’ve been running with, but for the most part it is the material itself that drives the discussion.
There is a tension, though, between letting the discussion flow naturally and between creating a balance of voices heard in the classroom. When things get exciting, it is much harder, and perhaps not even the right thing, to let the students speak in turn. Because there is often one person who has had the crucial idea, the other students’ comments tend to be directed at that person, who may then be speaking every other comment. Because the discussion is heated and the people who’ve just spoken want to respond right away, there is also less “space” in the discussion for people who are not as in the thick of it to jump in. I worry in these cases about quieter students, students who take a bit longer than others to formulate their ideas, more tentative students, and students who’ve simply missed some of the framing of the discussion and aren’t quite sure what we’re talking about.
Here are two strategies I’ve sometimes used to make these conversations more friendly to every student. 1) Go to a strict hand-raising system, in which the two or three most ardent students have to wait to bring their ideas forward while we hear from other people who have more tentative and perhaps less-formed opinions. 2) Go to group work for five minutes and let each group the chance to discuss the material, then report back, at which point multiple groups might have definitively solved the problem, or, if not, at least we can begin the discussion again with more students “on the same page.”
While I do sometimes use those strategies, #1 especially feels strange, as if I’m killing the momentum of the discussion. At a private school we have the luxury of small classes, but there is still something that seems artificial about having a discussion with more than, say, three people at once. What does it look like to have an open-ended discussion in which most students are involved, that at the same time builds on an idea and approaches a conclusion?