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Silence and Structure in the Classroom: From Seminar to Town Meeting via 'Post-it's

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
285

Folks:

The article below describes an ingenious and quite simple approach to

increasing student participation in class discussions. It is the eighth

posting in a series of selected articles from the National Teaching and

Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission

Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching

and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out

at [http://www.ntlf.com/] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the

printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to

share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of

learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Oct. 2000 Vol.

9 No. 6 ? Copyright 1996-2000. Published by Oryx Press in conjunction with

James Rhem & Associates, Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880) All rights reserved

worldwide. Reprinted with permission

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Learning Through Research

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

 

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SILENCE AND STRUCTURE IN THE CLASSROOM

From Seminar to Town Meeting via 'Post-it's

Chad M. Hanson, Ph.D.

Northcentral Tech

Wausau, WI

 

Like most, I started out teaching the way I was taught. My first inclination

as a faculty member was to reproduce the format of the graduate course. I

wanted my students to share the same feeling of excitement I had known as a

student. I wanted their minds to sharpen and their pulses to quicken just as

mine had in those vital forums.

Sociology is my subject so it's probably no surprise that I started teaching

by selecting a textbook and several readings from within the field. Mindful

of my students' level of preparation, I chose well-respected articles

written for a general audience, and I assigned only four of them in my

Introduction to Sociology classes. I explained to students early on in the

semester that the articles would serve as a basis for in-class discussions.

When the first discussion date rolled around I walked into class with

genuine enthusiasm. I welcomed the students, reminded them about the

discussion, then I followed in the footsteps of one of my fondest mentors by

issuing a familiar challenge. "OK," I said, "who would like to begin?" No

one began. There were no hands in the air. I did not hear the cacophony of

voices I had come to know so well in graduate school--everyone anxious to

support or refute the claims of the author now up for discussion. Instead

there was silence. This wasn't graduate school. Twenty-nine pairs of eyes

pointed in my direction. So I began.

I continued, and eventually I finished the discussion myself. Meanwhile,

students wrote in their tablets. They took what looked like detailed notes

while I talked, and that was gratifying, but not part of my plan.

Unfortunately, I repeated roughly the same series of events four more times

the same week. By Friday afternoon, I had decided the approach that worked

so well for my professors was not going to work for me.

The Pendulum Swings: Structured Cooperative Learning Activities

The first step in any process of redemption involves admitting you have a

problem, which, obviously, I did. I needed help and I sought it out. The

first place I found guidance was the literature on cooperative learning.

Years before, I ran across a copy of Ken Bruffee's Collaborative Learning

(1993). I revisited Bruffee first, because I remembered that he outlines a

theoretical foundation for collaboration in the college classroom. For

anyone experimenting with discussion leading or the grouping of students for

educational purposes, I recommend Bruffee's work.

For the nuts and bolts of getting students involved in conversation, I

relied on the work of David and Roger Johnson, namely Active Learning

(Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991). Over the last several years I have had

a great deal of success using the procedures described by these authors.

Success with the cooperative learning approach described by Johnson and

Johnson hinges on having a clear set of guidelines for students. In the

Johnsons' model, each student must have a clearly defined role in the class.

The instructor's job is to ensure that the students' roles and the

objectives of the class are both well defined. I have found that when I take

that initiative, the procedures outlined in Active Learning provide a formal

structure for ensuring that students stay engaged with course material, and

with one another, during the class periods I set aside for cooperative work.

Although I quickly became comfortable with the Active Learning techniques, I

found that I still had a longing to create the excitement and spontaneity of

the unstructured and free-ranging discussions that took place in my graduate

courses. At the same time, I also began to feel a responsibility to create

an environment where students could interact with one another in an exchange

that would mirror that of a discussion held outside of the classroom in

places where our democratic traditions are strongest (Beckman, 1990). I had

in mind the New England town meeting as an ideal (Bellah, et al., 1985).

Consequently, I set out to create a forum where I did not personally

determine the nature of each student's contribution to in-class discussions.

I did not want to prohibit the discussions from unfolding on their own, as

they would in a town meeting or similarly democratic forum.

As I began to conceive the new format for my in-class discussions, I

realized that citizens who attend town meetings are a self-selected group.

The attendees are there because they have something to say. My students are

also a self-selected group, but the primary reason for selecting one of my

courses is that it fulfills a requirement for the degrees that they seek.

Given the lack of inherent motivation, I needed a strategy that would ensure

everyone's participation. The solution to my problem was as near as the pad

of Post-it notes lying next to my office telephone.

Finding the Middle Ground: Required Participation

Today, I use a particular format to create an environment in the classroom

that approximates a town hall meeting. The first step I take is to allow the

students to decide the topics to be discussed. I begin by having students

brainstorm a list of potential topics in small groups. After each group

generates its own list, we compile all the topics on a chalkboard and hold a

vote to determine the top ten to be discussed.

Once the topics are determined I select groups of two to four students, at

random, to lead the discussions. I require discussion leaders to find at

least two articles on their topic and I give them a list of things to

consider when they analyze the articles, including a set of guidelines on

how to prepare a set of talking points to use during the town hall meetings.

However, in the town hall format, the most important step is to ensure that

all of the students have both the opportunity and the incentive to

participate. In order to create that incentive I make each discussion worth

two points. To earn the points, people have to take part.

I begin town hall meetings by giving two Post-it notes to every student in

class. The Post-its are worth a point each, so I have them write their name

on each note. After the discussion leaders are given the floor, all of the

students are free to raise questions or to comment. Each time they add to

the discussion, students stick one of their Post-it notes on the front of

their desk for everyone to see. Once a person has participated twice and

placed both Post-its on the front of their desk, they can no longer earn

points but they may still contribute to the discussion.

I have found that Post-it notes, visible to all, serve two important roles

in class. First, for students who might otherwise dominate discussions, the

notes are visual reminders that they have already said their piece. I have

found this to be a subtle, but important reminder in those cases. Second,

the notes are a less than subtle reminder to those less likely to

participate. In this case the notes serve as a reminder that you do not earn

points if you do not contribute to the discussion. I realize that may seem

like undue pressure to place on students who may not wish to participate.

However, during the last three semesters I have found that students who

participate quickly and place their notes out in front right away often go

on to create opportunities for other students to answer questions or to

comment. One of the most rewarding observations I have made during town hall

meetings has been the tendency of outspoken members of class to encourage

others to add their voices to the conversations. Each semester I watch

students take steps to ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute.

Conclusion

During the time I've spent using Post-it notes and town hall meetings, I

have felt very close to the format of the graduate seminar I enjoyed so much

as a student. The discussions flow freely, they are full of excitement and

they serve as a model for democratic participation. As an unintended

consequence, I have also been pleased to find that Post-its have had the

effect of producing an environment where students consistently demonstrate

that they value each other's thoughts. When I use the notes in class I am

guaranteed not to face the silence that vexed me as a beginning teacher. At

the same time, they provide a structure that is subtle enough to allow the

freedom necessary for students to determine the nature of their own

contribution to class. Today I can say that the unassuming stack of Post-its

that sits next to my phone provides the means to create balance, equity and

a model for democracy in the classroom.

References

* Beckman, M. 1990. "Collaborative Learning: Preparation for the Workplace

and Democracy?" College Teaching 38/4: 128-133.

* Bellah, R., et al. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment

in American Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

* Bruffee, K. 1993. Collaborative Learning: Higher Education,

Interdependence and the Authority of Knowledge. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins

University Press.

* Johnson, D., Johnson, R., and Smith, K. 1991. Active Learning: Cooperation

in the College Classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Contact:

Chad M. Hanson, Ph.D.

Faculty, Social Science Department

Northcentral Tech

1000 W. Campus Drive

Wausau, WI 54401

Telephone: (715) 675-3331 #4802

E-mail: hanson@northcentral.tec.wi.us