Recently I blogged about the teacher-centric information flow in the traditional classroom. See: Engage Student Discussion: Use the Social Network in Your ClassroomIf you would like to see my point illustrated, you can do a quick "Hollywood classroom walkthrough" with this clip from "Stand and Deliver." Before you play the video, create a diagram with eight small circles labeled teacher and student responders 1-7. As you watch the video, keep track of the sender/ receiver in each exchange of information with lines and arrows. Once you have finished with the diagram, reflect on a few broader questions:
1. Were the students comfortable offering their answers?
2. What feedback did the teacher give after each student answer?
3. Did the students get any closer to a valid answer as each, in turn, ventured a response?
Go back and look at your information flow diagram. You'll notice that every answer was directed to the teacher. After the first six answers the teacher found a clever way to say "your wrong," without explaining why. Students made a series of guesses at a correct solution without any evidence that they learned anything from the prior responses. Finally a student shows up at the door with correct answer and it's not even clear that she heard any of the earlier answers.
Some might admire the comfortable climate of this classroom – after all, students were very willing to risk a response. Ironically the only one making fun of them was the teacher (a practice more suited to Hollywood than a real classroom.) Others might consider this an example of rather Socratic approach – but I don't see the teacher posing any new questions to expand student thinking. When you strip away all the clever (inappropriate?) repartee you are left with a very teacher-centric discussion – with students guessing at a correct answer.
This approach reminds me of an illustration I saw in "Math Is Language Too: Talking and Writing in the Mathematics Classroom" by Phyllis Whitin. It's a drawing done by Justin, a second grader, writing and drawing about his relationship with math.
Like Justin, the students in "Stand and Deliver" don't see math as a topic for peer discussion or reflection. Rather, they "do the math" for their teacher. While these two examples focus on math, this dynamic could be true of many whole group discussion across the curriculum. I admit to being equally guilty of a dominating classroom discussion as a rookie social studies teacher. "Class, what were three results of the War of 1812? … Anyone? … Anyone??"
After years of facing this type of discussion, students learn that their comments are of provisional value until "approved" by the teacher. Over time, students stop listening to each other and only focus on what the teacher says or validates – "will that be up on a test?" When students are put in small group discussion, they rapidly get off subject. With no teacher to validate their comments, they naturally gravitate to other subjects where peer comments are valued – "what are you doing this weekend?"
In my workshops I train teachers in discussion techniques that foster student reflection and interaction. The strategies are focused on getting the teacher out of the role of information gatekeeper and encouraging student-centered dialogue.
Want to encourage students to redirect their thinking and reflection away from the teacher and toward one another? Try a research-based discussion technique like the Fishbowl-discussion 68 KB PDF