Classroom Discussion Techniques that Work – Try This Hollywood Classroom Walkthrough

Recently I blogged about the teacher-centric information flow in the traditional classroom. See: Engage Student Discussion: Use the Social Network in Your Classroom  If 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

8 Replies to “Classroom Discussion Techniques that Work – Try This Hollywood Classroom Walkthrough”

  1. Teaching is somewhat narcissistic…we create dependence in our students and insecurity, so that they will forever need us. But the mark of a great teacher is that he becomes increasingly unnecessary.

    You’re right…This was not a Socratic Seminar, because it was the very specific outcome that the teacher wanted which engaged students at all. And this was not a lesson involving inquiry or discovery. This was only a Hollywood spin on traditional teaching…much like that seen in The Dead Poet’s Society.

  2. “Narcissistic?” I figured when I got to be a teacher, I was finally the most popular kid in class!

    “A great teacher … becomes increasingly unnecessary.” So true! There’s nothing wrong with scaffolding instruction, but at some point we need to stop modeling. Most districts I travel to have a line about “life-long learners…” in their mission (or is it vision) statement. So when does that start, after they graduate?

    To me, one attribute of a learner is someone who is monitoring their progress as a learner. The first question any K-12 program should ask is – how are we going to move our students toward greater responsibility for their learning?

  3. The way math is taught is can be somewhat disheartening in many cases, as illustrated by that kid’s drawing. As a high school student, and one who isn’t that great with numbers (art kid here), one of my favorite classes I’ve ever taken, of all the most unlikely things, was summer school physics.

    The teacher did a brief lecture, gave us some formulas for how to calculate this and that, put us in groups of our choosing, had us figure out one problem per group in a collaborative fashion, and then present the answer to the class, whether it was right or wrong. The class would then give constructive feedback, and ask us questions, which we would work as a class to answer. The teacher sat at his desk the entire time, willing to offer help to those that asked but otherwise removed. The thing he repeated was, “What you put in to it you get out of it.”

    Needless to say, it was an interesting experience, and one of the first times I did math collaboratively. Sadly, many of the students (soph/juniors in high school) made comments like, “He doesn’t teach!” or were generally terrified of this responsibility. Really goes to show how little we feel prepared to take control over our own learning, at times. I notice this sort of teacher-dependency in some amount in almost every class.

  4. Pjack,

    Your observations are right on target. It’s sad that your fellow students were so indoctrinated into the “teaching as talking” model that they didn’t think the teacher was doing their job. If they attended an art class would they expect to spend the class watching the teacher paint?

    BTW – It’s sound as if you are currently a HS student (or close to it) …. I’m impressed you’re already reflecting on your learning environment.

  5. bookmarking this site–good stuff. And though I loved the idea of ‘Stand and Deliver’ its good to see a critical approach to it.

  6. Wow! I had the biggest A-ha as I read the above post. I like to think that I have built communities in my classrooms over the years in which the students valued what their peers had to say just as much as what I had to say. Yet, I don’t think I have actually been as successful as I would like to think. Does that make sense?
    Some years have been more successful than others, but I don’t think I’ll have a class where true interaction, reflection and validation occur on a student to student basis, unless I revamp the flow of information.
    THAT is what I need to work on for my PD!

  7. Hi Katherine,
    Glad this struck a cord – have you seen my posts on reflection. You might enjoy The Reflective Teacher. Follow links to teacher and principal versions.

    Carrying over from your CWT post comment – Walk into a class and follow how the information moves around the room and the thinking that’s applied to it. A good prompt for folks on CWT’s.

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