I had an interesting conversation in my class tonight regarding the development of discourse and hosting student conversations in (math) class. I shared with my classmates an observation I’ve had as a consultant: during most class discussions a teacher will say a few dozen words, and then a student will respond with two or three. Teacher then affirms or rejects the students input, says a few dozen more words, and eventually elicits another 2/3 word response from a second student. This pattern continues until the conversation ends, and the teacher wraps up the ideas for students.
When I think back to my own classroom practices, I wonder if my classroom conversations were the same. I believe conversations are one of the most important activities that students can be engaged in during the learning process, but students need to actually be engaged. Sometimes we educators monopolize conversations in class in order to guide the discussion to where we want it to go.
I worked with a teacher today, John, who very successfully implemented an online discussion (shameless plug) in his social studies (grade 9) class. Students were highly engaged writing pages upon pages of ideas, pulling in evidence from online sources and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Canada) to back their opinions. John only had to add his input on occasion to gently nudge the conversation (moderating) keeping it on topic. Students were very successful and in turn, so was John as a teacher facilitating discussion.
John took it further and added something that I haven’t seen before. He told students that they were required to read through the entire conversation before the next class, and write a brief 1 or 2 paragraphs. The focus will be on how their thinking has either changed or their opinion has become stronger due to the comments of their peers. In addition to having every student participate in a conversation, John now has students reviewing the collaborative learning process and synthesizing it on their own. Brilliant!
If you value conversations as a part of the learning process you may want to reflect on what experience your students have during a class ‘discussion’. Are students listening to you state facts and ask a few questions from a handful of students? Or are they deeply engaged in a conversation, given the chance to think about their own ideas, revise them, and challenge each other?
One things for sure, the next time I host a ‘class discussion’ I’ll be considering who’s doing the talking, and who’s doing the listening.
A few weeks ago I had a teacher ask me how I know about ‘every single website’ out there (her words). Obviously I do not know every single site, but when I’m asked to do a presentation on a topic, like say creating cartoons, I look for as many sites as I can find. As a technology consultant, I want to know which sites are favourites of my own and decide which one or two I will recommend to teachers (and for what reasons). So, I usually start with a few go to sites that I’m familiar with, and simply do a “similar” search in google. Works great, and if you do a related/similar search for enough websites, you eventually find (almost) everything.
I think that the discourse surrounding educational reform often becomes heated because the language, the intentions and meanings of the common phrases, are still being negotiated through the process of discourse itself. I find that when engaged in talk of reform, others are speaking about systemic change; the need to change the teachers, the physical buildings, the resources, the school boards, the funding, the students, the politics and the overall opinions of society on education. I prefer to focus simply on the process of learning that students are engaged in. The former is a massive undertaking perhaps better left to the politically powerful and ambitious. The latter is doable by me, a teacher, each and every day, in a very tangible way.
Realistically, most of us aren’t going to wake up Monday morning and change the world by Friday at 3:00 pm. What we can achieve during the week is reform for our own classroom practices. In fact this is already happening from the efforts of many individual teachers. As a consultant I see hundreds of individual classrooms through school visits. What I’ve noticed over the past year is; more student collaboration, increased discourse in the classroom (and beyond the classroom using the interactive web), creativity being honoured and encouraged, discovery and inquiry becoming common methods of constructing understandings, problem solving, critical thinking, and a general understanding that knowledge on its own is no longer power, but being able to use it in unique ways is! Phew!
While it is becoming increasingly important to look at possible systemic change in education, we need to start with change in our own classrooms. For many of us, this is already happening. We need to celebrate these individual victories, and use our own classrooms as a model for our schools, our district, our states/provinces, and eventually the entire institution of education.
For more blog posts on educational reform, please see the REBEL Education Reform WallWisher