Teaching Opinion

Student Generated Discussion Spawns Meaningful Learning

By Starr Sackstein — January 17, 2016 2 min read
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Have you ever just said to a classroom of students, “What do you think about...?” and then let them determine where they conversation went from there?

Rather than jump in and control in a moment of silence, have you let the room stir to a level of discomfort and allowed the students to work it out?

The unexpected in the classroom can be both scary and exhilarating which is why we need to create environments that really foster these kinds of risks.

We must model for students and display that we trust them by allowing them to jump in and take control over the direction of the learning.

Questions have a big part in this.

Who owns the questions in your classroom?

Do you carefully plan your lessons with each idea spelled out, answers neatly typed beneath them? I used to do this and man did I kill a bunch of awesome opportunities.

Lesson plans although positive for beginning teachers can be stifling and often over dictate the scope of what learning should be.

In my English classes, students read whole novels and then a blanket opportunity for them to develop questions around the text happens and then we discuss what they are interested in. Not what the scholars say or what I think or what’s going to be on the test (because there won’t be a test), but rather a paper that will be generated from their ideas about a text or a collaborative group assignment that will help engage them meaningfully in the words and craft of an author.

Once students drop the questions to the class, the rest engage at the small group level after taking a moment to flush out ideas independently. We need to give students time to gather their thoughts before we ask them to talk, especially if we want more of them to be engaged. Wait time is essential.

Some students will still be reticent which is why we must offer them chances to participate in different, more “anonymous” ways. Our class has a hashtag backchannel on Twitter at #WJPSaplit. Students respond to each other and add depth to the conversation here. Many have commented how they like to share in this way because they often feel like if they can’t get their ideas together fast enough, they are nervous about sounding stupid.

In addition to Twitter, having individual student blogs can foster a comfort of sharing ideas publicly. Students can have a real audience and can be taught to comment with high level feedback and then bring those connections into classroom conversation as well.

The more dynamic the understanding of texts in general, the higher likelihood of more complex and engaging discussions among kids.

If we’re brave enough to relinquish the control of the questions that dominate and often quell depth of learning among students, they will dive in and take over and even surprise us. They won’t be fearful of not getting the right answer because they ultimately aren’t looking for one answer when they ask, but rather an open-ended thoughtful experience to share ideas.

What’s one way or one space where you can allow students to take control of the questions in your classes? Please share - maybe even try it and blog about it.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.