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Critical Pedagogy in Classroom Discussion: a #Digped Discussion

 Published on September 3, 2014 /  Written by /  “together” by Hannah Law; CC BY-NC 2.0 /  25

“Indeed, little of the teaching makes our students see the relevance, necessity, or beauty of the subject.” ~ Paul Goodman, from Compulsory Mis-education, 1964

Many tensions lurk beneath the surface of classroom discussion. Social anxieties, race relations, class assumptions, personal desires, and diverse power dynamics are at play. New instructors may feel the pressure to manage these conversations immensely and experienced professors tend to develop a mantra that guides them through the chaos. This challenge is not new nor is it going away anytime soon. In fact, as lectures and content knowledge move beyond the classroom walls, discussion-based alternatives replace them. So, how do we make the most of this time together?

The discussion-ending comment is a well-known classroom phenomenon; one moment, the classroom is alive with discussion, and the next: silence. Fortunately, however, these moments are neither isolated nor unpredictable and pedagogues have long considered the origins of this challenging classroom dynamic.

According to Paul Goodman, there is a difference between the teacher- and student-reality at the root of this problem. Goodman asserts there is a culture of accreditation that makes it difficult for students to participate in discussion in personally meaningful ways. Instead, as a recent poll suggests, students attend college to get a degree to get a job to make money.

In the classroom, then, this culture of accreditation may prove harmful to even the most well-intentioned student. Consider a student who is intrigued by something the teacher says and “wants to demur, argue, ask a question.” At this critical moment, Goodman suggests that “the chief obstacle to discussion, however, is the other students. In their judgment, [student-directed] discussion is irrelevant to the finals and the grades, and they resent wasting time,” (133). In fear of negative peer attention, the student is silenced.

bell hooks, too, identifies the frequent possibility of silencing in the college classroom. Long before a student even begins college, hooks asserts, there is “racism, sexism, and class elitism [that] shape the structure of classrooms, creating a lived reality of insider versus outsider that is predetermined, often in place before any class discussion begins” (83). A student from a privileged background may make a statement that marginalizes a certain population and a black student may quickly become tokenized for speaking from an African-American experience.

Despite the broader social contexts in which these dynamics of exclusion were developed and maintained, however, hooks argues that it is largely the teacher “who determines classroom dynamics” (83). Thus, while a misogynistic, racist society problematizes student relationships, a pedagogy shaped to respond to this reality may serve to transgress these rigid social practices.

Join us at 12:00pm EDT on Friday, September 5th for this month’s #digped, where we will begin to discuss pedagogies of inclusion. Informed by both critical theory and personal experiences in the classroom, we will begin to demystify the complex classroom dynamics that frame student discussion.

In anticipation of the upcoming conversation, reflect on the following questions:

  • How can we shape our pedagogies to affirm a student’s presence and their right to speak without privileging certain shared responses? How can we, as hooks asks, “construct a pedagogy that critically intervenes before one group attempts to silence another?” (86).

  • Further, also straight from bell books: “how can professors and students who want to share personal experiences in the classroom do so without promoting essentialist standpoints that exclude?” (88).

  • In what ways can we establish alternative classroom cultures, ones that promote student-directed dialogue, even when it digresses from course content and graded assignments? Alternatively, how can this student-initiated dialogue be positively accounted for by grades, grading policies, and learning outcomes?

  • How does a culture of accreditation affect your classroom atmosphere, particularly relating to discussion? How can we alleviate the perceived boundaries between a student’s desire to earn a degree and the instructor’s desire to teach a specific subject (especially without resolving to “teach towards the degree” as many schools teach towards standardized tests)?

If you are interested in these and other related questions, please join us on September 5 at 12:00pm EDT. For those unable to join the conversation this week, Hybrid Pedagogy’s #digped recurs monthly, on the first Friday of every month. So our next #digped conversation will occur on Friday, October 3, same time, same place. If you have suggestions for future topics, feel free to add them to the comments on this entry or tweet them to @slamteacher or @hybridped.

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25 Responses
  1. Although I agree with most of the assertions above, I would argue that there is still the possibility to achieve education for education’s sake at some of the more esoteric programs in this country. I received a degree in Women’s Studies in the early 90’s that was very much a balanced and enjoyable romp in the field of learning, especially for a blue-collar person such as myself who had never had access to the types of discussions and ideas I met at that college. Needless to say, I also most emphatically did not get a job, ever, based on that degree. I went on to take a much more practical Masters, and am currently working on an excruciatingly practical Doctorate.

    in my own life as a teacher i strive to offer and make space for a student-centered andragogy. I agree that there is no education without relevance and respect for students.

  2. Mark Zywiol, Sean Conway, Troy McManus

    If a professor rewards students by giving them participation points for participation in the discussion. Most students do not feel the need to participate because there is no benefit in jumping in. If the professor starts to provide something the students want for participating, then the students will start to share their ideas, leading to a better discussion.

    1. Ruben Balavenderan

      I agree with the above individuals comments in that the professors can facilitate their students to interact more in class discussion if they were to be rewarded with points because this may help another student like me to want to build up confidence in order to earn those points which in itself will help improve my scores. Students who do have fear in speaking publically would be motivated to overcome this barrier and this will in turn encourage them to expand their knowledge of the subject that they are wanting to master. By stating view points which may be conflicting to another peers opinion may facilitate one to generate questions that may clarify some doubts of understanding the topic at hand. Being encouraged and that too getting rewarded will help the student to engage in open discussion amongst themselves which will further facilitate better understanding of the topic at hand.

  3. Robert Parks, Alex Shuart, Dom Mazzola

    We disagree with the concept of assigning points for random participation in class discussions, because some students tend to blurt out pointless facts or information that is irrelevant to the topic just to receive points. Instead, we think that a certain student or group of students could lead the discussions each time, and the leaders would rotate for each new discussion. This way, each student would have a chance to earn their points for the class, and it wouldn’t be based on participation during discussions.

  4. Darren Brown, Daniel Roberts, Luke Bonkowski, Melissa Martin

    “The chief obstacle to discussion, however, is the other students. In their judgement, discussion is irrelevant to the finals and the grades, and they resent wasting time.” If you work in groups and switch them around occasionally then you will become more comfortable with your class. Then you will be able to argue, creating more discussion. More discussion creates more opinions, meaning you get more topics for more class discussion.

    1. Jessica Barton

      I agree with the above comment. Class discussion is not a waste of time, it builds comfort within the group and opens up more room for argument but it also helps students understand topics better. Sometimes listening to a class discussion can enable a student to understand the class topic more thoroughly from hearing it differently from their peers. On another note, I believe that it is “the teacher who determines classroom dynamics.” I had a teacher that encouraged classroom discussion but students were skeptical about opening up at first. After the teacher established that there are no wrong answers within the class discussions, the talking started flowing comfortably. Knowing there would be no judgment on our opinions opened us up to freely express ourselves within his class.

  5. Kalen, Derrick, Joseph, Mike

    Comfortability with discussion of a topic: Some people are very comfortable with expressing opinions, however, other people might not be as comfortable with it. Additionally, people may have a broader view of a topic compared to others. Having multiple topics to discuss opens up a wider variety of discussion.

  6. Joel Bussey and Matt Walsh

    To tackle the problems that lie within classroom discussions, students need to all feel welcome and comfortable with sharing their own thoughts. Also, bringing up a controversial topic is a good way to get people talking. If there is a conflict, students can share their own thoughts and ideas, and the class can create a compromise. Getting students to talk to should not be based on earning points.

  7. Ellen

    We feel that Heidebrink Bruno made a very critical point in talking about the long term goals of college – financial gain and stability. This aspect and purpose detracts from the value of class discussions because it does not directly benefit students and renders them disinterested.

  8. Ryan Brown, Patti Grant, Zach Zimbo, Carolyn Spendlove

    To get the people in class more comfortable we could talk about current issues and topics that the students could relate to and input their opinions. To get more people involved with the discussion, participation points could be awarded out to those students that decide to voice their opinions to the class. Discussions could be brought up that have no right or wrong answer, but mainly can get students more comfortable to voice their opinions for later discussions. Topics related to class could be discussed once all students are more willing to open up and voice their opinions.

  9. Ellen Gaffney, Julia Byrd, Jevon Hill, Charles Joyce

    We feel that Heidebrink Bruno made a very critical point in talking about the long term goals of college – financial gain and stability. This aspect and purpose detracts from the value of class discussions because it does not directly benefit students and renders them disinterested.

  10. Donnielle Mood

    I agree with Parks, Shuart, and Mazzola’s comment on their idea that participation points should be given when a student or group of students engage in the classroom discussion, but I do like the use of participation points during random classroom discussions, as long as the class stays on topic. If at any time the topic is derailed, the professor should place it back on the correct path, and that student or group of students who changed the topic, do not receive any points for participating in the discussion, and the students who stay on topic and keep the discussion moving, will acquire the participation points for the class.

  11. Steve Stanek

    I feel that this is true. A lot of students do not know their other classmates so that makes them not want to participate in class. If more professors gave points for participation in class then a lot more students would give their option. It seems to me though that students on do the minimum they half to get the highest grade they can. Then again why would you want to do more work that’s only the smart way of thinking. If more professors gave more student projects with each other I think that it would help also. The reason for that is more students would get to know each other and would talk in front of the entire class more.

  12. Sarah Wojciechowski

    As a student, I agree that it’s important for a professor to encourage students to participate in classroom discussions, though I don’t believe that participation points are necessary, or even a good idea. A professor’s demeanor alone can be enough to bring some students out of their shells, and while others (like myself) may need further coaxing, I’ve personally only ever felt pressured by participation points, rather than encouraged. Trying to force a student out of their shell with the threat of losing points is not going to create a classroom environment where one feels comfortable and safe to openly voice their opinion. While participation points may be an effective way of encouraging discussion in a classroom of students that are already comfortable with each other, I personally believe that they only make things worse in one that isn’t quite there yet.

  13. Tonino Cercone

    I agree with the argument that Mr. Heidebrink-Bruno makes in this article about how it can be difficult for students to participate and/ or start a meaningful classroom discussion. I feel like this is happening because some students are only there to obtain the basic information so they can get a passing grade in the class. And when you have students that do this I feel that it is unfair to the class because they may have a different opinion/ or an easier way of explaining a topic. A strategy that can be useful in making sure all students participate is participation points. With participation points students have to raise there hands and contribute to get points, and as a student I found this to be helpful because knowing that I would not get points unless I spoke in class motivated me to speak in all my classes. With participation points not only would the teacher get more volunteers but there would be more indepth discussions in class.

  14. Bradley Minniear

    I would have to agree with Sarah that a professor’s demeanor could be enough to bring a student out of their shell and participate in class. The way the professor teaches the class can really help a student become more comfortable around his or her classmates and allow them to the participate in class. I feel students are completely different when they have a professor who lectures the whole time to a professor who has students interact and do work in groups. But saying that, i still believe participation points need to be awarded if you add to the discussion in class. If a student is in a class they enjoy, it will be no trouble for that student to participate and ask questions, but there are students who have to take classes they do not enjoy and will not want to participate. Even though that student doesn’t enjoy the class, they still care about that grade, so i feel the only way to get those students to participate in classes they don’t enjoy is to award points for participating because otherwise they wouldn’t want to help add to the discussion.

  15. Lindsey Eveleth

    As a student, for most of my academic life I have lived in fear of participation points. The fact that my grades hinged on if I had something to vocally express that day in class has always been a stressor for me. Students all learn in different ways, and although I enjoy expressing myself during classroom discussions, many students do not, which does not necessarily mean that they are being any less successful at grasping the material. Just as educators chose different routes in order to express the material, students should also have the same right to be able to process that information in their own way. If a class is structured correctly, students should want to participate and there should be ample opportunity for them to do so. Putting a quota on speaking up in class only adds a superficial element to the discussion, instead of wanting to add to the dialogue, students do so out of fear of not succeeding in the course.

  16. David Deview

    Heidebrink-Bruno made me think here, he brought up some great points. When I think about it I’ve hated participation points in almost every class that’s had them. I do like the way my current English professor does participation points though, everything is kept in a binder. Certain classes I’ve taken have had the right atmospheres for class discussions to thrive, this may potentially be one of them. Classroom discussions involving students talking to students are beneficial and ease the tension, making it more likely for a student to talk, respond, or ask a question.

  17. Alexis Plofchan

    I’m a student at a community college, I have always been quite shy when it comes to the classroom. I hated hearing that I was expected to respond to classroom discussions. In high school I was always one who wanted to sit in the back of the class and not raise my hand and hope I didn’t get called on. However now that I am older and in some college classes, participating in classroom discussions are something I can not avoid and I’ve actually gotten used to them. At first I only ever said anything if i knew I would lose points for not adding to the class but now I have had many classes that use this method of teaching, I feel I can very easily voice my opinion without being nervous of making a fool of myself. I think when you are younger it is necessary to have participation points but the older you get and the further you get into school it should just be expected as an adult to join a classroom discussion and voice your beliefs and opinions.

  18. Alexander Biegalski

    I agree with everyone saying that the Professor should give out “Participation Points” to his students. If the teacher did this, more students would get involved with classroom discussion. Some people are afraid of speaking in public, others are afraid of being told wrong, then there are the one who are just shy. These people probably don’t have any friends in the class and don’t want to give there opinion out to complete strangers. What Professors should do is break there shell by working in groups, getting people to know each other. In one of my classes, we sit in groups and speak to one another about our ideas on the topic. Though sometimes we end up getting off track but that’s still a good thing. Even when it comes to a whole class discussion, giving your opinion is key to learning. Something you might say might spark a thought into someone else s mind and help them with a problem they had. Who knows you might learn something completely off topic but will help you out in the near future.

  19. Nicole Lane

    I agree with the majority of students saying that its all in the professors hands he/she decides which way he wants his/her classroom discussion to go, and how far are they willing to take the discussion. Discussions shouldn’t be held back, just because a student feels awkward in front of their peers. Going back on what I just said about how students may feel uncomfortable, it may all be because the professors never broke the “lets get everyone to get to know each other deal” its all in the way they go about it from the very beginning. I’m agreeing 100% with hook after reading this, this is why I believe pedagogues are a wonderful concept for breaking the ice a little more with their peers and others, especially because students who have great minds, but cant say how they feel or what they believe in because of fear, or the simple fact that the professor may not agree with them. discussions lead to ideas, so if a student wants to become a great success it is a must for discussions to happen their classes even if their are no participation point awarded. I do believe in participation points very much so , it encourages the student to get involved and not to hold back ones thoughts because in the end they will be rewarded.

  20. Alex Tomala

    This article is kind of weird for me. I am one of the quiet ones in class discussion, but I think with everyone involved and being respectful a discussion could be a great thing. There are a few problems with discussions however, there are the jokers who say “Oh she took the words out of my mouth.” There are students like me who just keep to themselves, but you also see the opposite, some students get too into it and turn people(like me) away from voicing our thoughts. Also mentioned was people who are just there for the degree, which is a problem that I admit to contributing to. I would not be in a lot of my classes if they were not required for my degree. I have taken one class for the sake of learning, and that was a welding class. Having absolutely no interests in the discussion subject makes participating difficult, but students like myself sit through it because we know the salary that the degree earns will be worth it, it is kind of sad if you think about it.

  21. Audrey Riddle

    I’m not a fan of student driven discussion. Often when the professor asks a question during their lecture, there is an awkward silence. Sometimes the professor will break the silence and answer the question themselves, sometimes a student will speak up. I currently am taking a course with the first teacher ever who refuses to break the silence. I am very shy and have several times broken the silence just because it makes me feel even more uncomfortable then speaking up when the professor states that he meditates and can sit and wait for someone to speak. It definitely makes me feel obligated to speak up, which I don’t like. (Not saying I don’t ever have anything to say, because my head is constantly thinking when I listen to discussions, I just don’t always feel the need the voice it.) I think class discussion should come natural.

    Also wanted to comment that it is good to have diversity in how professors teach. You learn to adapt to different learning styles and its a very valuable skill. Professors aren’t cookie-cutters, they will all teach differently. I had a professor in a Nurse Assistant Training Program whom I could listen to her lectures all day long because she was so incredibly knowledgeable and I was fascinated, along with the rest of the class. When a student chimed in, she would just pour out even more knowledge. It was so natural, and made students feel more comfortable speaking up because it wasn’t forced upon us by participation points or awkward silences.

    In classes like Math or Biology lectures, it seems lectures work best. Just give us the facts and information we need to know, there really isn’t any point for students to try and move the discussion because the information being learned can’t be altered. In opposition, my current English class discussions can be altered and we are learning from the professor, and other students opinions and outlook on topics we discuss. To me, I find class discussions may be more or less opportune depending on the course.

    Shortened thoughts, discussion should always come natural isn’t necessarily needed in all courses.

  22. Lenna Dean

    Personally, I don’t like the fact that whether or not you get your participation points for a certain class sometimes depends on whether or not you talk in class. Some students, such as myself, don’t always have an opinion they’d like to express in the class or sometimes another student has already said what you wanted to say or maybe you just struggle when it comes to voicing you opinion. Whatever the reason, talking in class should not be how you get you participation points for a certain class, it should be based on whether or not you come to class on time and prepared. I understand if a professor wants their students to participate in classroom discussions from time to time, or take notes on the discussion, but I don’t believe that they should be part of your grade.

  23. Durwin Johnson

    I personally prefer classes with active discussions, but I am rarely actively engaged in them. This is not because of disinterest or shyness, but rather because I get more out of observing and listening than talking. As stated in a previous comment, some students simply don’t have an opinion to share yet, and I happen to constantly fall into this category. It isn’t until after observing the class and its discussions that my opinions form. Requiring participation can be positive, but it can also lead to students like myself losing out, trying to stress themselves into coming up with something to add before someone else for the sole purpose of not losing out on points, instead of taking in the information and making it meaningful to them. This isn’t to say that I think rewarding participation wouldn’t help encourage participation, but requiring can certainly hurt the meaning of the discussion.

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