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Learning to Let Go: Listening to Students in Discussion

 Published on September 11, 2014 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Adam Heidebrink-Bruno and Sean Michael Morris /  “human” by Hannah Law; CC BY-NC 2.0 /  42

A class discussion where the teacher pre-determines the outcome is just a lecture in disguise, dressed up to feel student-centered while still being instructor-directed. When a class involves discussion, we owe it to our students to not know what’s going to happen, lest we start dictating what we want them to think. To truly engage another in a conversation, we respond to the ideas that develop organically; a person who talks without listening delivers a speech, not a discussion. The moment we attempt to set the conclusion of a discussion before it starts, we cheat our students out of an opportunity for honest engagement, and we fool ourselves into thinking we let our students learn things for themselves.

I sensed I had a problem with discussions last semester, when I taught two consecutive classes that were identical on paper: same course, same content, same classroom. Only the time and the students were different. It took many weeks before I realized how foolish that view was; despite the “on paper” claims, the two classes were not at all alike. What could possibly be more defining of a class than the students involved and the time we spend with them? Yet my efforts to plan and run my classes kept frustrating me — I struggled to keep the classes aligned so that I could remember where we were and what we needed to do next.

Those complaints, which I’ve heard from many other teachers as we work to preserve our sanity, reveal deeply troubling perspectives on how a class operates. I talked about how I plan and run a class that I wanted to align. It was I who did these things. Students weren’t a part of the process; they didn’t plan the course, they didn’t run the course, and I tried to align them to the course, not the other way around. I’ve been hearing about and talking about “meeting students where they are” for years, yet here I was, complaining that my students, wherever they were, weren’t meeting me where I thought the class should be.

This semester began with a challenge to my traditional frustrations: I was told pretty late in the summer that one of my 50-minute, M/W/F classes would move to 80-minute, T/R meetings. The rest of my classes stayed M/W/F. I shared with others, including my department chair, that I worried about my ability to keep everything on track. The last time I had classes with different meeting times, I divided the semester’s activities in different ways so that the schedules kept up with one another, but I struggled to adhere to that plan. It was forced and imposed, and it benefited no one but my internal need for predictable structure.

My ability to focus was perhaps the greatest casualty. I worried more about sticking to the plan than existing in the moment. Class discussions became an exercise in reaching a goal — a goal I set for what they would do. I devoted more mental attention to where I wanted the conversation to go than I did to what my students were actually saying. I didn’t listen fully, with concentration and my entire self. I cheated them out of what they deserved: my attention.

Years ago, I taught at a public high school. Lesson plans were a fact of life … and the bane of mine. Rarely would my plans get submitted to administration on-time. My assistant principal frequently threatened me with what she called “nasty-grams” demanding compliance with a contractual obligation. On my annual reviews, I could always count on a not-so-awesome report of my “submits lesson plans appropriately” performance. I hated planning. When I wrote a plan for a lesson, I felt I was eliminating the possibility for responsive, flexible teaching. I often wondered how, on Monday, I was to know what my students would need to hear on Friday. The expectation for weekly, by-the-hour lesson plans at the secondary level is the result of a view of education as a predictable, programmatic process that works the same way every year, for every class, and with every student. Believing we can plan student learning means we aren’t listening to them when they arrive.

Sean Michael Morris and I wrote about the need to really listen to students, saying that “we have an obligation to give them the opportunity to try things.” The way I ran my classes that semester, I wasn’t actually letting students try things in our conversations. Instead, I expected them to say things, and I waited until they said what I expected. It was a farce, and I should have just told them what was on my mind and waited for them to ingest it, old-school style.

This semester, I’m trying a different approach. Once I saw that I was falling into the trap of trying to over-plan the semester, I stopped. I refused. I decided that I would set weekly targets, that we would do or make something each week, but that the way we went about that task would be figured out as a class, in the moment, by paying attention. I’m still making comparisons from one course section to the next (because old habits die hard, and because humans are pattern-seeking creatures), but I’m learning to let go much more effectively than I thought.

Each of my classes has a “class notes” document in Google Drive. Everyone in the class has access to it, and everyone can write in it. I use it as a sort of virtual whiteboard. When preparing for a class conversation, I come up with a couple questions I’d like students to think through. I open up the class notes, write the questions there, and go to class. That’s it. Then, in class, I tell students that I’ll take notes for them. I’ll write while they discuss, talking to one another and not to me. It’s a technique I learned from Scott Launier at UCF, who always impressed me with his ability to get freshmen engaged in genuine discussion. So when the discussion starts, I have my laptop open, with the document projected onto the screen so everyone can see it. Several students have their laptops out, as well, and are inside the document with me. I pose the question and solicit an opening thought. Once the first student starts talking, I look down. I try not to intervene in the conversation at all, allowing them to shape the dynamic and to determine the ground rules. If there’s silence, I look up. If I see hands raised, I wave a dismissive hand and say, “Just talk. You figure it out.”

This sounds like I’m ignoring and abandoning the students, leaving them to their own survival. But that’s the exact point. I leave them to survive the conversation on the merits of their own contributions, not my guidance. I write what I hear everyone saying. I occasionally write a question in the notes. Sometimes students see them and respond; sometimes I refer back to them in a conversational lull; sometimes they simply go unanswered. By taking notes, I show I’m listening. By asking the occasional question, I show I’m attentive. By looking at my screen and not at them, I show that I really do want them to be in charge of the conversation.

To me, one of the most convenient side-effects of this approach is that we have notes from the conversation, meaning I can go back to them later and see where we left off. The notes for each class are distinct, following the shape and thinking of the students who were in the room at the time. I don’t have to worry about keeping the classes aligned for my sanity, because the content is recorded for future reference. And the questions I ask students relate directly to what has been said by the students, not what I think they should be saying. It’s a very honest way of having a class discussion. It’s student-centered the way it should be. And now planning for class couldn’t be easier.

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42 Responses
  1. I love this.

    One thing I do that helps students take charge of the discussion: for each class, they do the reading and then write a short, informal paper. When they get to class, they pass the short papers around, signing their name on the bottom when they’ve read one, adding comments if they want. We spend the first ten minutes of class just reading each other papers. Those papers become the starting place for the discussion.

    1. Drew Knoch

      Ms. DeBaise, I believe that is a great idea. As a freshman at a community college, this would really make me more comfortable joining in class discussions. Just seeing others comment on my paper would help me to see more dimensions to a general discussion.

      1. Michael Weiss Jr

        I think this is a great idea for an icebreaker. If you have the opportunity for someone to read and comment on your writing it would be the perfect conversation starter. it doesn’t have to be a book either. Just a little biographical sketch t draw your classmates into being curious about you. With this you have created a better all around classroom environment and relationship.

      2. Mr. Knoch and Mr. Weiss,

        I suggest that you approach your professor and suggest that he try this approach. Or, even better, you might even ask him if you could take responsibility for an upcoming class discussion during which you could implement Professor DeBaise’s idea.

  2. Nathan Holic

    Thanks for the essay, Chris. I had a pretty awful discussion the other day, and I like to hear other perspectives on the topic, and try to really think through a success or failure, and consider why it was a success or failure.

    My discussion was very leading (we had certain goals I wanted to steer them toward), but at the same time, I was genuinely interested in what they knew, how they interpreted the ideas, etc. The deeper problem was that they didn’t want to be led toward any ideas: they wanted to be handed those ideas, and so they shut down (perhaps in hopes of my coming in to save them, and the frustration ending for them…but the frustration doesn’t end, is the thing…not if you’re learning, at least).

    Anyhow, I’ve been thinking over some other things, too, and the posting brings one of them to light. Part of the discussion’s failure stemmed from the fact that I structured the class period as a “discussion” simply to avoid delivering a “lecture.” And now I’m asking myself why. Why is it that we’ve placed such a stigma on lectures? This essay, for example, even makes a “discussion disguised as a lecture” feel extremely negative.

    I’m trying to sort through this idea, and I honestly think I’ve confused my own best practices over the last couple years simply BECAUSE I’ve tried to avoid lectures at all costs. This can actually be pretty destructive, I think.

    In talking it over with my wife (a non-writer, and a non-teacher), I realized a few things that I’d been carefully avoiding: that lectures serve a purpose, and that it’s important to understand their purpose in a student’s (or other learner’s) life. I enjoy lectures. I enjoy hearing what someone else has to say. And students enjoy (or at least, desire) lectures, too. Not all the time. But they serve a purpose. And if I’m going to deliver content through an article/essay that I have them read at home, how is that different than delivering content through a face-to-face lecture? In both cases, discussion and practice are both still possible.

    Maybe this sounds really obvious, and you’re like, “Dude, you’re just now figuring out that you need to mix different types of class activities?” But what I’m saying is that I’ve actually been afraid to lecture, that so much of the discussion and conversation I hear in writing/rhetoric/composition seems to treat it as this terrible thing we must avoid…and sometimes that avoidance causes real issues in our teaching.


    1. Actually, Nate, that’s not my reaction at all. You’re not figuring out that you should mix instruction types; you’re being more honest about your intentions and desires when you’re leading a class. I’d encourage you to consider why lectures have a bad reputation, or why you’ve been encouraged to avoid them. Similarly, why do students so often fail to (completely) read/understand the articles we ask them to read?

      My guess: Because, though you’re right to say that students like hearing others’ views, they like when they can interact with those views. Lectures and articles are force-feeding information to students, rather than sharing views. It’s particularly one-sided if students don’t feel they have authority to speak up in class, or if they believe the author(s) they’re reading have authority because they’re in print, anthologized, or chosen by the teacher.

      The suggestion I have is actually to continue avoiding lectures. Share your views, but do so in the context of your students’ conversations. You’re more experienced than they are, so you can offer valuable expertise and guidance to help them sort through what they’re thinking. But please don’t try and do the thinking for them. The purpose you identify for lectures—delivering content—would only be appropriate if the students have asked for that content to be delivered. That means they’re ready for it. Otherwise, a lecture just barges ahead, hoping students pay attention, and wishing that they’d remember some of what’s said.

      1. Can I jump in here and say two things?
        1. I don’t know what Nate teaches, who his students are, etc., so i don’t know for sure what is a good pedagogical approach;
        2. From what I can read between the lines, i think maybe what Nate is trying to discuss (but really is intended as convergent discussion towards sthg he pre-determined) implies that maybe THAT particular topic might be approached differently (students can “see thru” our attempts to make a pre-defined path look like an open discussion). But here is the thing: could u consider what complex questions u (Nate) truly don’t have answers for, and try those in class? It helps if it’s that kind of question being discussed.
        It helps, too, to consider maturity of learners and comfort with the rest of their colleagues in class, so they may feel comfortable expressing themselves orally

        I’m just saying, really, that the reason sthg might work better as a lecture or reading, is that it might. It might be sthg where students’ views are not the main point.

        But to me, an engaging and deep learning experience is more likely to occur when the focus is on students’ learning process… So they learn to construct knowledge, not receive it. From that perspective, we need a change of approach to everything..

  3. Loved this, Chris. I have almost always found my less-planned classes more engaging and responsive to students. I also try to make sure I never assign anything to students that would bore me to grade 🙂 this means new stuff every semester.

    I do like Janine’s addition, too, because it creates space for students who are more reflective and less comfortable with spontaneous discussion to prepare some of their thoughts.

  4. Having said the above, I think people have different teaching styles; some people like us teach better when they “let go” and focus on the students; other people (particularly in other disciplines) are less comfortable. I think what DOES matter is that you found the way to be true to your intentions, to make your practice reflect your values and goals… 🙂

  5. This resonates a lot with me. Lately I’ve been thinking, and talking with folks, about graduate pedagogy. That is, so many of us are trained to teach undergrad classes, and it’s usually in a lesson-plan controlling kind of way (sweet sweet control). But, when we get into a graduate seminar, we’re expected to abandon that type of lesson plan and open the floor. It’s a really hard transition to make, going from the controlled 50-minute lesson plan to the 150-minute discussion forum. It’s also hard to know HOW to manage that open discussion time, when to let it go and when to reign it in, how to keep things open enough but not so open that the talkers run the show. So, thanks Chris… I know you were talking about freshman, but it’s helping me think through how to manage my own grad seminars. I really like control. A lot. Hmph.

  6. Aimee deNoyelles

    Wonderful idea. Wondering how this could apply to large classes. Would there be a number of students too large for this to work? Would a facilitator need to be in place?

    1. That’s a question I can’t answer through experience. My hunch is that having students discuss in small groups, then “bubbling up” concerns that they want addressed to the larger classroom, could achieve much the same goal: Get everyone contributing, allow students to direct the conversation, and most importantly, let students raise the issues they’re struggling to understand. I’ll bet they could facilitate themselves, really.

  7. Yes, but…

    Of course it is important to let go on a certain level (no teaching without learning, etc., etc.), and, yes, it’s the students that have to construct the knowledge at the end of the day, but surely there are a lot of things that need to be destroyed as well. If there are a few Socratic students asking their complacent classmates the difficult questions, then there may not be a problem, but if there aren’t, surely the teacher needs to be taking a more interventionist role, challenging the dubious assumptions and the received folly that students are using to construct their “knowledge”.

    Perhaps there is a risk here of assuming a false dichotomy: Either the students are passively following (with the teacher doing all the talking) or they are actively leading (and the teacher becomes the class secretary). An agonistic model of education would allow ample room for students to develop and express their points of view and construct their knowledge, while also affirming the importance of the the teacher challenging perceived folly (but with sufficient sensitivity so as not to crush the self-esteem of the student).

    There seems to be a disturbing assumption in the article and the comments that follow that the product – the knowledge, presumably – does not really matter. Process is everything. As long as the students are chatting, developing their POVs and some sort of knowledge is being constructed, then all is well. But if the product doesn’t matter, then neither does the process. And a critical pedagogy worth defending is surely one that has a robust notion of truth – one for which there is something damned important here that we need to understand and appreciate, and if people don’t understand it, then we as teachers need to think of things to do to help them arrive at that understanding and appreciation. We can’t just let go.

    1. I’m encouraging teachers to let go, not to leave the room.

      Yes, knowledge and content matter. But students don’t need us to give them—or to vet—that knowledge. They need to learn how to accomplish both those tasks on their own. The teacher is there to help guide students by using their experience, suggesting alternate avenues of thinking about a problem, and encouraging a level of thinking that may be unnatural for the students, prodding them to move more deeply through an issue to come to a better understanding of the implications.

      I struggle with the presumption that what students find on their own is “received folly” or that the knowledge students construct with one another is somehow more worthy of scare quotes than the knowledge created when other groups of people gather to exchange ideas. When students leave the care of the educational establishment, they need to know how to build knowledge without someone telling them what knowledge needs to be built. Just yesterday, I asked students what I thought was a markedly simple question. “What do you truly care about that you want to learn more about?” Several students told me, after a period of awkward silence in the room and exaggerated disbelief plastered on my face, that it was the hardest question I had asked them all semester. They said they were so accustomed to being told what it was they were to learn that they were virtually incapable of setting a learning goal for themselves. Teachers need to better prepare students so that they do not face adult life with that degree of uncertainty.

      I’m glad you acknowledged that teachers must challenge student thinking with sensitivity. Why not apply that same sensitivity to the discussion process itself? Allowing students to think themselves through a problem, then posing one strategically phrased “what if” question, or perhaps asking students to justify their confidence in a conclusion or a source, shows that we care not only about their process but also the product they end up with—the knowledge they build for themselves, not because we as teachers dispense it to them.

      I see the role of teachers in a discussion much like I see the role of parents who bring their children to a playground. Each sits on the sideline, watchful and attentive, ready to interject if their experience deems it necessary, but otherwise allowing those they watch to figure things out on their own, for themselves, creating the very experience that will allow them to one day become watchful and attentive on their own accord.

      1. Thank you, Chris for that helpful reply. I agree with what you say about the merits of this way of handling this kind of discussion in a certain kind of educational establishment with students at a certain level of maturity who are more or less familiar with this kind of group work and who have a sufficient level of interest in the matter at hand. I was simply expressing a worry that the injunction to let go might be read as an affirmation of the sort of approach to education advocated by the likes of Mitra, which is doubtless not what you intended.

        We are big fans of Rousseau, who is for us the Elvis of pedagogy. He illustrates nicely (in “Emile”) how extremely difficult the craft of teaching is. The students need to make all the discoveries and so “build their knowledge”, as you put it, but the teacher needs to have a very clear idea of what needs to be discovered and how best it can be discovered and when it is appropriate to discover it, in addition to knowing what needs to be knocked on the head (Rousseau’s example of taking some boys on a trip to a clinic for syphilitics might not be the best example, but it indicates how something might be knocked on the head without damaging the self-esteem of the pupil). Rousseau would agree with your metaphor of taking children to the playground, but with the additional detail that it is the teacher who needs to have secretly designed and built the playground beforehand, and to have designed it with a view to learning something in particular.

        We need to let go while keeping a hold on things.

        Let me give an example from my own experience. I teach teenagers in Greece. What I frequently come across is a certain kind of Greek chauvinism, especially regarding the Greek language, with it being thought of as the origin of all Western languages and as the language that deserves to be THE international language on the grounds of its undoubted superiority. Now, as it happens, that is not on my syllabus, but as a critical pedagogue seeing my students parroting folly (because it is not “their” idea), I feel it is my duty to find a way of pushing the syllabus to one side for a moment or two to create the space in which to challenge this chauvinism. The difficulty is to find a way to get the students to rethink the standing of their language without my launching into a sermon on the death of all gods, including the god of the Greek language.

        If I have a class of chauvinists who are happy developing a chauvinistic point of view, I have to do the opposite of letting go. As Kristine puts it, I have to throw in a monkey wrench. And as a critical pedagogue with an understanding of how much people need to unlearn (since they are growing up in a society dominated by folly), I need a large pedagogical toolbox, full of carefully arranged monkey wrenches.

  8. Kristine Copeland

    I’m a student; a 57 year old among (mostly) teens at a community college. I appreciate Torn Halves statements concerning the value of classroom process and product. Teachers and students have their own responsibilities in the process, of course, and it should be expected that tensions exist, that the energies may sometimes be out of balance, but I also think that to consider it an either/or situation seems too simplistic.
    My much younger student peers are constantly surprising – and edifying me. We remind each other that our beliefs are not always synonymous with facts and all of us, students and professors, find ourselves teaching and learning unexpected lessons.
    The product does matter and while the acquisition of knowledge is ultimately a personal thing, it requires a dynamic and open dialogue. We need to test and defend our beliefs and stay open to new information. A good teacher knows when to step back AND when to throw a monkey wrench into the midst of a student-lead discussion.

  9. Angela Daniel

    Well said, Chris.
    The wonderful thing about allowing the students to express themselves on any given subject is that the the “default setting” in most academic (particularly fresh-out-of-high-school) courses is seen as apathy. But it’s not! The students do have opinions, questions and observations. Discussion, first, allows us to ferret these ideas out. The real trick for the students is then reverse-engineering the reasons WHY they hold the beliefs and ideas they hold. That is a trick, getting down to a metacognition level. How are we to have them challenge their own constructs and encourage them to analyze their own understanding if we do not listen to them first?

  10. Jon Bachman

    I’m a student a student at a local community college who is taking his third different class but with the same professor. This Professor shares similar teaching styles, which I personally enjoy and prefer over the typical “read this chapter and spit it out onto the question at the end”. Seeing that it is a different/newer style of teaching than I would say most students are not use to, it brings them a challenge for many to “think outside the box”. Reading a chapter and answering the questions at the end of it is not challenging and most the time, if not all the time very boring. With that being said, I find the work load in this class compared to the other classes I have taken or currently am taking, to be roughly the same in time but the big difference for me, is that I see a much high quality of work that I am producing out of a class styled like this. It’s a different way of learning and was a bit nerve-racking in the beginning of my first class, but by the time I was done with the class I was extremely proud of myself with the quality of work that I was producing.

    One other thing that I wanted to comment on, which I do not intend to offend Dr. Friend because like I said I am only a student and I have zero teaching experience in a classroom. You talked about how you were teaching two of the same classes, same course, same days, same information, same rooms, only thing different is the times and the students. You also said you were having trouble staying on top of what was going on in the two different classes. Wouldn’t this be inevitable though? If you’re teaching at a college level where everyone is different, coming from different backgrounds, different lifestyles, and I’m assuming some have different majors, wouldn’t each class every day have different discussions and possible different outcomes? If you ask to hear from the students and to see their views on the subject matter, I can’t see how you could get the same outcome with keeping this style of teaching. I guess it would come down to what is more important to you, this style of teaching or keeping the classes on the same page.

    1. Jon – To directly answer your question, you’re absolutely right: divergent conversation is inevitable, if the conversation happens genuinely. Back when I taught high-school English, I got really good at ensuring all five of my classes had a “conversation” that reached the same conclusion about the same text at the same time so that the next day, all five classes would be ready to go from the same point. It’s not the high school/college difference here; it’s my level of controlling involvement. And at that point, as you suggested, “keeping the classes on the same page” was what I wanted more than anything.

      But to comment about your question, you said you have “zero teaching experience” and are “only a student”. Sounds to me like that means you have years of learning experience in a classroom, years of discussion experience, and years of interaction experience. The insights that informed your question are all spot-on, and they show that you, as a student with zero teaching experience, get the idea, whereas it took me fourteen years of teaching experience, plus inordinate amounts of training (and a master’s degree) in education to reach the same conclusion. To me, this shows that the training and experience I’ve had as a teacher is less in-tune with how a classroom operates than your experiences as a learner. Sounds to me like we need to listen to—and learn from—students like you far more than we claim to.

  11. Adam Westerbur

    This article was very well put, and I enjoyed the whole point of the piece. I feel that students really deserve to have more freedom to express themselves, and really engage into a class discussion. Often times you have that one teacher (or many) that will lecture all hour without giving a student permission to chime in and give their opinion. It is about time that teachers give students control of where a classroom discussion goes. For example, in paragraph 9, Chris Friend talks about something he does for his classes. By posting a couple questions in Google Drive and allowing student access to it, it gives students the opportunity to come up with answers together as he jots down notes. Point being, I really like this teaching style and feel all classrooms should be setup this way. Keeps the students engaged, and allows them to really express themselves.

  12. Alec Westerbur

    Mr. Friend-That was a very well written article. As a Sophomore in community college, I have been in classes with this type of setting and I have enjoyed it. Allowing the students to express themselves in discussion does not only give them the freedom to express their opinions and ideas, but it also makes the atmosphere feel more comfortable and not so intimidating for the students. Also, you never know how much you can learn from students by giving them more freedom to give their input on a certain topic. Unfortunately not all teachers do this, but I can see this being a normal thing down the road.

  13. Ruth Jeffery

    I am currently in a community college, and the English class I am currently taking allows me to express myself among my peers. What a refreshing change. As long as the students and professor keep an open mind to the discussions, I feel it will benefit both parties. As an introvert, the open discussion has allowed me the opportunity to ask questions and to feel more comfortable when asking those questions.

  14. Valarie Shepherd

    I’m attending college and I am enjoying my English class. The time that we spend in having class discussion are insightful and encouraging. The ideas of others gives you a humble attitude but your also not afraid to make mistakes or voice you opinion. There are so many ways you can express yourself and still respect your colleagues is something to be grateful for when you are it’s not natural to speak in a large group setting. The interchange of working with on another brings a new meaning to learning, when “Listening to Students in Class Discussion”.

  15. Alan khan

    I have been registered for sixteen credit hours this fall semester at a community college and the idea of open discussion in the class seems perfect for me and for most of my peers, because it helps us to interact with our instructor more openly as we could share our ideas and views to one another. In this way we tend to learn new things in the class. Discussion provides Instructor and students feedback. From a student perspective this can create interest in the subject and provide them with a deeper understanding of the content being taught. Class room discussion can make subjects more relevant and enjoyable for students.Discussions allow Instructor to become more involved with their students, giving them the opportunity to receive instant feedback from students on what is being taught. This can also make the class more enjoyable for the instructor, allowing them to interact with students and create a sense of community within the classroom.

  16. Alissa Maedel

    I would have to agree with Alan and Valarie. I am a student at a local community college and i love being able to talk and discus with my peers. Being able to talk with my peers gives me a better understanding on how others think and react to different social issues. I also think that having class discussion makes a class stronger. When a class is able to talk freely with one another it means that the class understand what is going on. I have also been in a class rooms where no one wanted to talk. For me it made the class dull and made it hard to want to go to. This article is very well put and done!

  17. Sean Michaels

    Mr. Friend, I must admit I was frankly shocked to read the topic of this article. I am not however shocked in a bad way, more so I am impressed with the subject matter. I am currently a student who has returned to college at an adult age and having spent a year in college my personal experiences have been a bit of a mixed bag. While quite a few professors that I have had have taken the hands on approach that you have to engage the classroom. Many others treated the room as though it was just listening to them read the facts without any kind of interaction whatsoever. I have personally always found that as an odd approach to learning. While I may not have the teaching experience that you have and cannot comment on the classroom etiquette that it takes to have a hands on approach, I have been in retail management for over ten years now. If I have learned one thing over the years it is the best way to have a productive staff is to listen to what they have to say and take that into account when I make decisions in the work place. That was a very well written article and a nice late night read.

  18. Lindsay Adler

    Dr. Friend,

    I am a freshman at my local community college and graduated from a very large high school in my hometown. Most of my high school classes had more students in them than the classes I take at my community college now. As a student, I know that when a discussion is going on in my class I can tell if it is successful or not. As a student I also know that I have an opinion on most things going on in the class discussion and would like to verbalize my opinions more often than not. Many teachers/professors I have had and currently have, do not give most students a chance to share their thoughts. They go around the class and sporadically pick students to share a little bit of what’s going on in their brain. The teachers then say, “Moving on!” and change the subject of discussion. I feel that this method is counterproductive. It’s not even a discussion at this point, it’s an ask and answer with the teacher and a couple of select students. I completely agree with you on your thoughts about a teacher trying to control a classroom discussion. Like you said, when that happens it’s not even a discussion and the teachers think they are doing a great service to their students by letting them “talk” some things out. A true classroom discussion would involve all students and the professor/teacher and the discussion should go wherever the class takes it, not dictated by the professor/teacher.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on classroom discussions, it’s very comforting to know that a professor feels the same way about an important topic as a student does.

    Lindsay Adler

  19. Rebekah Hernandez

    I really liked this article for many reasons but before I go into them I would like to say thank you Mr. Friend for your honesty with this community and with yourself. Letting go of “control” is a difficult task. I was recently showed how much I was trying to “control” my life in many different ways and how much I was mentally and emotionally draining myself at the same time. It is a process, one that is still not complete yet but I allow myself some grace and remind myself that I am a human that is allowed to make mistakes.

    I also like the fact that you have allowed your students to take control of the classroom by discussions, while many have touched on this subject that a lot of their professors don’t allow any discussions and just lecture the whole time hurts the class more than helps. Being a student myself who loves to learn new things, whether it’s from my peers or my professors, I believe that lectures also play an important role in the classroom.

    Coming back to school after taking a break I have noticed something very similar to my other educational experiences, many students are looking for someone to hand them the answers. Believing that if they sit in silence long enough that they will get thrown a bone or that the discussion will end. Mr. Friend you made a very good point in a comment above about the playground where the parents sit off to the side and let their kids figure out how to get up to the slide or their friends above. What I believe is a point that needs to be added to that is say you as the “parent” are watching your “child/children” playing and you notice them trying to get somewhere high and along comes another parent and lifts your child up to where they wanted to go. That parent just cheated your “child” out of a learning experience and just possibly taught them to just find an adult to lift them up whenever they run into a problem. So relating it back to the classroom, all too often I have seen teachers cheat students out of learning experiences because they are controlling the classroom or take pity thinking that that particular student “will never get it” or whatever other judgement passes through a teachers mind. It’s really a tough position regardless of where you personally stand. Every teacher has a different strategy that works for them but is a struggle for another.

    In a basic sum of what I like of class discussions is seeing the diversity in thinking and the fact that students who think alike and would never have talked to each other before have now been given an opportunity to develop a friendship or at least an ally for a time. Either way I believe that it’s important to learn from everyone despite the fact of title; peer, student, teacher, friend, etc. We all have something worth listening to.

    1. Rebekah –

      Thank you for contributing your comments to this discussion. One point you made struck me as both insightful and relevant to something I watched happen in one of my classes today. I was trying to get a remarkably reticent class to discuss possible assignments we could do during this semester. What I see as a terrific opportunity—set your own assignments—to this class seems a useless distraction. You remarked that students often believe that “if they sit in silence long enough that they will get thrown a bone or that the discussion will end.” One of my students commented in frustration that we’ve spent so much time in class this semester discussing what we want to do that we could have already produced an essay by now, if only I would have just told them what to do.

      Our entire education system is built around that fundamental fallacy: that others should be able to tell a person what to learn, do, or think at every step of the education process. The efforts I’m putting in this semester to try and allow my students a degree of freedom they’ve not experienced before have met with more resistance than I would have believed. The majority of students in this particular class I’m thinking of hold the very belief you identified: They sit and wait for someone else to determine what they will do, how they should do it, or what, to them, should be the answer.

      Much as I love the encouraging reactions this article has provoked, I think this is one small piece of a much, much larger issue—one that produces the very students you and I are discussing: those who, when given a chance to use their own voice, opt not to.

      1. Mr. Friend:

        One of the techniques I use when students are reticent to talk is to remind them that I meditate. Although I admit that I don’t do it as often as I should, I assure them that I have no doubt that I can out sit them; that silence does not bother me. Then I sit in silence.

        Another technique is to walk out of the room. I have found that students are sometimes more open to discussing something–such as when I ask them to set their own assignment–when I am not present. I tell them what they need to figure out and inform them that I will return in x amount of time. If they need me, they can find me in my office.

        A final technique I use is to ensure students that I will not allow them to make a decision that sets them up for failure; that if they head in a wrong direction that I will intervene.

        Students frequently find my classes to be extremely difficult and frustrating because they have learned to hold out for the correct answer and rarely can they get the “correct” answer from me because I want them to go through a process.

      2. Rebekah Hernandez

        Dr. Friend,

        I apologize for such a late reply. I completely agree with you on your last comment “those who, when given a chance to use their own voice, opt not to.” It is a sad realization understanding this but also acknowledging the fact that it is a bigger issue than most people seem to believe it to be. It starts out in the students home environment and can get worse or better through time. There are most likely many different factors as to how each student got to this point; did they get told they talked too much when they were younger, feel like nobody wants to listen to them, were they bullied, did someone crush their dreams or tell them they would never amount to much? The list of questions seems endless but the fact is something isn’t right about it all. I do know for a fact though that sometimes it takes just one person to be caring enough to make an impact in someone else’s life enough that they want to change their own. I have had that experience myself, I honestly could not tell you the dream job that I have in mind but I do know that it has to do with people. Since I have moved from Texas to Michigan and enrolled into school I have had so many staff members help me feel so welcomed that I could not dream of being anywhere else right now. I look forward to growing and seeing what direction this new experience will give me. I really appreciate you responding to my original comment. I went up to my professor afterwards and I told him how excited I was that I was responded to. Your response showed me that I do have something worth saying and that I do have a voice.

        Thank You,
        -Rebekah Hernandez

  20. Jimmy Crandall

    This was a wonderful read, Dr. Friend.

    One thing that stuck out most to me was your view on lesson plans. Going through twelve years of public school shows that many students also dislike the planned learning process (with some teachers following more strict guidelines than others) that continues day to day through out the entirety of a course. In some ways, it can be unfair to the students or the teacher. If a great majority of the class understands the material very well, the teacher is wasting their energy spending more time than they have to on it, only because they designated that time while planning the class. It was always nice to get a teacher who adapted their class and speed with the abilities and understandings of the students.

    This goes to show that to be a grade-a instructor, not only must he or she know the content they are preaching, but he or she must also be able to effectively communicate with their students. That being said, your Google Drive class notes system sounds like an ingenious tool. It gives students a chance to talk to you and their peers,and it shows them that you have the respect for them to communicate with them and keep them updated. Forming a relationship with a class instructor as a student is one of the best feelings in a learning environment; you creating the opportunity for this to happen shows that it must be a pleasure to have you as a professor.

  21. Storm Bailey

    Often a lecture-in-disguise is just what I’m aiming for–hopefully a format in which people see that what others have learned and said about this matter connect directly to the questions that occur to them (and others) as they begin to think about it. And even in those discussions–or “discussions”–things can head off in a whole ‘nother direction, which is just fine. I do use, as mentioned above, short papers or beginning-of-class writing to make sure people have some ideas and questions of their own when things start flying.

    And I really appreciate your experience with multiple sections of the “same” course. I don’t like to do it, for the reasons you cite–would usually rather teach different courses with more preps. Thanks for an interesting discussion.

  22. Michael Pietron

    Dr. Friend,

    This reading is precise in determining a more efficient approach to classroom discussion. Being able to integrate the student’s thoughts into lessons as opposed to a traditional lecture focused on a specific point of view is a good way to get a better understanding of what is going through the minds of those attending. I have noticed that the students in a college setting tend to have more room to provide opinions in contrast to high school, which seemed to be more focused on a direct lesson given. That being said it is only necessary for the students willingly signing up for these teachers and classes to be able to freely express their thoughts and ideas in the classroom, allowing themselves and others to engage in a more effective conversation.

  23. Kiesance Wade

    I appreciate this article. Reading it, reminded me of one of my favorite teachers this semester. I am a student who once was too shy to raise my hand and sometimes I zoned out during lectures. I enjoy class discussions, especially when they are genuine and spontaneous. Discussion is better than a lecture because one is “give and take”, while the other is the student trying to suck up every word the instructor lets out. Discussion is a chance for teachers to see how the student feels about different subjects, as well as their classmates. It can also be a break. Like Maha Bali said “ creates space for students who are more reflective and less comfortable with spontaneous discussion to prepare some of their thoughts.” Hearing my classmates thoughts opens me up to want to say more than I would if only the instructor was speaking. Michael Weiss said “it’s like an ice breaker.” It gives me a chance to think and complete my thoughts, so I can feel comfortable with sharing them. Sometimes we don’t have the words, until two other students have spoken. Or maybe we don’t understand our professor and we need our classmates thoughts to understand better.

  24. […] This essay, by Chris Friend, about stepping back and allowing students real space in class discussion, has been floating around my Facebook feed for a bit, but I didn’t check it out until I saw it tweeted and retweeted several times by @HybridPed. It turns out it was published digitally by Hybrid Pedagogy and, although it only deals with digital technology peripherally, there is important work done within that bumps up against DH issues of access and collaboration in productive ways. […]

  25. Faculty Email V | Dylan Kissane

    […] One of the challenges of teaching at CEFAM where student and group discussion sessions can form a large part of a particular class is keeping the discussion on track without dominating the discourse. Reflecting on this challenge, Hybrid Pedagogy has a nice post on letting the discussion go: […]

  26. Olushakin Cole

    This was a great article! The author “Chris Friend” actually got into my head. He knows what students are thinking and how they would feel about classes. From my personal experience students learn better because they are more engaged. I remembered how I have interesting teachers who engaged the class into class discusses successfully. I also remember how I had really bad teachers that didn’t engage students in class discusses. if all teacher had this same mentality their student will have better grades or at least better test scores.

  27. […] than empower them? Do they have room to try (and maybe even fail) to accomplish the course goals? In this thoughtful essay, Chris Friend explores what it means to “let go,” listen to our students, and let them wander rather than channel them into specific places. […]

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