Jump Starting Discussions in the Classroom

<em>by Ken Sharpe, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science</em>

Ken Sharpe

Lisa asked me to talk about strategies I use to jump start discussions. Easy, I thought. I can put together a list of lots of tricks or techniques I use. "The Beginners Guide to Jump Starting Discussions." But then I hesitated. A little alarm went off in my head.

I remember having a conversation like this once with a Swarthmore alum, a student of mine, who had come to talk before he started his first teaching job. Nervous. Wanting to do well. "What do I do? How do I start? What was it that you did to get discussions going in our first class?" Easy I said. Pick a simple question that they will find intriguing to hear others answers and that will tell you something useful about them. Open the first class with the question, but give them a minute to think about it so they can listen to others without worrying about what they are going to say. Then go around the room. Have them introduce themselves too. Voila. Everyone talks. The shy and the courageous alike. AND they've introduced themselves." "Great," he said. "I remember this."

So he calls me a week later. "Ken, it went great. It got everyone to talk. But then things fell apart. I didn't know what to do next...." We talked it through. And that conversation was much deeper. We started by looking more closely at the material. What did he want to come out of the first class. What sorts of things did he want them to learn during the semester? How was discussion a part of that? And, importantly, what did he learn from the first day of class when things fell apart after an energetic start?

The conversation was good for me too. I had to think about how I would answer these questions. We all take for granted that "getting discussion going is good." At a place like Swarthmore its like the gold ring on the carousel of teaching. But what kind of discussion? And more importantly, for what purpose?

I remember once sitting in on the class of a colleague at another liberal arts college. She asked thought provoking questions with ease. The discussion was non stop. Lively. Engaged. I could feel the dynamism. But I was also taking notes (I was in there because I was going to substitute for her in the next class). I was following the direction of the discussion carefully. What points were being made, what material was being covered, what direction were we going? And what I discovered was very disturbing. There were lots of good points being made. A student would ask something, she would respond with a question, another student would chime in. But often the question was not answered. The original point was not engaged. There was little follow up, little development. When a new student jumped in on a slightly different topic, the discussion quickly veered in that direction, and then, with another round of challenging, provocative questions, a slightly different direction. And soon the discussion was something like a random walk. Every once in a while it circled back and crossed paths with something that came earlier. But we flew across the intersection, with nary a yield sign, let alone a stop sign, and sometimes didn't even know that we had doubled back to an important intersection.

This teacher asked insightful, thought-provoking questions. But the questions were unconnected. In fact the conversation was unconnected except in the superficial way that one thing can lead to another. She had a technique, maybe one that could be taught, but the aim of the technique felt like discussion for discussions sake. Simply teaching such a skill could turn someone into a loose cannon.

But so could the opposite. Suppose I used my skill at asking questions to get the students from A to F by moving them through B, C, D, and E. If I were really good, they might actually have fun doing this. And they might never even know that I was getting them from A to E. You might want to call this a "guided discussion." Or you might want to call this manipulation, trickery, sophism.

Lets not judge this too quickly. We all do it at times. Let me just say that whatever benefits there may be from this kind of guided discussion there are important downsides. I may be so focused on getting to F that may miss where the students are starting, and what they need to get to where I am starting. I will not have taught students how to frame problems for themselves. I may have missed what they don't understand. I may have closed myself off from learning from them — they may find some other way to get to F, through X Y and Z for example. Or if I run into problems at C, I may panic (because I have to get to D), and I may miss some great teaching opportunity.

So one thing I've begun to learn through experience is that there is a balance. I don't want the random walk discussion. And I don't want the pre-choreographed discussion. Neither of them is teaching what the students need to learn nor what I need to learn.

In finding the balance here, I am constantly going back and forth between the various goals I have: I want the students to talk not for the sake of talking, but because I want them to engage difficult ideas as a way of learning how frame problems, to think coherently and systematically, and to have the courage to do this. But I also want them to learn certain material too. I've got to get them to F. Especially in an honors seminar (with an outside examiner coming in). So I have to figure out when to let them loose and when to reign them in. I have to figure out how to make my questions have a purpose. And that purpose can't simply be information gathering. It can't simply be "getting discussion going." It can't simply be "guess what I'm thinking."

IF I could capture a formula, an algorithm, for achieving this kind of balance, I'd make it available for free. But there is no formula. No rule.

I've given up looking. What I try to do is reflect on what I'm teaching and try to figure out why it works, and if it doesn't, fix it. Sometimes that reflection is in the middle of teaching-in the middle of a sentence. And sometimes its after I walk out of class when I say: WHAT HAPPENED....WHY DID THAT NOT WORK? Or why did it work?

So when I first started teaching seminars in political theory and in Latin American politics, I followed the routine, the rule, I was taught when I arrived at Swarthmore many decades ago. Two seminar papers each week. Open with a seminar paper. Discussion. Break. Then do it again. But a lot of times it didn't work, for me. Sometimes the papers were so far off topic that it was a wrenching effort to bring us back on topic-but sometimes the off-topic papers were really provocative in their own off-topic way. I didn't want to loose this, but I wanted to at least approach F, even if asymptotically. Then there was the problem of passivity: the paper presenters were ON. But often the other students didn't feel a responsibility for the discussion. I needed to engage them, and find a way to encourage them which was not browbeating them. And then there was the perverse effect of introducing grades into the seminar (a practice we began as a result of student pressure). When the students knew they were getting a grade from us, and not just from the outside examiners, the seminar papers became much less interesting for stimulating discussion. The students brought in polished pieces, with no loose ends (or the loose ends hidden) so there weren't good handles for discussion. Except maybe to tear apart someone's argument.

So I started experimenting. I tried things like assigning one or two students to comment on the seminar paper. This was hard for them to do on the spot, so I tried insisting that copies be distributed before hand. That helped a bit. But their engagement was still a bit passive, it was based around their reaction to an argument framed by others. I wanted the students to start thinking about what was puzzling to them in the readings. I wanted to encourage curiosity. Passion. A sense of inquiry. A sense that they were analysts and would-be scholars and not just readers.

What to do?

I could go through a long history of what I tried. But I don't want to bore you. By now I have abandoned the "seminar paper" as the organizing principle of my seminars. Today's "solution" is to assign three or four think pieces each week and use them to start three or four discussions. Every student writes one of these short think piece every week. They get two or three minutes to start the discussion. Since there are at least three think pieces, we often get three different perspectives. I am not as worried if one fizzles. The students often take off during or after the opening presentations because the dialogue is built in. But the different approaches also give me lots of different handles. So I can figure out where they are, what they are not getting, and can often work with where they are to get them to where they need to be-to guide them through some of the important debates, cover some of the important material, but do it in a way that lets me start with where they are coming from not with where I am coming from. They're active, not passive. They feel a responsibility for the seminar.

But this system left a problem: by itself it does not allow them to get practice doing a finished piece of work. So what I've worked out is this. Every three or four weeks they're required to write a polished "Seminar Paper" which they turn into me for evaluation. They can base this on any of their think pieces, or some combination of their think pieces, or a think piece they wish they wrote but didn't. I require each of them to exchange their think pieces with someone else in the class at the end of the seminar so they get peer comments on it. When they write the polished seminar paper they can draw on their draft, on the discussion in the seminar, and on the peer comments.

Am I recommending this to you? No. I'm more interested in your seeing how I came to it. It's a great discussion starter. But its great because it gets the kind of discussions that I want, given who I am and the particular context of the seminar-the material, the kind of thinking that I need to encourage. Most importantly, I got to this "method" through trial and error. A lot of error. So if you want to figure out how to jump start good discussions, you have to know what you are aiming at in the course, you have to know what you are trying to get at through discussion, and then you have to try stuff and let the students teach you. The students won't always teach you how to do it or what to do, but if you really listen to them, they will always teach you what doesn't work. And you can take it from there.