October 29th, 2009

How to Respond to a Student's Answer


In a chapter on discussion written by a teacher recognized as a master of the discussion technique, C. Roland Christensen walks us through the options a teacher has when figuring out how to respond to a student’s answer. He uses a “decision tree” (developed by systems researchers) to help him sort through the various options.

Christensen says the tree has two main branches, each with several limbs. He can continue the teacher-student interaction, either with that student or another, or he can shift to student-to-student dialogue.

If he opts to continue with the same student, he identifies three main ways to respond to what has been said. He can explore the ideas the student has shared. This might mean clarifying assumptions; it might mean checking the quality of the analysis or testing the reasonableness of the conclusions. Secondly, he can respond by working to extend what the student has said. This might mean trying to add breadth and depth to the comments. It might mean getting the student to relate his or her comments to what has been said previously in the discussion. Finally, the instructor can challenge what the student has said. This might mean citing other, conflicting evidence. It might mean offering an interpretation or asking the student to defend the conclusion.

Opting to shift to student-to-student dialogue can also be directed in several different (and I would add rarely used) ways. One option, according to Christensen, is to simply step back and turn the discussion over to the class. Let them respond to what the student has said. Or, he might repeat the question or ask a related question in the interest of generating a larger pool of possible answers. Finally, sometimes he defers to the class asking for two different views on the primary issues and then a discussion of those.

In another chapter Christensen writes that “finding time to reflect on the discussion as it unfolded in class was … like trying to meditate on a speeding fire engine.” (p. 103) He’s right, but somewhere he has found the time to do the kind of thoughtful reflection about discussion that allows him to dissect what happens in great detail and with careful precision. Reading his description generates respect for the complexity involved in these dynamic interactions.

Reference: Christensen, C. R. “The Discussion Teacher in Action.” In C. R. Christensen, D. A. Garvin, and A. Sweet, eds. Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1991.