March 4th, 2016

When Students Lead the Discussion


student-led discussion

A few years ago, my colleague Brenda Whitney spoke at a workshop about how class discussion can take on many different forms, each with its own style and descriptive moniker. Paraphrasing and borrowing language from her handout, with a few revisions of my own, these discussion styles include:

  • The Tennis Match – teacher and student lob questions and responses back and forth, with the rest of the class as spectators.
  • The Whirlpool – participants circle around a subject, moving slowly toward a deeper penetration of it.
  • The Eclectic Beaded Necklace – students contribute independently, sequentially, without much interconnection.
  • The Tour Bus – travels from destination to destination, with passengers trusting the tour guide to explain each point of interest.
  • Urban Sprawl – a discussion that begins with a tight center but soon spreads unchecked to uncharted and unpredictable locations.
  • The Life Raft – everyone is drowning in either a difficult text or in difficult questions, so that when one answer is offered up, the class grabs on for dear life and won’t let go of that idea for fear of getting swept to sea.

A teacher at the seminar, Sam Hamilton, added another one: the Wild West Train, where the conductor must get his precious cargo to the train station, despite efforts by bandits to derail and rob the train.

And if I might add one to the list, I’ve noticed that this quarter my class has become a Spoked Wheel: each student is a spoke, each spoke never touches the others, and my job as the hub is to connect the spokes. This is my doing, an effort to move away from the Eclectic Beaded Necklace (which I easily fall into) toward a conversation where each contribution connects to the others. But I now want to find an alternative to the Spoked Wheel, a way for students to talk to each other, to not rely on me to hold together our conversations. I’d rather the class discussion be a Construction Crew Without a Foreman, that is, a crew that works toward a goal, together building something that each member could not have built individually—but they do this on their own, without oversight.

We had just read Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” I asked the students to circle up, get out the Anzaldúa essay, and then to do a bit of writing. First, they had to go to a passage they found provocative and write a paragraph about what draws them to that specific part of the essay. Second, they had to write three discussion questions based on the passage and their response to it. After 10 minutes of writing, I told the class we had 15 passages with 15 responses and 45 possible discussion questions. That’s a lot of material. So, I said I would not be talking for the next 10 minutes. I explained that the class would run the discussion, and I would grab my notebook and pencil, take a seat in the circle, and listen. Which is exactly what I did.

The students looked at each other and back at me. Narelle was the first to speak. “What do you think Anzaldúa means by copping out?” The class was confused. They did not have a context for Narelle’s question, a passage to work with, or a sense of what prompted the question. Narelle picked up on this. She elaborated, mentioning the part of the essay that provoked her question and explaining why she thinks the question matters. Still, the class needed more. “What page are you on?” Molly asked. Narelle responded. Gabrielle asked, “Can you read us the passage?”

This—two minutes into my silent period—was the pivotal moment in the discussion. The class began to do the work I normally do, setting up the context for a discussion question, pointing us toward the text and reading from it. Zaq offered an answer to Narelle, a response Jillian then paraphrased: “So, you’re saying that …” Ten minutes into the discussion (the point I had said I would start speaking) I was hearing phrases like “To go back to your question …” and “Going back to what Max said, that connects to what Narelle asked.” The students were synthesizing their comments. When Laura said, “I agree, because when I lived in Italy…,” she was making a “yes, and …” move, placing her own story against and among the comments from her classmates and then building upon what they’d said. Even though I had follow-up questions to ask, even though I wanted to comment on—and correct—a few things they’d said, even though I wanted to press against how they were reading Anzaldúa, I stayed silent. It would have been foolish to interrupt.

Remaining silent
Twenty minutes in, Ella voiced resistance to Anzaldúa: “I have a problem with this essay. It makes me mad.” Max elaborated: “The part that bothered me was” and here, he went to the text, reading aloud for his classmates. They’d moved from questions clarifying Anzaldúa’s claims to synthesis to now, late in the conversation, their responses to the essay. This surprised me. I expected them to begin with their responses and take their time getting into the argument itself. They did the inverse, making their way through Anzaldúa’s essay while incorporating comments from across the classroom, reading aloud from the text, paying close attention to the way Anzaldúa’s words fall on the page, the conversation building to Ethiopia’s question, a question I was going to ask had I led the discussion: “If you have multiple languages, how do you know what you really are?”

I’ve tried not speaking in class once before, about five years ago, and it failed miserably. Perhaps it worked this time because I tried it midway through the term, once the students knew each other and each other’s names, once the students had established a classroom rapport. Perhaps it worked this time because the students wrote in preparation for the discussion. Perhaps it worked this time because they all had something to say in response to Anzaldúa. Perhaps it worked this time because I’d been more deliberate since the first day of class to splice together their comments during class discussion, modeling the synthesis I’d hoped they would eventually do on their own.

But questions linger. That the students talked so well on their own, that they did not need me to salvage the discussion, that I was not the hub holding together the conversation, has me wondering when I should speak in class and when I should remain silent. I think about how often I could attempt the teacher-less discussion and what pedagogical purpose it might serve at various points in the course. I think, too, about what teacher-less teaching might look like in other contexts—a teacher-less essay assignment, a teacher-less reading list, a teacher-less syllabus—and what preparation would need to happen to make these teacher-less efforts both pedagogically sound and productive. And I think most about the teacher-student relationship, about how much of a presence I should have in my students’ learning, and at what point (and how) I should step back, giving them space to work, to read and write, to stumble and fail and succeed on their own. My silence that afternoon leaves me uncertain what teaching looks like—which is a good place for a teacher to be.

Peter Wayne Moe is an assistant professor of English and the director of the Writing Program at Seattle Pacific University.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2012. 4th ed. 75-86. Print.

Whitney, Brenda. “Types of Discussion.” Teaching Workshop by the Committee for the Evaluation and Advancement of Teaching. The University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA. Sept. 19, 2013.

  • Thanks for sharing this insightful information Peter. When I first implemented student-led discussions, I, too, often found myself asking "am I really needed in this discussion?" because students would frequently be engaged in deep conversations about a given topic. Over time…………the answer was "yes…more so than in instructor-led discussions." What was a curve ball for me initially was that my role was becoming more of a facilitator rather than the sole source of information. It took me time and experience to realize this first hand in face-to-face and fully online learning environments, but this is what really contributed to my initial reaction and questioning myself. When I interact with faculty, I see this same dilemma, but its primarily because our role (quite different from what we have been used to) changes and we don't know how to react at the beginning and we end up reverting back to what we are comfortable with. Thanks for this thought-provoking discussion.

  • Peter

    Thanks for your response, drsolis. I agree that a student-led discussion is unnerving, not only because it calls into question the role of the teacher in the classroom, but also because it positions students differently as learners. When the teacher leads the discussion, the student can easily become passive, relying on the teacher to do all the work. In a student-led discussion, the students have to create knowledge themselves rather than be a receptacle for it. That's unnerving, for me, because of the fear that they might get it wrong. But I think that's okay. I think misreading can be a means toward a greater understanding of the issues at hand, since the students try out ideas, see they don't work, and revise accordingly. All good things.

  • Howard A. Doughty

    With regard to the metaphor of the Eclectic Beaded Necklace, the individual bits of information which students contribute are precisely lacking what is needed to make a "necklace" at all.

    Surely it is the task of the professor to supply (where the students fail to do so) the string (theory) upon which the specific pearls (of wisdom?) can be applied. By giving. The information and opinions which students "contribute independently, sequentially, without much interconnection" cry out for a larger context which (I would like to hope) the professor can provide, thus transforming seemingly random or at least disorganized notions into a coherent and communicable narrative, description, analysis and/or assessment.

    The resulting "necklace" might not be a thing of beauty, but it might be something with the virtue of utility … and that would help a little bit.

  • howarddoughty

    With regard to the metaphor of the Eclectic Beaded Necklace, the individual bits of information which students are apt to contribute may be "pearls of wisdom" or at least interesting factoids, but these same students most often lack precisely what is needed to make a "necklace" at all … namely a logical string to permit the assembly of a serviceable necklace and not just a number of random beads scattered on a table and likely to roll off and be lost in a dark corner, never to be found again.

    When students are incapable or unwilling to try to bring their inchoate ideas into some approximation of form, it is surely the task of the teacher to hold the string gently, but firmly, so that the students can apply their respective observations (facts) to the string (theory) and emerge with a workable decoration. Of course, it is then necessary to tug a bit on the string to see whether the constructed argument can withstand the tests of logic or empirical verification.

    • Peter

      Thanks for your response, Howard. I'd agree that there are certainly times when someone needs to supply the string that holds together the beads of the necklace. Most often, the teacher does this work. But I think there's value in the students learning to string together a discussion. Doing so requires them to listen at a deeper level as they synthesize the on-going conversation with what they want to say. They have to find a way to enter the discussion while not derailing that discussion. I think there's a level of critical thinking there that's absent when the teacher does all the work. How great would it be if a student was the one who would "tug a bit on the string to see whether the constructed argument can withstand the tests of logic"?