Learning is a social process and is embedded in social relationships because people are embedded in social relationships. From birth, and throughout our lives, we learn in the context of social relationships. One of my favorite quotes is from the late child psychologist Donald Winnicott who said: “There is no such thing as a baby. There is a baby and someone.” While in very early infancy most cognitive development occurs via deeply rooted natural processes, it is not long before our brains grow and refine themselves through our social interactions and cultural experiences.
This type of learning, called experience-dependent learning, is designed to be picked up by the brain over the course of our lives in the various social contexts we inhabit. It is this experience-dependent learning, molded by our own social interactions, that makes us each unique intellectual beings. Learning over the course of our lives is mediated by interaction and engagement with others. Therefore, when I think about student learning at the college level I find myself thinking: There is no student. There is a student and someone.
Most of us have the intuitive sense that important learning takes place through our interaction and communication with others. Often, when I ask faculty what changes they want to make in their classes, the first thing they say is something along the lines of: “I just want to get students talking more.” Is it any wonder then that outside of lecturing, class discussion is perhaps the most commonly used pedagogical tool in college classrooms today. But as many of us know from experience, effective and meaningful discussions don’t just happen. They need to be created.
Creating good discussions by building and supporting social interaction is valuable in many ways. Through good discussion students are able to collaboratively produce knowledge as they engage in dialogue and problem-solve. Complex and critical thinking are facilitated in discussions when our students are encouraged to think about a topic in new ways that may support, challenge, or modify their existing ways of thinking. Learning in discussions can be multi-directional as students and faculty collectively contribute the conversation. And, discussion helps student build fluency with the course material through low-stakes practice.
While it is true that we learn something from all social interactions, in classroom discussions we are looking to assist the learning process by creating certain kinds of social interactions.
Setting the Context for Meaningful Discussion
The ways in which we bring people together for social interaction are critically important to the ways in which social interaction will progress. Students are not only developing intellectually, but socially and emotionally. If we want students to be comfortable, excited, and ready to engage with other students in ways that will facilitate learning then we need to set up a social environment that recognizes the ways in which their social and emotional development intersects with their intellectual development. Discussions are appealing to teachers because they offer spaces in which students can take low- stake intellectual risks. Yet, discussions do not usually feel low-stakes for students in terms of their social and emotional risks. Therefore we want to create a safe environment for students to realize, challenge, revise, and even reject their own understandings, ideas, and beliefs. Some ways to achieve this are:
- Collectively establish behavioral expectations for the discussions through a set of class norms and hold students accountable to those norms. Norms are the cultural fabric of social interaction because they tell us how to interact with others. Prior to coming to college students have likely spent most of their time in classrooms interacting with peers and teachers according to a rigid set of norms. This is easy to see the first day of class when students file in, sit down, take out a pen and notebook and look to the oldest person in the room to fill their head with knowledge. Asking students to engage in discussion with each other is asking them to operate according to a new set of norms. Take time to recognize that your class is asking them to learn and utilize a new set of norms and invite them to collectively establish and agree on these norms.
- Create an inclusive class environment. We learn a great deal from others who are different from ourselves. As demonstrated by Lev Vgotsky’s research on child development, discussed on our blog a few weeks back, learning is mediated by collaboration with others, especially those with more or different knowledge than the learner. Discussions are a great way to expose students to people, beliefs, and ideas that different than their own. However, we need to build an inclusive class climate to encourage participation among all students. Research on marginalized social groups suggests that we should think about class climate along a continuum from marginalizing to centralizing. One on end we have class climates that are explicitly marginalizing with overtly hostile and discriminatory environments. While these climates are less common today (but not unheard of), well intentioned teachers and students may create an implicitly marginalizing environment where people are excluded in subtle and indirect ways such as through microaggressions or by failing to recognize that some students may be affected by stereotype threat. Moving along the continuum we can support centralizing environments implicitly by validating alternative perspectives and experiences and explicitly by intentionally integrating alternative and marginalized perspectives into the content.
- Bring food! Or better yet, ask your students to bring food to class. ‘Breaking bread’ together is one of the foundations of social life. There is something inherently social about eating together. If it is logistically and financially possible, allowing a few snacks to fuel class discussion creates a more communal environment.
Facilitating Good Discussion
The goal of getting students engaged in conversation is not simply about getting them to talk to each other. There are many ways to ensure that discussions are well managed such as setting goals for discussion, starting and ending discussions well, and using various formats for discussion. But we also need to play close attention to the ways in which we encourage students to talk to each other in productive and meaningful ways that enhance their learning. The following are some tips for managing social engagement and interaction:
- Pay attention to who talks. Students are hesitant to participate in discussion for a myriad of reasons – they are unprepared, intimidated, shy, or they don’t feel included. When students are hesitant to participate generally a few students emerge to fill the void creating what the sociologist Jay Howard calls the “consolidation of responsibility.” As I discussed above, it is important to create a class climate that is inclusive. If you see a pattern, such as female students not participating, reassess how inclusive your class climate is. However, not all students are hesitant to participate. In fact, some students won’t allow others to get a word in. I always suggest talking to students individually if they are disruptive or repeatedly off-topic. However, there are ways to effectively manage discussion that precludes overly talkative students from dominating discussion. For example, a colleague of mine managed discussion in her class by giving each student two index cards with their name on it. When a student spoke during discussion (and their contribution was meaningful) they had turn one of their cards into the instructor. When all their cards were gone, they could no longer speak. This also allowed her to keep track of participation.
- Get students talking to each other outside of class to build community. One way I approach this, that is also useful for including shy students in the discussion, is to set up a class Facebook group where students can contribute questions, responses, links and videos. Using a Facebook group outside of class builds community among students in several ways. Students are able to share information and engage in conversation about class content in a format that, by its very nature, is more social. Since majority of students are on Facebook many times throughout the day, often using their mobile phones, it also embeds the class community in their daily lives. Students are able to have ongoing discussions any time of the day and these discussions have a lifespan beyond class time. Having students think about and submit responses ahead of time prepares them for class discussion and allows the teacher to include shy students more easily by building off of their pre-class contributions.
- Make it relevant and current. One way to facilitate student engagement with class discussion is to make the material relevant to them and their lives. Not sure what is important to students? Ask them. You will find that many students are taking your class for similar reasons and interests. Showing students where their interests overlap is a great way to find the common ground upon which social connections can be built. This common ground provides the basis by which students with a diversity of backgrounds can find enough overlap to initiate communication - the key to Vgotsky’s concept of ‘zones of proximal development.’ Another excellent way to build a common basis is with current events. Connecting course content to current events through discussion is a way to make it relevant as well as helping students better understand and analyze current events.
It’s clear that there are a lot factors to consider when planning discussions to maximize the learning gained from quality social interaction. It is my hope that the ideas above spark some new ways for you to think about using discussions in your class. My goal with this post was not only to introduce you to effective ways to initiate and facilitate discussion, but to leave you with the knowledge that the learner is both shaped by and shapes the social environment around them.