In the past, when teams of students analyzed class data and made proposals to our shared model (we’re co-creating an inquiry-based emergent curriculum), I had the teams present to the class. Results varied widely. Sometimes it was hard for them to field questions from their classmates. Sometimes it was hard for them to present their ideas clearly. Sometimes people in the class would get upset and be convinced that the presented ideas were “wrong”, even though there was solid evidence behind the proposal, and then the presenting students would have to field the anger, panic, and terror that I find taxing on a good day. Or the presenting students might be the ones to get defensive and angry at the class for not agreeing with them, or having different kinds of background knowledge. And sometimes we had wonderful conversations, the presenters practiced restating others’ oppositions to make sure they felt heard, the “audience” practice contributing generative questions, and the whole thing glistened in the sun.
But it was a crap shoot. Because we use consensus to make decisions about whether to accept ideas into our shared model, it put the presenting students in the position of having to do something technical, difficult, and which I hadn’t given them much support to learn: facilitating for consensus. And when it went badly, it could drag on, be demoralizing for all of us, and make it difficult for me to intervene constructively.
This year, I have a new experiment. Once all the groups are finished whiteboarding, I rearrange them into new groups — each containing at least one representative from the original groups.
The new groups travel to all the whiteboard in turn, reading and discussing, with the original representative available to help them understand what the group was thinking. They don’t have to make any decisions; just understand the point. Everyone takes a marker with them, and if there are questions they can’t resolve, they add them to the board.
When everyone has seen every board, I invite one group to join me. I present their results quickly, more like a think-aloud than a presentation, because everyone’s already seen the data. This means that the presentation is succinct and carefully adjusted to the knowledge that the group shares. The team of experts jump in as they see fit, to clarify, correct me, add on, point out interesting patterns in the data, etc. The non-presenting students can ask questions, contribute ideas, etc. I can quickly park questions if it seems like the student is going into topics that others won’t have the background knowledge to pursue, or just exerting dominance (oh, that’s such an interesting question! I don’t think we have enough background information that we share to dig into that right now, but would you like to pursue that as a project later?). And I can do the conflict mediation myself without it becoming an awkward intervention from the floor where it’s unclear who has what power/responsibility.
So far, this is going well. No matter what I do, it’s always a compromise between fulfilling my responsibility to teach well, and getting out of their way so they can have control over what and how they learn. But this doesn’t seem like a worse compromise than before, and maybe it’s better. The small-group “speed dating” approach means that everyone gets more time to talk and ask questions at each board, than in a whole-class discussion. I’m not even sure it’s slower — the small-group turns at the board go pretty quickly because the groups are small, and the whole class discussion goes quickly because I’m able to moderate more efficiently than most students. I think, on balance, it is increasing their skill at discussing ideas, while also increasing their trust that I won’t leave them at the mercy of a drawn-out discussion that loses its way.
If you have thoughts about this practice’s pros and cons, or other suggestions, please leave them in the comments!