Improvising Great Classroom Discussion | Faculty Focus

This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on May 18, 2017. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved. 

I was watching a video of several of my students teaching this week. I had to be away for a conference, and they were scheduled to teach that day anyway, so I asked our Center for Teaching Excellence to record it. I would evaluate them later. Although most of the students in the class are planning to be English teachers, it’s not an education class. For that reason, I planned to pay closer attention to the content and preparation than to their actual pedagogy.

However, as I watched the video, I kept noticing places where discussion would be on the verge of beginning, only to see it die almost immediately. The students were prepared, and they were often asking the types of questions we want them to ask. Why did the discussion keep faltering? I had to start looking at their pedagogy.

What I discovered was that they didn’t know how to build on each other’s comments. A student would make a statement that could easily lead to a larger discussion, but no one responded, as if there was nothing else they could say about the comment. The student leading the discussion would then move on to some other topic. When I realized what was happening, I remembered the “Yes, and . . . ” idea from improvisational comedy.

The “Yes, and . . . ” idea has been rather popular of late, stemming from a rising interest in improvisational comedy; Don’t Think Twice, a movie about an improv group; and a variety of comedians and business leaders speaking and writing about the idea. For those not familiar with the “Yes, and . . .” idea, it’s almost exactly what it sounds like. In improv, the actors are supposed to accept whatever premise another actor begins with; they say “yes” to the setup. And then they try to build on the situation or line of dialogue, the equivalent of saying “and . . . ”

Although it sounds as if we do these actions quite naturally when leading discussion, watching my students forced me to realize how poorly we teachers adopt this stance in our classrooms. Perhaps my students were faltering because they’re not seeing teachers building on student comments.

Asking teacher questions. When we lead discussion, if we’re honest, we often don’t really want discussion. Instead, we want to guide students to an answer that we have thought out beforehand. When I talk with students about this problem, I jokingly refer to it as asking teacher questions. The question we ask sounds open-ended, but it really has only one answer, and that’s the answer we need to move the “discussion” to where we want it to go. Thus, I might ask a class, “What word best describes the underground man in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground?” There are countless words students could suggest, but I want someone to say “hyperconscious” because that’s the discussion I want to have about the character. But instead of telling students what we want, we ask for examples and then ignore what they suggest in favor of our response. We end up pretending we’re including them in the discussion when we really aren’t.

The better approach is to ask the broad question and then follow wherever the student response leads. Perhaps one responds with “spiteful.” To further discussion, I can say “Yes, and . . . ” to that comment and see what else that student or others might say. Instead, many of us graciously say “yes,” rewarding the student for the comment, but then immediately go back to what we really want to talk about, not where the student’s answer has taken us.

Asking follow-up questions. Discussion doesn’t falter if we ask follow-up questions that build on the students’ responses. In the class I was watching, a student made a comment about gender as performance, giving the example of how boys and girls carry their books in high school. The class wondered whether that behavior was learned or taught. To encourage further discussion, a teacher could ask a number of follow-up questions: Did you ever see any exceptions to that behavior? How was this behavior reinforced? Are there other examples anyone can think of? The teacher could bring the discussion back to the novel and apply the idea there: Where does the main character exhibit such behavior? Are there characters in the book who push back against such an idea? The teacher could also have tried to encourage the students to bring in knowledge from the field or connect such a comment to previous material: How does that example relate to the reading we did about gender and performance?

My students didn’t make these pedagogical moves, and as a result, they missed an opportunity for rich discussion. When we teachers focus on our own endpoints, we often miss the same opportunities. We disguise a lecture as a discussion, using the students as little more than prompts to guide us to the next idea. If we are willing to say “Yes, and . . . ,” we can give students and ourselves the chance for meaningful discussions, ones where we learn from one another and end up with different but interesting ideas and insights.

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