I think we sometimes take for granted the skill it takes to take part in good discussion. In a world inundated with technology, distractions, Pokemon Go, odd presidential campaigns, and all of the things that modern society has created to take our attention and divert it to bright screens in the palm of our hands, good discussion can be rare. And while these technologies are not necessarily a negative aspect of our world (except maybe the campaign), they do not always facilitate rich conversation; spirited debates; intellectually stimulating discussion- some of the best defining features of what it means to be human.
Many of the high school students who enter my class obviously know how to talk and communicate, but are not always equipped to exchange ideas, or allow a differing opinion to shape their current beliefs. Every school year, the first times that I try to facilitate good discussion about contentious topics, the discussion usually turns into a debate, and those involved in the class discussion develop a single motive to “win” or convince the other side to share their same belief (It’s like internet-comment boards in real life). The loudest student in the room is heard the most, feelings can sometimes be hurt, and the timid students usually shrink into the corners of the room and add nothing to the conversation. Emotion dominates the time together, and actual discussion does not occur.
I expect this at the beginning of the year, because I know that many of the students in my room do not know how to discuss. They’ve been trained by a digital culture that is all about anonymity and one-way online conversations. Many have also been cultivated by a school culture that values compliance and silence, allowing rare speaking opportunities that only serve to demonstrate correct answers. We are not born with an innate ability to listen to other’s ideas, and consider them as valid if they differ from our own. This is a skill that must be taught.
From the earliest of the years in school sitting in a circle in kindergarten, to lectures halls at a university, I don’t think it is ever too late for students to undergo conversation-training. It starts with practice in listening.
One of my favorite discussion methods in my classroom is called a Samoan Circle. It is a great method for students to learn the skills needed to listen and discuss. This is how it works:
Place 4 chairs in the middle of your classroom, and have the entire class form a circle around them. The class will have a discussion (about whatever topic you’d like), but students can only speak if they are sitting in one of the 4 chairs in the middle. Everyone outside of the chairs must listen. If a student wants to join the discussion, they can tap a student’s shoulder sitting in a chair, and as soon as that student is finished speaking, they must vacate the chair and let in the newcomer. Therefore, the discussion is really not about those sitting in the chairs, but for the entire group involved. The room is silent except for four students in the middle of the circle, and the discussion can move with the rhythm of students revolving in and out.
Every time I do a Samoan Circle, I see students wriggle in their silent impatience to get into one of the chairs and share their thoughts, engaging in the content of the discussion by listening more than talking. Samoan Circles are a great, controlled way for students to start developing excellent discussion skills.
There are many other great practices to facilitate rich discussion, and I would recommend experimenting with as many as you can. Even the quietest and most reserved student can learn the art of conversation, and your intentionality can help them attain these skills that they will use the rest of their lives.