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Rickford discusses how to teach through discussions

Of a good leader, when his task is finished, his goal achieved, they say, "We did this ourselves."

-- Lao-tse, sixth century B.C. Chinese philosopher

With a vertical sweep of his arm, John Rickford sliced the room in half, asking people on both sides to form in "buzz groups" of two or three. Those on the window side were to discuss the characteristics of a good discussion while those on the hall side discussed the pros and cons of discussions over lectures as a teaching method.

Rickford's demonstration one day last month was part of the Teachers on Teaching series of the Center for Teaching and Learning. The professor of linguistics, who has won several teaching awards, busied himself reviewing notecard comments that class members had handed in. Then he reconvened the class as one large group and asked for reports on the buzz group conversations. Armed with his own list of the points he wanted to make, he checked off those that others covered. As a back-up, he had paper hand-outs so students could later review the points he had made or would have made, had not someone else beat him to the punch.

"Discussion leading is a complicated skill because you are doing many things at once," Rickford said, including watching for the body language of people who might have something important to say but who are too shy to speak up.

Leading discussions also requires confidence, he said. "We tend to be afraid of giving free reign because it usurps our role as teacher, and we don't want to be accused of not teaching."

Rickford's own confidence as a discussion leader began with a week-long workshop at the University of Guyana in 1974 offered by the University of London's Teaching Methods Unit, he said. Among other things, the workshop offered mentors of teachers a checklist for observing discussions, so they could make very specific suggestions on how to improve them.

Set up primarily for lectures on teaching, the Stanford Teachers on Teaching series format hampered Rickford's demonstration somewhat. The classroom, for example, was outfitted with a large table that could bring 20 people elbow to elbow, but about four dozen had shown up for this class. The result: Some people had to sit looking at the backs of others, a no-no for discussions.

His method was also constrained by technology ­ a video camera focused at the head of the table to capture his "lecture" meant Rickford could not move around. Having confronted such physical obstacles before, he came armed with bold felt-tipped markers and colored paper so that people could at least make "tent" name tags that could be read across the room.

The chief advantage of class discussions, many of the buzz groups told him, was that they often involved students more deeply in learning. The biggest disadvantage, some said, was coverage. Discussions often take on a momentum of their own, and it's difficult for a teacher to cover the required material in a 10-week quarter, said several members of the class, which was primarily composed of teachers, especially graduate students and lecturers who teach discussion sections of large lecture classes.

"When points arise out of a group discussion, they tend to be more deeply felt and more clearly understood," Rickford agreed. Studies also show that retention is somewhat greater than with the lecture method, he said, but he added that "I frequently have to remind people to take notes. Otherwise they treat discussions like they treat a movie."

Coverage can be improved, Rickford suggested, if the discussion leader comes armed with a set of objectives for the discussion and with lead-off questions planned accordingly. Discussions accomplish more if they are steered toward "higher-order" questions. Ask "why/what/how" questions rather than "yes/no" questions, he said, and especially ask people to compare objects of analysis, such as one theory to another.

Problems with discussions were listed and alternative solutions discussed. They ranged from how to handle the student who talks too much (Rickford suggested making him or her the note-taker) to how to get a discussion going when students seem shy or unprepared (make the discussion topic the subject of a writing assignment first; watch the body language of shy students for signals that they have something to say). To cool down heated discussions with strongly opinionated students, Rickford said he sometimes asks students to role-play someone for the opposite point of view. Conversely, to fire students up, he sometimes makes a "strong, outrageous statement." Ordinarily, though, he recommends against stating an opinion too rigidly because it discourages discussion.

Discussion leaders should also "avoid the temptation to reject or correct a student's contribution" because that also inhibits debate. Instead invite the student to elaborate or reconsider or ask for others' opinions with a question such as "What does anyone else think about that?"

Glance around the group while a student is speaking, he suggested, because it reduces anxiety for the speaker and encourages students to talk to each other, rather than to the teacher. Avoid "fishing expedition" questions that steer students to specific answers, he said, and learn to wait for answers. "I know it gets awkward, but if you always fill the silences, you will never get answers."

Psychology Professor Russell Fernald, who was a student for this class discussion, agreed. "Students read you very deeply. If you are worried about how the discussion will go, they pick that up," he said. Teaching a course in the new science core curriculum, Fernald said, he found he was so worried about the discussions that the students worried too. He finally busied himself sorting transparencies, he said, which sent the message that he was not about to bail them out.

Besides buzz groups, Rickford listed other formats for discussions including syndicates, in which groups of students work both within and outside of class on a common project over several weeks with intermittent teacher contact. They may present a joint final report or submit a written one.

For his socio-linguistics class, Rickford uses a technique known as the fishbowl. A subset of the class sits in an inner circle holding a discussion while an outer circle is assigned to observe and make notes on the interaction for a general discussion that follows. This proved an excellent way to demonstrate, for example, the role that gender plays in interaction styles, he said.

Rickford also suggested "cross-over" or "square root" groups ­ like buzz groups except that the group size is the square root of the number of students in the class. At prearranged times, one member from each group transfers to another group in a prescribed fashion. Crossing over requires new and old members of groups to brief each other on the thinking of their former group. It encourages a more rapid exchange of ideas, Rickford said, and helps students to get to know more people.


By Kathleen O'Toole

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