Difficult Discussions, “Hot Moments,” and Contra-Power Harassment

Steve Volk, March 5, 2018

Last week’s CTIE workshop on “Facilitating Discussions” focused in large part on techniques for organizing and promoting effective classroom discussions, in large part thanks to the excellent suggestions provided by workshop participants. The conversation was so rich that we only turned to the theme of “difficult discussions” in the last 20 minutes. To compensate, today’s Article of the Week will focus exclusively on those complicated, “hot moment” challenges that spring up in our classes: how to prepare for them, manage them, and learn from them. I’ve addressed this topic before (here and here), but just as the events that create a need for this conversation continue to manifest in our classes, so it’s always useful to return to the theme.

Why “Difficult Discussion” Are Necessary

“Discussing the War in a Paris Café,” Illustrated London News, 17 Sept 1870

The definition of what is a “difficult discussion” is fairly important in that most of our classroom discussions should be “difficult.” By this I mean two things. The first is tied to the work of the psychologist Lev Vygotsky who argued that the social engagement arising in a discussion itself is central to the way that children and adolescents learn. Cognitive structures, for Vygotsky, originate in social activity and are “inextricably linked with language, which is itself a social construct. It is through social language” that students learn the cognitive and “communicative tools and skills of their culture.” This also relates to Vygotsky’s notion of the “zone of proximal development.” To put this simply (perhaps simplistically), there are tasks that students can do without any outside help. Activity that remains within that zone will quickly become boring; no learning will occur. Similarly, there are tasks that students are not able to do by themselves at the beginning. Setting up activities in this zone without providing support will guarantee failure and frustration. Optimal learning takes place in a “zone of proximal development” where learners, aided by the social context provided by teachers and peers, push beyond what they already know into new learning. In that sense (and I hope to be forgiven by the psychologists among us who are probably appalled by my presentation), learning occurs when students, scaffolded by the support they receive from teachers and peers, are thrust into the unfamiliar, the difficult. The discussions that provoke learning, then, are almost by definition, “difficult.”

Difficult discussions can be useful in a second way, most recently and poignantly described by Elizabeth Barnes, a philosopher at the University of Virginia, in “Arguments That Harm – And Why We Need Them.” Barnes begins by asking whether some ideas are “so offensive that they shouldn’t be engaged with?” Focusing on Peter Singer’s work on disability (“When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed…”), which she finds “offensive, to say the least,” she concludes that, for a variety of reasons, “it is literally my job to think and talk about difficult ideas. The discomfort and hurt when dealing with views like Singer’s are real. But if I’m unwilling to take on a measure of discomfort, given how much privilege I have and how little I have to lose, then I’m not sure I’m using the privilege of an academic life the way I ought to be.” (I would not be doing justice to the richness of her argument if I didn’t also reference her argument that “there are some ideas that shouldn’t be engaged with.”) Continue reading

Classroom Discussions: From “Civil Attention” to Real Participation

Steve Volk, October 9, 2017

Why Discussions?

From a series of futuristic pictures by Jean-Marc Côté and other artists issued in France in 1899, 1900, 1901 and 1910. Public domain.

Because research over the past 30 years has demonstrated that student learning (from retention to student confidence to higher order thinking) is facilitated by active learning and student engagement. [Chickering and Gamson 1987; Pascarella and Terenzini 1991, 2005; Kuh et al, 2005]

Because the person who is doing the work is the person who is learning.

Because the participating classroom is a place where students learn citizenship skills, including how to articulate their positions, how to discuss with those with whom they disagree, how to take responsibility for their actions.

Because even in the best lectures, delivered by the most entertaining faculty at the very top of their game, student attention will flag at a certain point and students will mentally check out.

Because we’re doing more than preparing students to be good at going to school. Learning is more than “making deposits” in our students’ brains [Freire]; learning involves helping students become aware of their learning (metacognition) so as to be able to transfer knowledge and skills to other domains.

Because all students, even the most shy, will have to find their voice when they graduate: they will have to learn to advocate for themselves, to speak up and, often, to speak out.

Need More Why’s? 

If you’re still looking for reasons why discussions are a valuable classroom practice, here are fifteen further benefits of discussions as gathered from S. D. Brookfield and S. Preskill, Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, 2nd ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2005), pp. 21-22. Continue reading

Locate and Contextualize: Facilitating Difficult Discussions in the Classroom

Steve Volk, September 26, 2016

All images from Lewis Caroll, "Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There" (London: McMillan, 1871)

All images from Lewis Caroll, “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There” (London: McMillan, 1871)

As part of a class assignment, two Muslim students from Middle Eastern countries attended a Catholic Mass in Philadelphia. What happened next was sobering. The students were members of a course in religious studies, “Religion in Philadelphia,” taught by Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez of Temple University. In the course Alvarez sought to introduce her very diverse students to a variety of religious practices and institutions in the Philadelphia area.

I’ll quote from the article that Alvarez wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Fostering Open Communication in a Culturally Diverse Classroom”) to describe what happened next:

They were enjoying the beautiful building and taking in unfamiliar practices — holy water, repeated kneeling and standing, communion lines — when a parishioner photographed them with her cellphone and then abruptly left. After the mass ended, they ran into her outside the church, where she asked them if they spoke Arabic — yes — and if they were Catholic — no. When the students walked to their vehicle, multiple police cars stopped them.

The incident thankfully ended without further offense to the students when they explained the nature of their assignment for their religion course. But it left them, their classmates, and the instructor deeply shaken. While the professor had prepped both the students and the institutions they would be visiting in a responsible and professional manner, Alvarez was left to wonder whether “in today’s xenophobic climate” she could “continue to assign interfaith exchanges to my diverse students?” Continue reading