Learning to Let Go: Listening to Students in Discussion

A class discussion where the teacher pre-determines the outcome is just a lecture in disguise, dressed up to feel student-centered while still being instructor-directed. When a class involves discussion, we owe it to our students to not know what’s going to happen, lest we start dictating what we want them to think. To truly engage another in a conversation, we respond to the ideas that develop organically; a person who talks without listening delivers a speech, not a discussion. The moment we attempt to set the conclusion of a discussion before it starts, we cheat our students out of an opportunity for honest engagement, and we fool ourselves into thinking we let our students learn things for themselves.

I sensed I had a problem with discussions last semester, when I taught two consecutive classes that were identical on paper: same course, same content, same classroom. Only the time and the students were different. It took many weeks before I realized how foolish that view was; despite the “on paper” claims, the two classes were not at all alike. What could possibly be more defining of a class than the students involved and the time we spend with them? Yet my efforts to plan and run my classes kept frustrating me — I struggled to keep the classes aligned so that I could remember where we were and what we needed to do next.

Those complaints, which I’ve heard from many other teachers as we work to preserve our sanity, reveal deeply troubling perspectives on how a class operates. I talked about how I plan and run a class that I wanted to align. It was I who did these things. Students weren’t a part of the process; they didn’t plan the course, they didn’t run the course, and I tried to align them to the course, not the other way around. I’ve been hearing about and talking about “meeting students where they are” for years, yet here I was, complaining that my students, wherever they were, weren’t meeting me where I thought the class should be.

This semester began with a challenge to my traditional frustrations: I was told pretty late in the summer that one of my 50-minute, M/W/F classes would move to 80-minute, T/R meetings. The rest of my classes stayed M/W/F. I shared with others, including my department chair, that I worried about my ability to keep everything on track. The last time I had classes with different meeting times, I divided the semester’s activities in different ways so that the schedules kept up with one another, but I struggled to adhere to that plan. It was forced and imposed, and it benefited no one but my internal need for predictable structure.

My ability to focus was perhaps the greatest casualty. I worried more about sticking to the plan than existing in the moment. Class discussions became an exercise in reaching a goal — a goal I set for what they would do. I devoted more mental attention to where I wanted the conversation to go than I did to what my students were actually saying. I didn’t listen fully, with concentration and my entire self. I cheated them out of what they deserved: my attention.

Years ago, I taught at a public high school. Lesson plans were a fact of life … and the bane of mine. Rarely would my plans get submitted to administration on-time. My assistant principal frequently threatened me with what she called “nasty-grams” demanding compliance with a contractual obligation. On my annual reviews, I could always count on a not-so-awesome report of my “submits lesson plans appropriately” performance. I hated planning. When I wrote a plan for a lesson, I felt I was eliminating the possibility for responsive, flexible teaching. I often wondered how, on Monday, I was to know what my students would need to hear on Friday. The expectation for weekly, by-the-hour lesson plans at the secondary level is the result of a view of education as a predictable, programmatic process that works the same way every year, for every class, and with every student. Believing we can plan student learning means we aren’t listening to them when they arrive.

Sean Michael Morris and I wrote about the need to really listen to students, saying that “we have an obligation to give them the opportunity to try things.” The way I ran my classes that semester, I wasn’t actually letting students try things in our conversations. Instead, I expected them to say things, and I waited until they said what I expected. It was a farce, and I should have just told them what was on my mind and waited for them to ingest it, old-school style.

This semester, I’m trying a different approach. Once I saw that I was falling into the trap of trying to over-plan the semester, I stopped. I refused. I decided that I would set weekly targets, that we would do or make something each week, but that the way we went about that task would be figured out as a class, in the moment, by paying attention. I’m still making comparisons from one course section to the next (because old habits die hard, and because humans are pattern-seeking creatures), but I’m learning to let go much more effectively than I thought.

Each of my classes has a “class notes” document in Google Drive. Everyone in the class has access to it, and everyone can write in it. I use it as a sort of virtual whiteboard. When preparing for a class conversation, I come up with a couple questions I’d like students to think through. I open up the class notes, write the questions there, and go to class. That’s it. Then, in class, I tell students that I’ll take notes for them. I’ll write while they discuss, talking to one another and not to me. It’s a technique I learned from Scott Launier at UCF, who always impressed me with his ability to get freshmen engaged in genuine discussion. So when the discussion starts, I have my laptop open, with the document projected onto the screen so everyone can see it. Several students have their laptops out, as well, and are inside the document with me. I pose the question and solicit an opening thought. Once the first student starts talking, I look down. I try not to intervene in the conversation at all, allowing them to shape the dynamic and to determine the ground rules. If there’s silence, I look up. If I see hands raised, I wave a dismissive hand and say, “Just talk. You figure it out.”

This sounds like I’m ignoring and abandoning the students, leaving them to their own survival. But that’s the exact point. I leave them to survive the conversation on the merits of their own contributions, not my guidance. I write what I hear everyone saying. I occasionally write a question in the notes. Sometimes students see them and respond; sometimes I refer back to them in a conversational lull; sometimes they simply go unanswered. By taking notes, I show I’m listening. By asking the occasional question, I show I’m attentive. By looking at my screen and not at them, I show that I really do want them to be in charge of the conversation.

To me, one of the most convenient side-effects of this approach is that we have notes from the conversation, meaning I can go back to them later and see where we left off. The notes for each class are distinct, following the shape and thinking of the students who were in the room at the time. I don’t have to worry about keeping the classes aligned for my sanity, because the content is recorded for future reference. And the questions I ask students relate directly to what has been said by the students, not what I think they should be saying. It’s a very honest way of having a class discussion. It’s student-centered the way it should be. And now planning for class couldn’t be easier.

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