John Jensen: Discussion That Draws In Students is Hardest

By John Jensen, Ph.D.

A common challenge is helping children talk about issues that concern them. Those in most need often find it hardest to do, while the active child presents the teacher with an odd Catch -22: "The more he expresses himself, the better he gets, and the more he does that, the worse off other students are." He soaks up group attention, and others hang back. The teacher wonders whether to encourage him or to close him down to coax out the reticent.

John Jensen, Ph.D.

It's tempting to beg off the issue on the basis that children are all different and we can't do much about it, that the talkative and withdrawn will remain so. They develop their personal style. Instead what each really needs is a way to balance off the downside of their tendency.

The issue isn't minor. The value we draw from talking arises largely from how others react to it, and few of us reach school age instinctively giving the most constructive response to our peers. A teacher's best effort at a discussion may still leave the hesitant one monosyllabic, and the confident one feeling successful. With all in their accustomed role, the opportunity for growth isn't spread around.

People change their thinking mainly by 1) assimilating better ideas they hear from others, and 2) pursuing their own reasoning more deeply. So we want them to attend to what others say, connect it to their own thinking, and then develop their own train of thought. But to do this, they need to leave behind their habitual social role. If they're isolated inside limited thinking, we don't abandon them there.

A helpful angle on this need to express and be accepted came from the Stanford University study described in the book Encounter Groups: First Facts, by Yalom, Lieberman, and Miles. Among many questions addressed, they wanted to know what group experience enabled participants not only to make changes in their lives but to maintain them over time. The key condition they found was that those who did that were more active in the group (talked and listened) and the group regarded their ideas as influential. What mattered was connection and reflection between them and others.

In a classroom, we want to convey to children that their ideas land somewhere. Think back to when you were in a group of any kind and expressed an idea. Remember how you felt when someone said, "Yeah! That makes a lot of sense!" and proceeded to build on your idea. You realized your offering was significant to others, and you owned it even more as yours.

We can arrange this in the classroom. Every child's idea can be received respectfully, but only if we take the time to develop the skills needed. The significance-creating setup is a certain kind of exchange. The talking end of it is ready to go because children have lots to say. The receiving end is the one that needs attention so that the listener creates a different experience for the speaker.

Obtaining this quality of response is not just from the teacher doing better gate-keeping, calling on one after another. While I'm glad for any time teachers spend at that, attention orbits around the teacher. Students may even talk to the teacher seriatim and ignore each other. Nothing guides their attention back to each other. The point for them is just to air their own opinion, and they don't expect anyone to build on it. If someone refers to it, like as not it will be contradicted, while for an anxious student, having their comment repeatedly ignored can feel like slow death. Students may not receive the response from others that makes them regard their own thought as of value, much less that others might regard it that way.

Among the many guidelines that could reorient their attention to each other, two can redirect a class or small group discussion so it benefits all.

  • Introduce a topic everyone can address with a specific, personal comment (cf. below for a topic source).
  • Challenge them all to remember what everyone says.

Let me describe a minimum group setting to illustrate.

One day I'm asked to meet with three fourth graders we'll call Treat, Sarah, and Alice. They're not in trouble but they face a common issue, and the school would like to help them cope with it by a series of brief meetings with me. To get acquainted, I ask them a little about their lives and immediately Treat begins to talk. He and Sarah then hit off each other's comments rapidly so that Alice is left to chime in with a word here and there. Then she's called out of the group as Cynthia enters and sits down.

Cynthia's face is impassive. She appears shut down, subdued, likely do what she's asked, cooperate as required, but expect nothing from it for herself. Treat and Sarah talk back and forth about where they've lived, their pets, and other concerns while ignoring Cynthia. They're all in their accustomed roles–expressive ones express, and the passive one listens. We might imagine the entire student population lined up behind these exemplars: Treat as dominator, Sarah as responder, and Cynthia as spectator.

I could attempt to limit Treat and Sarah, admonishing them to stop talking so we can "hear from everyone," but my goal goes beyond their answering to me. I want them paying attention to each other so that they notice their ideas being welcomed and considered. I want to bring balance to their sharing by means that are quick but unobtrusive. Sarah and Treat already assume that they own the group, but Cynthia doesn't know that yet. How can we assure her that she's an equal member, her ideas just as important?

Let me detour here with a personal memory about how a student's comment becomes significant.

When I was small, my parents were busy with running a grocery store and multiple involvements in sports, community activity, and eventually politics. They thought about a great many things, and I grew up assuming that one should strive for the best idea about anything. Its quality made it important—an assumption teachers from kindergarten on were delighted to reinforce.

During several elementary school years, however, I struggled to figure out social relationships, and eventually decided to keep my mouth shut and pay attention. In time, I began to notice that others weren't impressed by the quality of an idea. They talked instead about simple things I easily could have said, and they quickly accepted them from each other. They talked about common and direct experience, about the obvious. Significance wasn't even in the idea but only that it lay in a band of thought, "what we talk about." It was important just because others listened to it and accepted it.

This principle, I'm sure, will apply forever. We overwhelmingly believe that our idea has worth based on how others respond. In search of that acceptance, students bunch up with others who think the same, fractioning off into sub-groups—the nerds, the jocks, the socials, this neighborhood versus that, this ethnicity versus that. These sub-groups are the inevitable product of school experience in which random others do not give them a good feeling about what they themselves say! They can't count on just anybody to accept what they express, so they must narrow their boundaries to those they can trust not to discount them.

So in designing classroom interaction, if we wish to convince a child that his/her ideas are important, we don't need them to be insightful. We don't need them to be "one-up" better than another's. All we need is for them to be heard and responded to with respect and connection. And for any given child, all others who do that comprise their safe social world, and they're not driven to form cliques, clubs, and clusters.

This experiential base of the content of their speech offers us a gold mine of discussion topics. We can lead them to express themselves over nearly anything they've done and turn it into a success just by guiding how others receive it. If we insist (prematurely) on an insight, on the other hand, we're guaranteed to turn off students who don't have one. Yet the circumstances of their lifetime stand vivid in their consciousness, ready to be drawn upon. The single universal topic is their life story. They completely own it. It's relevant to them, they're the unquestioned authority for it, it contains all the interesting stories they might narrate, and it eventually welcomes out their full range of emotion and enthusiasm.

The trick lies in making the telling of it significant to the speaker. If they talk, in other words, only if they feel good afterward will they want to do it more. And the good feeling they have later depends entirely on how others respond as they speak.

Think how you make friends. You find out more and more about the other and interact with it piece by piece. You hear about their experience and learn their interpretation of it, and the attitudes and values it expresses; and then they hear about yours. This is the fun of friendship– comparing notes, developing ideas together that carry positive feelings. Ideas gather energy and loom larger for us as another shows interest. So if someone else wants to help broaden us, all they need to do is to show sustained interest in how we think. This is the means by which counselors of every stripe make progress—hear the story, take an interest in it, and explore the nuances of meaning it contains.

So back to Cynthia. What topics are we sure she can speak to, and what do we want from Sarah and Treat to make her offering significant? The series of comments I recount below occurred in about fifteen minutes as I attempted to bring each two to focus on the third in a thoughtful, supportive way. I drew their attention first to a memory they could share and then to recalling what others' memory was.

"I'd like to hear from everyone your first memory," I said to them, "the first thing you can remember doing?" I turned to Cynthia.

"What's the very first thing you can remember, Cynthia," I repeated, "and how old were you?" She was silent for a moment, and then began to talk.

"I was four years old," she said in a quiet whisper, "and my mother took me to visit my grandmother for the first time. And I remember hiding behind my mother's legs when she introduced me!" That was all she wanted to say.

I thanked her, smiled at the picture she drew, and turned to Treat who began to describe the scene of his birth–the lights and equipment around the room. Details unrolled, and he recalled being born!

Here was a turning point for the discussion. Treat had an excellent memory and was ready to share everything it contained. It would have been easy to welcome it, returning him to the role of the leader of the group. But the value that could displace was the thread of a beginning in Cynthia. She had participated, had answered the question, and my primary goal for the group now was to make her sharing significant. And for that to occur,all their comments had to be significant.

How could we do that? The second guideline served, just remembering what others say. It's the most basic response, like the foundation of a house. Without it, you can't build anything else. We'd like children able to weigh, comment on, and challenge others, but such outcomes aren't available unless we first recall what they say. A second benefit from basic recall is that it directly causes the shift of thinking we want, the change from "What am I going to say?" to "What are you saying?" A further helpful nuance to it is, "You matter enough that I remember what you said."

After Treat's answer, I went on to Sarah who appeared uncertain about her first memory. She offered a vague comment and rose from the table to draw on the nearby writing board, apparently wanting to think more. But to this point I'd invited a response to a topic and they'd largely complied by answering me. Now however I wanted to redirect their attention toward each other. Sarah and Treat had heard Cynthia, but would they now attend to her in a way that encouraged her to say more? Would she trust the group with more of her thoughts?

I asked them together, "Who can remember how old Cynthia was in her first memory?"

They thought a moment, and Sarah answered. "She was four."

"Yes," I said. "You were listening! And what was her first memory?"

"She went to visit her grandmother and hid behind her mother's legs," Treat responded. Cynthia leaned forward, nodded, and looked at them intently as they spoke. Sarah and Cynthia then recalled correctly Treat's first memory, being born.

"Okay now, everyone," I asked them all next. "What's your second memory?"

Cynthia answered, again like giving the right answer to a teacher's question. She remembered all her relatives posing for a photograph, and where she was placed in the picture with people on either side of her. Sarah volunteered a time when she was about two, had a little bicycle that had training wheels but fell off it. After Treat shared a memory, I looked to Cynthia and Treat. Could they recall Sarah's second memory?

They could, and Sarah smiled as they described her falling off her bicycle at age two. As Cynthia recalled others' memories, her affect brightened a little.

I then asked Treat and Sarah what Cynthia's second memory was, and they paused to think about it. Their pause was fitting since in asking this we constantly challenge their habits. They're not accustomed to deliberate recall. They're preoccupied with what they themselves want to say, and then saying it, and then thinking about what to say next. Directing genuine attention and concern toward another is a learned behavior, so we need to return to their memory while it's fresh and they can still call it up successfully.

Sarah and Treat and I all looked at Cynthia with interest. What was her second memory? One of us—I don't recall which—said, "She was having her picture taken!" At this, Cynthia smiled for the first time since she arrived, looking at others now with active interest. Her face became animated and expressive as she added further details about the picture-taking memory. In the few minutes we had available, we had become a group by 1) providing a topic everyone could relate to from personal experience, and 2) recalling the substance of what each one said. Group interest spread to all had drawn in the one most in need of it.

These features can be implemented with any size group or an entire class. A topic to which everyone provides their own personal response and has a reasonable beginning and ending helps to round out a perspective on that topic, and also provides a hook others can draw on to recall what they say. The latter can be done after every two or three students speak, cumulatively mastering everything said.

If a teacher wishes to develop their ability to listen and remember, by practice students can improve at this till one person can recount the entire discussion and each one's contribution to it. They'll take pride in this as an achievement deserving the respect of their peers. And by deeper attention to each one's thoughts, they inevitably consider their meaning more fully.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at [email protected].

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at [email protected]
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