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Issue 23, August 2006  

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Giving our students a "voice": discussion,
reflection & interaction in teaching and learning
Jennifer O'Dea, Faculty of Education & Social Work
  

In writing about the role of discussion and the notion of giving students a "voice" I am reminded of my experience as a Masters student at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1986 I packed up and moved to California to undertake a Masters in Public Health in Health Education. With two degrees already under my belt and two years experience as a nutrition educator, I felt pretty academically accomplished at the ripe old age of 26. What I experienced in my classes at UC Berkeley absolutely astounded me!

I was enrolled in a health education theory class with 15 bright young students from around the US and the globe. The class ran from 12-3 pm on a Wednesday afternoon and the WHOLE class was based on student discussion. Students were assigned a few readings which we came to class to discuss - for three whole hours! I was (for the first time in my academic life) totally dumbfounded. Paralyzed with fear, confusion, intimidation and a surprisingly powerful sense of self-consciousness about my Aussie accent, I was unable to utter a sound in class. The fact that 20 percent of my grade was based on "Discussion" made me even more hesitant to speak. In addition to the complete lack of structure to the so-called discussion, the dysfunctional classroom dynamics allowed two male students to regularly and almost totally dominate the discussion (one a stereotypically loud Texan, the other a sassy New Yorker) and this made my plight even more hopeless. I received a B minus for the class and felt lucky to pass - not only because I couldn't effectively engage in the form of discussion on offer but also because I ended up avoiding several classes out of sheer performance anxiety, intimidation, self consciousness and frustration. Eventually, some other disgruntled students asked the lecturer to first give a brief lecture to outline the main points from the readings in order to produce a more structured discussion and this change eventually led to a more logical and orderly discussion of the readings and the theories at hand. I learnt virtually nothing in that course and it wasn't until several years later that I realized my inability to grasp the theories at hand was not due to my own failure to learn, but the lecturer's failure to teach. I vowed to never teach (or NOT teach) my classes like that and I was motivated to become a more effective teacher.

I have never forgotten this dreadful learning experience and this adverse learning environment, and it has certainly inspired me to learn about and implement well- structured and well-managed classroom discussion in my own lectures and tutorials.

 

Benefits of Discussion
The many benefits of engaging students in discussion and giving them a "voice" are indisputable. Classic writings by Brookfield and Preskill (1999:3) describe discussion as promoting not only student learning but human growth:-

"Discussion is one of the best ways to nurture human growth because it is premised on the idea that only through collaboration and cooperation with others can we be exposed to new points of view. This exposure increases our understanding and renews our motivation to continue learning. In the process, our democratic instincts are confirmed: by giving the floor to as many different participants as possible, collective wisdom emerges that would have been impossible for any of the participants to achieve on their own."

Brookfield and Preskill go on to encompass several different aspects of discussion by blending and synthesizing many different notions of "discussion, dialogue, and conversation". They define discussion as "an alternately serious and playful effort by a group of two or more to share views and engage in mutual and reciprocal critique" (1999:5).

The purpose of discussion, state Brookfield and Preskill are fourfold. Discussion can (and should):

  1. Help participants reach a more critically informed understanding about the topic or topics under consideration
  2. Enhance participants' self-awareness and their capacity for self-critique,
  3. Foster an appreciation among participants for the diversity of opinion that invariable emerges when viewpoints are exchanged openly and honestly, and
  4. Act as a catalyst to helping people take informed action in the world.

This important function of critical discussion was identified earlier by C. Wright Mills in 1959 when he observed that autobiographically grounded critical discussion allows people to discern between private troubles and public issues.

"By reinterpreting personal difficulties as dimensions of broader social and political trends, we realize that our problems are not always idiosyncratic and due to our personal failings. Also we are better able to generate strategies for counteracting the most dehumanizing, alienating, and oppressive tendencies of modern society." (Brookfield & Preskill, 1999: 6).

The last point, referring to the socio-political function of discussion as a transformative catalyst for social or political change is a teaching and learning perspective that I find extremely useful and relevant in teaching about issues in health education. As Henry Giroux (1987) quite succinctly points out, critical discussion is a process in which teachers become transformative intellectuals who engage and empower their students to probe the contradictions and injustices of the larger society.

In this way, our teaching can and should, change the world. Paulo Freire's philosophy of the "progressive educator" is embedded in the notion of overturning "the culture of silence". He posits that every human being no matter how "ignorant" or submerged in the culture of silence, is capable of looking critically at the work in a dialogical encounter with others. Then, provided with the proper tools for this encounter, the individual can gradually perceive personal and social reality as well as the contradictions in it, and become conscious of his or her own perception of that reality and deal critically with it. (Freire, 1998: 14).

Therefore, as teachers, our role is to structure our classes in order to promote discussion, critique and reflection. Thereby giving students the opportunity to become more involved in their own learning process.

Engaging in critically informed, rich and diverse "discussion, dialogue and conversation" about the enormous disparities in health status among indigenous and non indigenous Australians is an example of how I use this form of discussion-based interactive education to facilitate student learning at several different levels. Students learn by expanding their own capacity of thought around such issues; they learn by listening to several other points of view and they learn by having to talk about potential solutions to the problems at hand.

The benefits of learning that results from well-managed discussion are outlined below.

  1. It helps students explore a diversity of perspectives.
  2. It increases students' awareness of and tolerance for ambiguity or complexity.
  3. It helps students recognize and investigate their assumptions.
  4. It encourages attentive, respectful listening.
  5. It develops new appreciation for continuing differences.
  6. It increases intellectual agility.
  7. It helps students become connected to a topic.
  8. It shows respect for students' voices and experiences.
  9. It helps students learn the processes and habits of democratic discourse.
  10. It affirms students as co creators of knowledge.
  11. It develops the capacity for the clear communication of ideas and meaning.
  12. It develops  habits of collaborative learning.
  13. It increases breadth and makes students more empathetic.
  14. It helps students develop skills of synthesis and integration.
  15. It leads to transformation.

(Brookfield & Preskill, 1999:17).

 

Is all Discussion Democratic?
Although the many benefits of using discussion are well-documented, there is a danger in presuming that discussion methods automatically build on the principles of participatory, active learning for all students. As my American experience as a graduate student illustrates, unsupervised and disorganized discussions run the risk of being dominated by one or two voices; intimidating, silencing and disengaging more reticent students; encroaching on cultural sensitivities and straying into irrelevant territory.

Often teachers have a particular image of an ideal discussion session. For example, that of a conversation in which the teacher says very little because students are talking so much. There is little silence in the room. What conversation there is focuses on relevant issues, and the level of discourse is suitably sophisticated. This sense may be justified. However, by standing back and not intervening in the conversation, we have allowed the reinforcement of differences of status existing in the wider society (Brookfield, 1995:12) and, most importantly, we have failed to contribute to the discussion ourselves as we have not shared our own point of view. As educators, it is important that we also participate in the learning activities and that we demonstrate that every individual has a right and an opportunity to contribute to the discussion at hand.

The balance of power in discussion groups is not to be ignored. Freire (1998) and Brookfield (1995) both point out that when discussion groups form, they reflect power dynamics, and communicative inequities in the larger society. Classrooms are not limpid, tranquil ponds, cut off from the river of social, cultural, and political life. They are contested spaces - whirlpools containing the contradictory crosscurrents of struggles for material superiority and ideological legitimacy that exist in the world outside. (Brookfield, 1995:9). Being skilled enough to "balance" the power in discussion groups is something that develops over time as we educators become better facilitators of discussion and better managers of time.

Sharing thoughts and feelings through group discussion can present some problems. Boud and Walker (1998) state that "in some cultures the expression of thoughts and feelings to relative strangers is problematic" (200). They also identify another general area of concern. "When learners are required to provide personal information to staff, there is a greater potential for the misuse of power" (195). I can certainly relate to this last point from my experience in California, as I knew quite well that if I opened my mouth in any of those dreadful Wednesday afternoon discussion classes I would surely be exposed. Better to be silent and unknown than to expose the fact that I hadn't a clue about any of the health theories being "discussed".

In addition to class, race and gender, inequity can also result from differences in individual learning styles and past educational experiences. For example, quieter students, those with poor English skills or introverts may need to first process information before becoming involved in the discussion. Opportunities may need to be created by the teacher before class online, via email to students, or during class to involve reticent students at a later stage in the discussion or as the discussion progresses.

Brookfield (1987) also highlights the tightrope educators walk when asking questions during discussion to assist students to further scrutinize their assumptions and explore alternative ways of thinking and acting.

"We should take pains to ensure that the challenging questions are not posed in ways that threaten the fundamental integrity of individuals. If leaving is not an option&they will mentally disengage from what is happening" (p. 72).

Thus, the teacher may need to intervene to create a structured opportunity for all group members to say something. It is very important to note here that students can become involved in the discussion in non-verbal ways. Students can write their comments or anonymously convey their opinions in several ways that do not have to involve speaking in front of the whole class. I outline some of these non-verbal ways of participating in discussion later in this article.

Teaching democratically and promoting discussion certainly does not mean that we cease to speak authoritatively or that we pretend to be exactly the same as our students. What it does mean is that we make an effort to create conditions under which all voices can speak and be heard (including our own) and in which educational processes are seen to be open to genuine negotiation (Brookfield, 1995: 45).

 

Facilitating 'a voice' for all
In order to facilitate discussion that provides `a voice' for all we must first critically reflect on our teaching practice. Critical reflection urges us to create conditions under which each person is respected, valued, and heard. In pedagogic terms, this means the creation of democratic classrooms. (Brookfield, 1995: 27)
Critically reflective teaching happens when we identify and scrutinize the assumptions that underpin how we work. The critically reflective process happens when teachers discover and examine their assumptions by viewing their practice through four distinct, though interconnecting, lenses. These are (1) our autobiographies as teachers and learners, (2) our student's eyes, (3) our colleagues' experiences and (4) theoretical literature. (Brookfield, 1995).

As teachers we first need to model our own commitment to the process of democratic discussion. "Educators should declare their values, assumptions and biases from the beginning and to make a critical examination of their validity a central part of the educational activity." (Brookfield, 1987: 66). By demonstrating an openness to alternative viewpoints a teacher encourages students to do likewise.

It is important to work with students to create ground rules for democratic discourse that correct, as much as possible, for the inequities of race, class, and gender that are inevitably imported into the group from the wider society.

Teachers need to react to the many contextual natures of each discussion. This could be knowing when to encourage conflicts to come out in the open within a group, or when to quiet an overly domineering member, or how to frame critical questions in terms that can be understood and will not threaten self-esteem (Brookfield, 1987:73).

Strategies like attending closely to student's verbal and nonverbal behaviours, using a variety of small and large group discussions and constantly monitoring student engagement and participation all assist in the facilitation of a more democratic, balanced and successful discussion.

 

Strategies for implementing discussion in class
Following are some of the strategies that I have used to implement greater student involvement in discussion in my health education classes among trainee physical and health education teachers.

Questioning
I constantly ask very simple questions during lectures and tutorials to stimulate discussion about the topic at hand. Eg "What do you think about that?", "So how do you think that sort of idea would work in a real life situation?", "Can anyone give me an example of an experience they have had that illustrates this point?"

This activity not only stimulates discussion about the material being covered on the day of the class but it also demonstrates and role models the fact that the students themselves should be constantly framing questions around the material that they are learning.

At times it is more pertinent to ask more challenging or probing questions to enable students to further explore personal and societal values and assumptions. E.g. "How does this relate to cultural values or social norms?"

Providing Written Lecture Notes
Students are given access to lecture notes via WebCT prior to the lecture or tutorial and they are encouraged to print the lecture notes and simply make brief points during the lecture. This enables more time for discussion and less time required for note taking. Students are also given key research papers to read before lectures to become more familiar with the topics being discussed. Access to research papers are via Web CT with direct link to the library or as a hard copy of the paper. This enables them to more fully participate in discussion. In tutorials there is no note taking at all. Students are given a "working" copy of handouts and all relevant materials, group activities, games and quizzes during each tutorial. They are also given a "master copy" for their future teaching portfolios.

Personal Experiences - "Lucky Dip" activity
Students are asked to think about the relevance of their own personal experiences and those of other students and how these experiences relate to what is currently being learned in class. For example, students in tutorials about adolescent growth, development and body image are asked to take a piece of paper and anonymously write their gender; the most potent memory of their own physical growth during puberty, how old they were and how they felt at the time. All of the pieces of paper are folded, placed in a hat or a box or a plastic bag and each student gets to draw one piece. Each student reads the personal account of another student (who remains anonymous) and is asked to comment on "What do you think about that student's experience?" Additional discussion questions include "Do you think the student's gender made a difference to their experience?" and "How might this experience relate to your role as future physical and health education teachers?"

Vote with your "feet" activity
Students' opinions, beliefs and attitudes about various health issues are explored and then discussed, expanded and justified by using an activity that helps them to decide where they stand on certain issues and provides a platform on which to further investigate their reasons for taking this position. The lecturer or tutor makes a set of cardboard decision cards including "Strongly Agree"; "Agree"; "Undecided"; "Disagree" and "Strongly Disagree". Cards are placed in diametrically opposed positions on the classroom wall using Blu-tak or sticky tape. When the statements are read aloud by the lecturer, students must select a point of view by walking to the card that most reflects their opinion. Statements in my health education classes include examples such as "Condoms should be freely available in schools", "All teachers should be required to quit smoking" and "Psychological health status is not as important as physical health status". When students have made their decision, the lecturer asks "Was it difficult to make your decision? Why or why not?", "Áre any of you surprised by the decisions made by others?" "After hearing the discussion and the arguments for and against, do any of you now want to change your position?"

Case Studies and Problem-based Situations
For example, student work is assessed by assigning them to work in pairs to assess a case study of an adolescent's overall health status including aspects of physical, psychological, social and spiritual health. Use of "real" cases that have been selected and researched by the students themselves makes this activity much more relevant and powerful than having the lecturer write up hypothetical cases. Case studies are presented in tutorial groups with discussion prompts from the tutor such as "Do you think the adolescent's gender/culture/religion/social class/ family background etc influences his/her health status?" or "Do you think this is a typical picture of an adolescent boy/girl living in Australia today?" Discussion is always directed back to the topic of how students will implement these experiences in their own teaching practice.

Site Visits
Students work in pairs or small groups to investigate community health related topics and issues in real life settings and in the community by selecting a site visit. Students select topics such as mental health services, nutrition education organizations, health promotion agencies and organize their own site visits. A standardized list of discussion topics and questions are brainstormed and finalized by the whole class group. Site visit presentations and discussions of each site visit are made in tutorials and compose part of the course assessment.

Group construction of assessment criteria for case study and site visit presentations
Tutorial groups are asked to think about, discuss and finally agree upon the appropriate assessment criteria for their in-class presentations. This activity certainly gives the students a "voice" in how they will be assessed but also helps them to discuss the relative importance of each of the assessment criteria. (The assessment instrument is available from the author upon request)

Group puzzles
Students work in pairs or small groups to solve a puzzle about how to construct categories of illicit, prescription and over the counter drugs, their characteristics, effects etc. Groups then discuss how they solved the puzzle and why they chose to categorize the drugs in a certain way. Students become involved in wide discussion about drug facts, legal implications, risk and harm minimization and their own beliefs, attitudes and values. Summary discussion reflects on the students learning experiences during the activity eg. "Did you find it easy to decide on how to complete the puzzle?" "What stopped you solving the puzzle?" "What helped your group to solve the puzzle?"

 

Summary
Involving our students in discussion and allowing them to have a "voice" is not something that comes naturally to some teachers. As Paulo Freire points out, the "culture of silence" is common in educational settings - many of our students have probably learned to be quiet in class and it can take a long time to "unlearn" something like that.

The benefits of discussion in tertiary education are well established, but the potential risks and barriers to productive discussion should also be considered when implementing new teaching and learning strategies. The strategies for encouraging and implementing classroom discussion that I present in this article are techniques that I have developed over my 16 years teaching at the University of Sydney with much success and most importantly, are validated by very positive student feedback in their course evaluations last year -

"I really enjoyed the fact that we were so involved in tutes and you tried to get us all involved in lectures. It's refreshing to have a lecturer who lets us discuss things and doesn't just read out loud and make us scribe! "
"It was great – she encouraged us to speak, and everyone in the course gave their opinions and it was valued so the students appreciate it."
"I like this structure, I understand it and I feel that my voice/ opinion are heard".
"I liked it because all the students were actively involved. It was easy to talk about sensitive issues."

References
Boud, D. and Walker, D. (1998). Promoting Reflection in Professional Courses: the challenge of context. Studies in Higher Education. 23 (2), 191-206

Brookfield, S. D. (1987). Developing Critical Thinkers: challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S.D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S. D. and Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for University Teachers. Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (New Revised 20th Anniversary ed.). New York: Continuum Publishing Co.

Giroux, H. (1987). Citzenship, Public Philosophy, and the Struggle for Democracy. Educational Theory. 37 (2), 103-120. 


Jennifer O'Dea is a Senior Lecturer in Health Education and Nutrition Education in the Faculty of Education & Social Work. She has been a member of staff for 17 years and says that she still gets a huge thrill from teaching and interacting with students in lectures, tutorials and in online learning modes. Dr O'Dea is undertaking a number of T&L studies at present including an evaluation of student's knowledge, beliefs, skills and attitudes towards learning with Web CT; a study of student learning using online and face-to-face discussions and a qualitative study of how teacher education students see their roles as "Students", "Learners" and "Teachers". She was awarded the Faculty Teaching Excellence Award in 2005. To have a further conversation with Jennifer about her article, contact her at: j.odea@usyd.edu.au




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