Thursday, 5 June 2014

Socratic Dialogue with Back Channel (Grade 12)

My colleague Trevor returned from the ASCD conference with a strategy for teaching Socratic dialogue with an added element of a "backchannel" so more students would be involved. The idea is that in a regular classroom discussion, there is only one person speaking at a time and it can become difficult to maintain the focus of the rest of a large class. Sometimes 5 or 6 people dominate and no one else speaks. Today we set up 10-12 students facing each other in the "inner circle" who had an oral discussion. The remaining students were set up on the perimeter and commented on their iPads using a platform called "Today's Meet" which quickly allows someone to create a discussion forum that is projected up on the overhead. The question we were discussing was "Should the Washington Redskins NFL football organization get rid of its name and logo?" 

Students read 4 articles (2 in support of removing the name and 2 in support of keeping it) and the discussion began. Emphasis was strongly placed on the spirit of "collaboration" as opposed to "debate". It was made clear that the point of the exercise was to collectively work through the issue, and not to promote or defend a particular point of view. Students in the middle discussed the issue for about 20 minutes while the outside circle "chatted" on line and then everybody switched roles. I moderated the verbal discussion and Trevor moderated the online backchannel. 

Results and Feedback

My first impression was that there were significantly more people engaged than there typically are in a regular classroom discussion. Students were more fired up about the issue than I expected (I don't have a lot of NFL football fans in the class and had worried the topic wouldn't be engaging enough) In reality the discussion was intense and at times it was difficult to keep people in the outside circle from speaking out instead of typing. Some students still spoke up more than others but in general almost everyone contributed at least once. One student didn't make a single comment in the inner circle or online. Student feedback on the process itself was generally positive. Some struggled with the technology (and trying to type on the iPads which is quite difficult especially when you are trying to type quickly) and most students had a clear preference for either the verbal or online format. 

What we would change/improve (Trevor and I debriefed after the session)

1. We would try to provide more laptops so students could type more quickly and keep up with the conversation. 
2. We noticed that many students commented online without specific details, for example "I agree with Kadin" (without any specific info about why they agreed.) We will emphasize articulating reasons for opinions in the future. 
3. Trevor mentioned that many students struggled to contain their emotions, and perhaps we should reinforce the concept that regulating our emotions while dealing with difficult issues is an essential part of effective communication. 
4. My husband (who teaches Social Studies) commented that this topic might not be the best one for a discussion as there really is only one side. The team name is unacceptable. Period. Allowing students to consider the arguments in favour of the name won't help move them in the direction of empathy. I'm still undecided. While I was surprised at how many students originally didn't even think the name was offensive at all, I felt it was more important for them to discuss the issue and think about it than for me to simply give them the argument that the name must be removed. For what it's worth, the individual reflections at the end indicated almost all of the students were in favour of changing the team name. 

Overall, both Trevor and I felt this strategy was successful in engaging more students than in a traditional classroom discussion and that it would be effective in other subject areas as well. 

Post courtesy of Naryn Searcy 

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