Question: does everyone participate in your class? Answer: of course

Except that research shows that in most classes, most of the time, only some students participate and they often participate in a formulaic way that meets the teacher’s expectations and that achieves a good participation grade.

Here are three of many ways in which teachers have fostered genuine conversation / discussion that involves the whole class and extends the talk from memory to creativity (moving up Bloom’s taxonomy).

1. Extend wait-time. When classes are videoed to see how long teachers wait for an answer before speaking again, the average is 1-3 seconds. When students answer a question, it takes only 9/10ths of a second before the teacher is asking another one. Two factors seem to be at play here – teachers don’t like silence and teachers equate speed with intelligence. The first is a flaw (!) and the second is untrue. Ask a student in your class to collect some data for you to see how you do. Even being aware that a student is timing everything you do may not dramatically change your behavior! Extend wait time to 7-10 seconds. Note what happens in the class:

  1. The length of responses will increase i.e. the amount a student says and probably the depth of what is said
  2. The number of unsolicited responses will increase i.e. students who leave the responses to others or who think about the question more carefully will participate
  3. Student understanding increases i.e. speed actually slows down learning while a more measured approach will ultimately allow you to move more quickly
  4. Students are more focused and less prone to restlessness i.e. the rapid fire question approach puts students on edge and seems to imply that the student responses are not highly valued
  5. Student to student interactions increase i.e. the depth of talk inspires interest such that you as the teacher will just become one of the group and the conversation will become self-sustaining

The classic research study into wait time also found that when you extend wait-time, you as a teacher also begin to speak and act differently. Mary Budd Rowe said that:

  1. Teachers responses exhibited greater flexibility i.e. there is greater willingness of the teacher to move with the student rather than follow a programmed path
  2. The number and kind of questions asked by the teacher changed i.e. because wait-time increased the number of total questions decreased but those questions tended to be follow-up and extension questions using the student answers rather than using a series of unconnected inquiries
  3. Expectations of student performance changed – an important teacher outcome given what we know of the Pygmalion effect where expectations impacted and predicted performance i.e. the invisible student had an opportunity to become visible

That’s powerful! Susan Cain in Quiet talks about 7 year old Isabel who is an introvert and who relates to people “in their own way”. She quotes Isabel as saying: “I like having thoughtful conversations because they make people happy”. That has within it almost every concept listed above!

2. Teach different kinds of prompts. Students don’t know Bloom’s taxonomy but they can learn it really fast even at younger ages. They really like being treated as ‘adult’ and not being talked down to. Help them to understand that they can scaffold their questions in the same way that you do and that doing that ensures they get the information or feedback that they are looking for e.g.

  • Factual questions such as what or when or who help get information quickly
  • Conceptual questions that have stems such as if this happened, or if she went there help us understand the relationships between events, people, and time
  • Procedural questions such as how do you know that or is this what you are saying or can you add to that to help me understand help the person speaking deepen their own understanding and that of the listeners
  • Metacognitive questions such as can you predict or do you have biases that influence you or what do we still need to know help me reflect, make intuitive leaps, and make the process very personal

Giving your students the tools to actually participate meaningfully in a discussion adds to their excitement and engagement with the process.

3. Explain what you are doing. When students realize that you are doing something different by extending wait time or teaching different kinds of prompts, there are a variety of reactions. Those who are winning in the game of class may resent it, especially if it appears that they won’t be as favored as they were before. Those who are quite happy being invisible may actually be irritated as they are brought into the open. Some may immediately be emboldened and attempt to dominate as they had been dominated. Explaining up front will help all groups understand that you want them all to succeed even better than before. Think about saying things like:

  • I notice that some of you speak quite a lot and others do not get the chance
  • When we have a discussion where everyone takes part, the discussion is better, deeper, and you will all understand the subject more
  • In learning how to listen and how to speak, we are learning really important skills for now, and for your future lives
  • For the first little while it may feel a bit strange because I’m learning too how to give great speaking cues and listen really intently to value what you are sharing
  • I will give you the discussion notes at least a day before we have one of these learning times together
  • Here are my expectations when we are in discussion mode; I want to make sure that you know my expectations as well when we are not in discussion mode or collaborative mode and we are doing individual work in silence

Improving the students’ ability to lead and participate in a discussion that engages is, of course, enough of itself to justify paying attention to how that happens. Skills of this kind will enhance learning in any discipline and at any grade level. Older students may well ask what the purpose of all this is or, in different words, am I ever going to use this in ‘real’ life? There is a profound answer to that. Increasingly, careers are going to those who can operate well in the social sphere. This doesn’t mean that only extroverts are going to be super successful in the future. It means that extroverts and introverts alike must be more attuned to the social skills of listening and participating than ever. According to David Deming “the fastest growing cognitive occupations – managers, teachers, nurses and therapists, physicians, lawyers, even economists – all require significant interpersonal interaction”. High paying jobs increasingly require social skills or, as Deming puts it “workers with higher social skills self-select into nonroutine occupations, and that this sorting leads to within-worker wage gains that are increasing in social skills”. The following chart illustrates this research:

The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market David J. Deming NBER Working Paper No. 21473 August 2015, Revised June 2017JEL No. J24,J31

Clearly the development of social intelligence – the ability to work with others, the ability to understand others, the ability to communicate effectively, the ability to work in teams – is a key to higher paying jobs in the future. We want to be clear, however, that the main justification for improving participation (with its sidebar of social intelligence) is to enhance student learning, deepen engagement, and help each teacher transform classrooms.

Note: Hattie shows that classroom discussion has an effect size of .82 on student performance! .8 is considered a large effect i.e. that 79% of students engaged in classroom discussion would do better than a group of students that didn’t.