Tips to Avoid Failure
The best way to avoid the impediment of a combative classroom is to require strict adherence to the following guidelines for deliberation (particularly the first couple of times you run a deliberation in your class) (see also Guidelines for Deliberation in the Handout section):
- We reference the shared research.
- We listen to learn and not to respond.
- We ask questions to clarify and probe.
- We recognize the importance of slience.
- We don't interrupt.
- We don't label the viewpoints of others.
- We consider local, national, and international contexts.
These guidelines are designed to bring as many people into the conversation as possible. The goal is to have every student contribute personal interpretations, supply supporting details, pose questions to other students, and be mindful of the role they and others are playing in the deliberative dialogue.
The challenge, of course, is to strike the right balance. While it is desirable for all students to feel as though their opinions have merit, an idyllic, tension-free conversation where everyone simply yields to one another, or agrees to agree for the sake of being civil, is not desired either. The goal is to have discussion where there is some give-and- take, where there is some “tension” in which certain basic assumptions are challenged and certain viewpoints probed.
In order to ensure that deliberative dialogues have this delicate balance (of give-and-take and yielding and tension), students should be taught to ask questions that (Brookfield and Preskill, 2005, 85-7):
- Ask for more evidence
- Ask for clarification
- Are open-ended
- Link or extend
Skilled questioning encourages other students to express their thoughts in a more coherent manner. As a general rule, leading questions should not be asked in deliberative dialogues; in other words, students should not ask questions for which there is an intended answer. Instead, linking or extending questions enable an environment “in which new insights emerge from prior contributions of group members; linking or extensions questions actively engage students in building on one another’s response questions.” (Brookfield and Preskill, 2005, 87)
Deliberative dialogues work best when opinions are backed with evidence, so students should develop the habit of forming questions that elicit more evidence. The “Deliberative Dialogue Prep Worksheets,” that students generated while researching the topic in Step Three: Investigate, can be very useful because they allow students to refer directly back to the materials they studied in order to provide additional evidence. Because of this, it is critical for students to come to the deliberative dialogue with very detailed and complete “Deliberative Dialogue Prep Worksheets.”
The second impediment, an overly assertive teacher, can also obstruct open discussion and effective deliberation by not allowing the deliberation to be the students’ forum. This part of process needs to be the exclusive domain of the students. The teacher played an integral part by creating the deliberation questions, as well as guiding the students through the investigative stage. Now it is time for the teacher to cede the process to the students, trusting that (by virtue of their preparation) the students can deliberate on their own. While the students are deliberating, the teacher should avoid the urge to step in, remembering that:
Whatever the preparation for class is, it will probably not go exactly as planned. This is where the need for the teacher to let go and have some confidence arises. With a little patience we find that often the students will ask the right question, or develop questions along thoughtful and interesting lines. These may not be the questions or topics that the teacher had planned, but if the discussion is on topic and driven by the students then they are getting something out of it and learning the material. And the teacher has to let go. Silences, feared and dreaded by most teachers new to this pedagogy, are quite often nothing more than a moment in time when the students are all thinking, and if the teacher were to rush and fill the silence the students will become dependent on this and effectively be "let off the hook.” (Smith & Foley, 2009, p. 484)
A good way for the teacher to avoid getting overly involved is to set up the room so that the students are physically central, with six to eight student desks in a circle in the center of the room and the remaining student desks in a larger outer circle around them (this is sometimes called a fishbowl). In this way, the focal point of the classroom becomes the deliberative dialogue. The teacher sits inconspicuously in the outer circle with responsibilities limited to reminding the students of the guidelines prior to each unique deliberation and during the deliberation as necessary, restating the deliberative question being considered by each group, assessing each student’s participation, and choosing an appropriate time to end each deliberation. The key point is, once a deliberation has started, the teacher should not have to say anything in the conversation because it should be all student-generated.
Another task the teacher will need to attend to is keeping the students in the outer circle engaged while the students in the inner circle are deliberating. The teacher could have them fill out a “Fact, Question, and Response Worksheet,” generate conversation webs that track who talks during the discussion, or incorporate a “prompter’s chair” by placing an empty chair in the inner circle and allowing one student at a time from the outer circle to sit in it temporarily and ask a question or bring up a point that she/he feels should addressed (see Guidelines: Prompter’s Chair handout below).
Smith, L.A., & Foley, M. (2009). Education Partners in a Human Enterprise: Harkness Teaching in the History Classroom. The History Teacher, 42(4), 477-496.