As both a high school and post-secondary teacher, I have struggled with how to foster an inclusive classroom discussion without resorting to punitive measures. Certainly teachers would rather use “carrot” methods of incentivizing over the punishing “stick,” but often resort to the latter. This begs the question: what, in fact, is the carrot of classroom discussion?
According to Walter Parker (2003), “[d]iscussion is a kind of shared inquiry the desired outcomes of which rely on the expression and consideration of diverse views” (p. 129). For a classroom conducive to democratic discussions, teachers need to help “young people develop the skills, knowledge, and dispositions that allow them to collectively make decisions about how we ought to live together” (Hess & McAvoy, 2014, p. 11). Thus, the goal of discussion is to create democratic discourse—the aforementioned discussion carrot is making all students’ voices heard.
A problem when attempting to create a truly inclusive, democratic discussion is treating students’ participation efforts homogenously, rather than considering a spectrum of abilities or strengths. In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain examines how American culture, including schools, values extroverted qualities, undervaluing those of introverts. “Adolescence is the great stumbling place [for many introverts]” where “the main currency is vivacity and gregariousness; attributes like depth and sensitivity don’t count for much” (p. 263).
Particularly relevant to teachers in considering how students participate is Cain’s comparison of features of extroversion versus introversion:
- Extroverts: enjoy more stimulation; tackle problems quickly; comfortable multi-tasking, risk-taking; “think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words” (p. 11).
- Introverts: enjoy less stimulation; work more slowly; prefer to focus on one task; “listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation” (p. 11).
Though the above is not a comprehensive summary of Cain’s discussion of extroversion and introversion—she cautions readers not to see it as a binary, nor as a means to label individuals—her comparison nonetheless challenged me to think about how traditional classroom discussions favor some qualities over others, as well as how to intentionally foster the strengths and address the needs of my students. Considering the different abilities of students isn’t a new concept in the field of education. However, Cain provides an interpretive lens through which teachers can further reflect on their pedagogical practices. What follows are strategies I integrated into my secondary and post-secondary classrooms to foster my extroverted and introverted students’ strengths, and thus, make all voices heard.
In creating student pairings or groups, it is important that all are contributing. Learning about students allows the teacher to be considerate of their particular strengths and weaknesses when creating groups, ensuring that each has a role that contributes to the whole.
I have students provide the following information on an index card:
- What do you believe are your personal strengths and weaknesses?
- What strengths do you bring to the classroom?
- To group assignments/work?
- To class discussions?
- In what settings do you feel you are at your strongest (as a student and an individual)?
Consideration of this information can facilitate intentional groupings where members can work in cooperation, creating a foundation for democratic discussions.
In a typical discussion, the same handful of students’ hands shoot up after each question. By implementing a processing time, students must wait (30 seconds or more) and write down notes/thoughts as a means to help them articulate a clear answer.
A standard approach to a cooperative classroom discussion, Think-Pair-Share (Lyman, 1981), can easily integrate this practice, addressing the needs of both extroverts and introverts. After posing a question, the “think” portion acts as the individual processing time before comparing perspectives in the student “pair.” Though one student may be more dominant in such pairings, teachers can require that the information that they “share” with the entire class integrate both students’ responses. This process can take much pressure off of students to quickly respond to questions, while also ensuring that all are a part of the discussion, whether or not each individual student is speaking in front of the class.
A wait time, coupled with T-P-S, challenges both extroverted and introverted students to face their discomfort, while still respecting their abilities by providing space to use their strengths. It allows intentional opportunities for introverted students to express thoughts and has extroverted students listen, then thoughtfully process before speaking.
A dynamic, democratic discussion necessitates participation from all members of the classroom. This requires that teachers reconsider how they structure discussions so as to consider the many ways in which students can contribute. Indeed if our pedagogical strategies for discussion remain static, the results will be as well. Though my implementation continually evolves, these approaches have helped create a more inclusive, democratic classroom.
Cain, S. (2013). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Random House.
Hess, D. E., & McAvoy, P. (2015). The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education. New York, NY: Routledge.
Lyman, F. (1981). The Responsive Classroom Discussion: The Inclusion of All Students Mainstreaming Digest. College Park, MD: University of Maryland.
Parker, W. (2003). Teaching Democracy: Unity and Diversity in Public Life. New York: Teachers College Press.