A crazy couple of weeks with little time for blogging but I’d wanted to share one of the highlights of the workshop we did on Check for Understanding two weeks ago- getting some time–in the lunch lime–to chat with Williamsburg Collegiate’s Ryan Miller about a series of blogs I’d recently done (here, here and especially here) about keeping discussion “inside the box.” The series culminated with a video of Ryan running a Socratic discussion group where he stepped in to ask his students to respond to one another in a disciplined on-topic way. Essentially he said, “Hey one of your classmates just made a good point, I’d like to hear you respond to it before you simply move on to an new topic.” A simple but hugely valuable move.
In the course of working our way from salad to sandwiches Ryan made a couple of key clarifications about effective discussions, especially those where the teacher steps back a little bit and allows/expects students to talk and respond directly to one another.
1) Ryan was glad that I’d made the point in my blog that as compelling as full-on Socratic discussions—i.e. students in a “fishbowl” talking to one another about a specific text with limited teacher intervention for an extended period of time—like the one in his video are to see, they are a “special event” more than a daily event. He noted that he actually does these discussions about twice a semester and that he thinks that’s about the right dosage. Making them relatively infrequent makes them special and important and invests them with a high level of focus.
2) Ryan also noted that while the Socratic discussion are great (if rare) he’s been at least as happy if not happier with a simpler application of student-to-student discussions which he thinks is the real driver of thinking skills because he does it in a simple and consistent way. For simplicity’s sake here are the ground rules: “Two minutes, on the clock, every day.” Meaning that in every lesson Ryan asks a really rigorous question, sets a clock for two minutes and then steps back and lets the kids play volleyball—i.e. talk and respond directly to one another without in most cases teacher mediation. The two minutes he finds is plenty. It’s actually quite a lot of time for a discussion and it brings out the best parts without letting it linger for two long. And it honors the time he needs to do and teach other things. By putting it on the clock he holds himself accountable. By doing it every day he makes a habit out of it and students get better over time.
3) Some other points Ryan made about “Two minutes on the clock every day.”
a. He said it wasn’t really his idea… that all of the teachers at Williamsburg Collegiate were doing it together and getting synergies out of it. Hooray for teamwork!
b. He tried to be really disciplined about making the conversation connect to the central idea of the lesson. Always.
c. He trained his students on Habits of Discussion—i.e. how to respond to one another and build off their ideas.
d. He never hesitated to interrupt for meta reasons—i.e. to shape their actions in discussing—but did so far less often on content. The idea here is that he has 58 other minutes in class to help them see the facts and interpretations of history the way he thought they should. They were allowed to wrestle with intellectual ideas with varying degrees of success during the two minute discussion. But they weren’t allowed to discuss badly- make off task comments, not stay on topic, not develop or connect to the previous idea, etc. For those things he said, he stepped in. he might have used the word “unrepentantly.”
Anyway I thought that was tremendously useful and thought I’d share.