Thursday, January 26, 2012

Conversation starter

Today's GP session was aimed at shifting attention away from the most boring person in the classroom -- teacher -- and getting the kids stimulated enough to have a proper, focused, discussion in the form of a real conversation instead of the usual random picking of names from a list or a round-robin and forcing the poor, unlucky individual to blurt something before going right back to mental lala-land for the rest of the period.

We fall back on the ol' traditional methods because as teachers, we feel it's our responsibility to keep the information flowing. If there's a question to be answered and everyone is avoiding eye-contact with us, we prompt, cajole and finally give in and call the kid who looks most likely to be falling asleep from the whole leaden atmosphere. We keep our classes quite only to be pressured into being the one making the most noise.

The kids, themselves, only feel obliged to respond when it's their turn (however that may be arranged) and once they've said their piece, they mentally check out of class with great relief. Wait for bell.

Teaching JC2, there is a unique circumstance I can leverage on to gear tutorials towards a more free-flowing, spontaneous exchange of ideas between different students, with most everyone engaged throughout the discussion. First, there is the time limit that is their final exam (as of today, nine months, tops). Second, we can always keep reminding them how little time we have left to get them ready for the finals -- that makes them really antsy. In physics, we call this 'potential energy'.

The switch transforming potential to kinetic energy is in me lowering my status by sitting down so that my head doesn't tower over anyone else's. I distribute the discussion material and tell them that I haven't prepared anything for the discussion, showing them a blank tutorial worksheet as evidence. It starts out as a painful silence. They might beg to revert to the old call-random-person routine again to break the tension but I refuse, remaining silent. Tick, tick, tick... kids, that's the sound of seconds ticking away to your final exams. Wanna learn something? Better venture something.

Now's the time to be sensitive. If there is a vibe of growing rebellion, order a reprieve and allow them to 'rehearse' their discussion in smaller groups first. Don't bother organizing, they can organize themselves. Otherwise, the bolder individuals would offer tentative stabs at the discussion material, and that's when I can swing into action. Take what they offer, rephrase it, contextualize it, focus it, encourage them and thank them for their contribution, and always throw the thought back for someone else to nibble. The next offering may be for a different thought, but that's fine, do the same as before and throw it back. It's important that it appears that I am listening intently to the speaker 'cos the other kids will feel more at ease to offer their thoughts and so it spreads.

It's important that the energy built up is passed on quickly between participants in the conversation. Speed keeps the discussion interesting, and the more participants there are, the less likely anyone is going to lose interest.

Will the discussion be monopolized by the more vocal kids? It's inevitable, but try often to encourage the more quiet kids to make an offer during lulls. Hopefully they'll pick up and join the crowd, or we just have to hope they're listening and taking notes 'cos they're not naturally the gregarious type.

Apart from the pain of awkward silences at first, it's a risky operation. Depending on how boisterous a tutorial group can get, it may look to others that classroom discipline has gone out the window. Kids may misinterpret your intentions and complain that you don't come to class prepared, or that you're not teaching the content in a systematic manner that they can understand, or that the lesson is not focused on the exam enough. Or you could have a really 'duh' class which takes the silence as an opportunity to catch up on some other fiercer teacher's homework or take a nap 'cos it seems like a better use of their time. Ah, all the hazards of student-centered learning, depending on how perverse the student centre can be.

But we ARE prepared, though we tell the kids we aren't. Nevertheless, improvising responses on the fly can be quite stressful for the I-must-know-all-the-answers kind of teacher. Thankfully I'm quite prepared to celebrate my ignorance, so that doesn't bother me in the least.

But it is difficult to learn subject content this way. Ideas keep moving faster than it takes to write them all down. So what's the point? In these discussions, the kids learn to listen to one another and view a focused topic of interest from a multitude of their own perspectives. They learn to share ideas with one another, and that shared ideas can be built upon to create bigger, better ideas. They learn to learn, and maybe that's the most important lesson of all. Once they've got that figured out, they're ready to take their finals, and free themselves of their dependence on teachers forever.

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