"The More, The Merrier" Is Only True for Parties: The Dangers of Whole
Feb 4, 2017 Speaking/Listening 857 Views
We've all been there before, as a student or as the teacher: the teacher finishes talking about a topic and then "broadcasts" a question to the whole group. What happens next? Often, nothing. Nada. Crickets. A whole herd of deer in headlights.
And then after that initial uncomfortable time-span, what then? Usually anywhere from two to five students raise their hands to participate. The others just sit there. Are these other students thinking about the topic, but just not willing to share? Or are they thinking about what they're going to have for lunch? There's no way to tell.
Sound familiar? It should. In the vast majority of classrooms across the United States, this scene is played out a number of times every day. And yet, if you ask teachers to list the problems with whole-group discussion, they can tick them off in a matter of moments. Here are some of the problems that they will usually list:
· The teacher usually does most of the talking
· Only a small percentage of the class participates
· The same few students participate every time, so they tend to dominate the class
· The teacher gets so used to these same students answering that he calls on them first and most often out of habit, even when other students do want to participate
· Students who need a little more think time before they are ready to answer get overshadowed by the fast processors, who have usually already been called on before the slower processors decide they have something to say
· Slower processing students give up and decide not to even try to participate in whole-group discussions
· The teacher never finds out what a significant percentage of the class thinks or knows about the topic
"OK," you say, "If teachers already know that whole-class discussion is a recipe for disengaged learners, why do so many of them keep using it?" Good question! Perhaps because that's the way they were taught when they were students, and it worked for them (of course, those students who end up being teachers are invariably the students who raised their hands to participate). Perhaps the text materials they use direct them to use whole-group discussion frequently. Or perhaps they just don't know about other alternatives.
Whatever the reason, it is extremely important that these teachers find a way to engage all students immediately after input. This move from input to processing is crucial, and teachers can't afford to lose students-any students-during the transition.
When transitioning from input to processing time, the goal should be to engage as many students as possible, simultaneously. Whole-group discussion, on the other hand, is sequential in nature, with one person speaking at a time (and, in my experience, the teacher ends up talking about ¾ of the time, with those two to five students who are participating making up the other ¼). This is a clear waste of class time, and is unacceptable.
So, what are the alternatives? Well, if a teacher wants to engage 100% of the students right away, one choice is to give an individual processing assignment such as freewriting about the topic, or filling in or creating a graphic organizer about the topic. The one drawback to an individual processing assignment is that it does not involve a social component, something that most students enjoy. This can be remedied by using a two-step process where students process individually first, then share their work with a partner (a write-pair-share).
Another option is to move straight from input to some type of pair activity. The simplest form of pair work is the quick think-pair-share. The teacher has students pair up, then asks a question. Students think about it for a few seconds, then share their thoughts with their partners. The teacher may then ask for a few call-outs to the whole group.
At this point, some of you may be saying, "OK, now we're back to whole-group processing again. I thought we were trying to get away from that." But it's important to recognize the difference between whole-group processing and whole-group sharing. While it's true that having a few students share out to the whole group limits the percentage of students who are fully engaged at that moment (because of its sequential nature), there are some major differences between going directly to whole-group, teacher-led discussion and this "pair-share first" method.
For one thing, all students are engaged during the pair-share, with 50% talking first and the other 50% listening, and then vice-versa, so that 100% of the students process the topic once verbally and a second time by listening to the thoughts of another student.
In addition, the pair-share adds the engagement of a social interaction to the mix. When the teacher then asks some students to share out whole group, a much higher percentage of students are willing to share than if the teacher had gone straight to whole-group discussion. This is because all students, fast-processing and slow-processing alike, have had a chance to think through the topic, prepare an answer, and practice once in the safety of the pair-share.
Still another option is to move straight from input to a small group processing activity of some sort. Many schools use cooperative learning methodology, and groups of four are often used for these processing activities. There are many cooperative learning structures that can be used to process input (for example, round robin, three-step interview, or numbered heads together).
In addition to the obvious advantage presented by having students work with others in their comfortable, long-standing cooperative learning teams, cooperative learning also offers the advantage of highly-structured interactions designed to keep some students from doing most of the work and others from shirking and falling through the cracks.
Advantages of Ditching Whole-Group Discussion
No matter which of the above options an individual teacher chooses as a replacement for whole-group discussion, there are three major advantages she will reap:
1. A higher percentage of students will be simultaneously engaged with processing, which means that more students will learn the material at a deeper level;
2. When students work together to process meaning, the resulting work is usually of higher quality because the processing activity involved an element of feedback. Two heads (or three, or four) are usually better than one; and
3. Since the teacher does not have to lead the discussion, these processing activities allow the teacher to get "off stage" and mingle with students, answering individual questions, prodding students to think more deeply, and assessing student progress.
All in all, if I could wave a magic wand and immediately take one teaching practice off the table for all teachers, whole-group discussion would be the practice that I would make disappear. We all know how deadly it is for engagement and learning, and there are plenty of other, much more effective options.