Student analysis and dialogue as part of the everyday classroom experience

When I reflect on the teacher certification program that I completed more than a decade ago, I often think about the methods course that I enrolled in.  The professor who taught it had worked as a high school social studies teacher before returning to graduate school to pursue a doctorate in history.  Throughout the semester he repeatedly emphasized that every meeting cannot simply be a ‘stand and deliver’ lecture, and that we needed a variety of approaches to be effective educators.  That message resonated with me back then, and continues to inform my teaching style all of these years later.

Now, occasionally you will have an instructor who is animated or interesting enough to keep your attention for the better part of 50 (or 75) minutes, but frequently lectures are protracted monologues where students ask few questions.  As a result, the flow of information is largely unidirectional.  If you attended college, then chances are you’ve had this unpleasant experience.  The fact that it is still very common is frustrating because learning opportunities are lost as students are allowed to be passive recipients of information who don’t engage one another or the instructor on the content.  While I am a strong proponent of in-class activities (e.g. small group cooperative learning exercises), my focus here is to explain how I am shifting away from standard lecturing and moving toward presenting information in an effort to encourage analysis and dialogue.

I believe the Socratic Method is a powerful tool.  For years I’ve felt that it’s vital to open a class with a question because I find this to be an excellent way to gauge students’ prior knowledge, revisit concepts discussed in a previous meeting, draw connections across the content area, and stimulate thought about the latest topic being introduced.  This is a valuable starting point.  I might simply ask everyone to define a term in their own words or I may ask an open ended question about an idea that requires a substantive explanation.  Needless to say, once my questions start they aren’t going to stop.

Like many college instructors, I prepare 8-15 slides per class meeting that outline the material, i.e. themes, concepts, phenomena, ideas, developments, issues, and/or events.  Where I begin to diverge is that I incorporate different sources of information into my outlines as a way to enrich the presentation.  For example, in my History of the United States classes I include quotes, images, maps, audio files, and video clips for students to interpret.  This past spring I spent hours online searching for primary documents from credible sources such as archives, museums, historical societies, presidential libraries, universities, and other government sites.

To make good use of these supplemental materials, before class I choose four or five different major items in the presentation to focus on that I think will generate student discussion.  My goal is to facilitate and guide, not direct and restrict.  When I reach each of these items in the outline (e.g. advertisements for consumer goods in the 1920s and President Ford’s speech where he pardoned Richard Nixon in 1974), I ask students to analyze the primary source(s) in an effort to explore the issues in greater depth.  If successful, this can take anywhere from 5-10 minutes.  Here I have found that students respond when they know their opinions matter.  This is important for a couple of reasons.  First, it stimulates active learning because students won’t simply be taking notes the entire time.  Secondly, it encourages analytical thinking that is immediately relevant in other contexts.  (People consider the messages in advertisements and the reasons public officials give for their decisions.)

If an institution is truly learner centered, then the flow of information cannot only be unidirectional from instructor to student because this alone does not create an optimal learning environment.  As teachers, I think it’s imperative for us to examine how we approach our craft and constantly look for ways to grow as practitioners.  Yes, this is an ongoing process of reevaluation, but simple changes to our methods can yield more desirable outcomes that have far reaching implications beyond the walls of the classroom itself.