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Leading From Behind in Class Discussions

April 25, 2014

Late yesterday afternoon a teacher stopped by my classroom, seeking some advice. She said that a student told her at the end of class that “You seem to only ask questions where you know the answer.” This teacher was caught by this observation — yet, she also admitted that she knew the student was right.  “I want to control the discussion,” she confessed. “I prepare a lot so that I can know what might happen.”

This teacher’s admission reminded me how hard it is to have a meaningful, significant discussion — at any stage of our teaching career. We want to prepare; we know there are certain key points that need to be covered; yet we also want those spontaneous moments of discovery, not just for the students, but for us as teachers. We want to be learning and exploring too, no matter how well we know our subjects.  How can we make sure our deep preparation doesn’t get in the way of student discovery?

So we thought about ways to ‘fix’ this situation. She said she needed to ask questions she really cared about asking — questions she was curious to explore. We thought about ways to get the students to direct the conversation more: having them come in with questions; putting their questions on the board at the start of class; focusing on those questions in small groups; giving the students counter-arguments from critical sources to put pressure on initial answers; having small groups, rather than summarizing what they discussed, instead figure out what their next questions were based on their discussion. We thought about ways to connect what she was teaching to the events of today — how to make her topics and questions relevant to her students’ world. She admitted she was slightly scared about having the discussion go where she wasn’t leading it to go, but she also realized those were exactly the classes she relished the most when she was a student in high school, college and graduate school. 

To get to that moment, she ultimately realized, was an act of faith: faith in the students’ ability to think freshly and originally, faith in her own ability to pose questions that were significant and alive, faith in the class’s collaborative resource to explore and discover.

While we must prepare, we must also be present in the discussion to recognize when we have a new path or journey given to us. This brave teacher reminded me how exciting and terrifying that moment is: we are at cliff-side, creating a bridge collectively through faith, curiosity and intellectual resilience.

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