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Ramble on Intervening for Productive Talk

March 4, 2017

This semester in physics I’ve been much more aware and much more willing to intervene when unproductive talk takes hold of a class discussion.

Some of my cues for unproductive talk include:

– matter of fact tone of voice (as opposed to students offering up a possibility for thinking).

– too few contributions that are about what doesn’t make sense (e.g. “What I don’t get is”, “what I’m still stuck on… “)

– too few revoicings / add ons. I need to hear a certain ratio of follow ups like, “ok, so agree with so-and -so…” or “I hear what so-and-so is saying about xyz, but…” I’m also fine with changing subject with, “ok, so one thing I think we haven’t even thought about yet is… ” because it’s letting everyone know that a new idea is coming.

So how do I intervene: 

Over time, we have just had a lot of conversations about “normal feeling friend talk” vs “awkward feeling power talk”. I have modeled what it sounds like, and we have talked about examples. So one way I can intervene now is just to say, I want to interrupt for a second and just let you know that I’m Feeling like this conversation is starting to sound awkward to me. Does anybody feel like they have a normal sounding contribution to make? If not, that’s OK, I just wanted to point it out. This is done usually in a light-hearted way, and students have often been able to follow up with good normal talk.

The second intervention is based on conversations about how it would feel if you were having coffee with a friend, and you just told them either some good news or bad news, and your friend just said nothing or the next thing they said was about something completely different. I model how a friend might respond by revoicing, and elaborating. And I talk about how that’s how we want to talk in class… good friends don’t just say nothing or change the subject. Early on I would interrupt and make us practice. On good days, students are doing a lot of this on their own.

An important intervention is recognizing when the task or question (or me!) is actually the problem making it awkward. Sometimes the conversation is bad not because people are talking awkwardly, but because I’ve done a poor job antcipating what was needed or appropriate. I have also been the person using a poor of tone of voice, and I have said so in front of my students. “Why am I talking this way. Maybe I’m the problem today?” It’s good to model that we all just sometimes fall into a way of talking, that we never intended. Abandoning or changing a bad task is important. 

Early on I frequently interrupted student to quickly say, “tell them not me” if they were addressing me, and even hid on the floor behind tables if needed. Again, I kept these light hearted. Doing this early and often means I do it rarely now.

Recognizing when a conversation has gotten so exciting, that so many people are bursting with new ideas, that we need to go back to small groups. Like now! It’s easy to create a situation where small talk is boiling over and the speaker isn’t being listened to, or you as instructor are having to intervene in harsh ways. When I see this happening, I almost always say, “it looks like everyone needs a moment to chat with their group.” 

Having a way to end a conversation where some havereached  resolution and are bored , but some are still confused, and maybe others are just exhausted. This is hard. It’s fine for this to happen sometimes, but if this starts happening too often and with the same people, Boredom becomes resentment, confusion becomes despair, and exhaustion becomes frustration. One of my go to moves is “choose to be an explainer or an explainee” I tell students maybe you feel like you don’t yet get it and you’d like to hear an explanation. Maybe you feel like you do get it, but it would be nice to try to voice that explanation a loud. Every student gets to choose whether they hear or practice an explanation. I tell them that I recognize that we may be moving on before everyone is fully ready. 

Another  move I use from time to time is to ask to hear from someone who changed their minds, to say what their initial idea was, and what they heard that convinced them to change their mind. This doesn’t always work, but it gets us focused on arguments, and the learning process of being convinced. It also often invites new people into the conversations. 

Another place I intervene is in group work. I try to offer non-judgmental observations about things I notice. Yesterday, a group of two males and two females were working at the whiteboard. The two guys were facing each other near the wrhiteboard, and the two female students were boxed out. I came over and watched for a while, and it persisted, so I said, “I want to tell you something that I’m noticing. And I’m not assigning any blame here. … ” I described what I saw, and noted how this kind of thing can happen without anyone intending, but I also told them that this kind of thing happening unintentionally again and again is a problem. I told them that they didn’t have to actually change anything, but that they should make conscious decisions about it rather than letting it accidentally happen and not even noticing. The followed up with the group later to ask how things were going, and I thought and they thought it was much better.

Another intervention I’ve done is intervening with the outsider. Sometimes a group of 3 will be working closely, but 1 in the group hangs back. Instead of prodding them to get involved, I’ll often just say, “I notice your hanging back. Sometimes when I hang back, it means I’m actually carefully listening and watching, but other times it’s because I’m disengaging or feeling left out. ” I try to ask them about how engaged they feel right now. I might leave by just saying, “maybe later you will feel like getting involved again, and if so that’s great. Let the others know if and when you are ready.” I try to keep the pressure off, because my goal is not to coerce participation but to equip them with awareness of their current choices and possible options for making different choices. 

As much as believe in that last statements, if I am explicit about my expectations for group work on a particular task. I try to hold students accountable, and I will apply pressure in situations where I feel it’s warranted. Even then, I try to make it matter of fact, not judgmental. “This tasks works best when everyone is …”, “I expect everyone to be… ” I will often be sympathetic, but firm. 

I’m sure there’s more I can say, but I think I’m done writing for now … 


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