Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Helping Students Listen to Each Other

by Mike Wolfkiel

In Shared Inquiry™ discussions,  teachers often invite students to consider and respond to other students’ by asking follow-up questions featuring the word agree. This is an extremely valuable practice. It signals to all students that they should listen to one another and think about the ideas being offered. Sometimes however students fall into the habit of disagreeing just because what they hear a student say does not match their interpretation of the story events.

Here is an example from a discussion of the story "Thank You M'am" by Langston Hughes:

Jason: I think Roger didn’t say “Thank you, M’am” at the end because he was
so happy that Mrs. Jones would be willing to give him money.
Leader: Delia, do you agree that Roger can’t speak because he’s happy?
Delia: No, I disagree.
Leader: Why do you disagree?
Delia: At the end Roger’s lips were moving and nothing was coming out because
he was so confused by what she did.

In this example, we simply do not know yet whether Jason’s and Delia’s interpretations really differ. Because Delia’s key word  is confused and Jason uses the word happy,  Delia assumes that the two ideas are contradictory. But it is possible that after the leader probes with more follow-up questions it will turn out that the two interpretations are completely consistent. For example:

Leader: Jason, what do you mean when you say that Roger is “so happy”?
Jason: I mean that there is no way he could have ever expected she would do something like that, when he tried to steal from her.
Leader: So does Roger understand why Mrs. Jones is giving him the money.
Jason: No. He can’t understand it,  he can’t understand why anyone would just give money away.

The above reveals that Jason’s and Delia’s ideas are not necessarily that different. But it is equally possible that their ideas are contradictory:

Leader:  Jason, what do you mean when you say that Roger is “so happy”?
Jason: I mean that he wanted the shoes really bad. But he got caught and thinks
he’s going to jail, but instead he gets the shoes anyway. It couldn’t have worked out better for him.
Leader: So does Roger understand what Mrs. Jones is doing?
Jason: Yes. He understands that she is an incredibly nice lady and she wants him to have the shoes.

The point is that students often decide whether they agree or disagree before they have taken time to fully understand and reflect on what their classmates mean by what they say. This is an opportunity for the leader to slow things down and ask follow-up questions to encourage students to clarify their ideas and carefully consider their responses to the ideas of others.

So when Jason first says that Roger doesn’t say thank you because he is so happy and Delia says she disagrees because she thinks Roger is confused, the leader can ask follow-up questions such as these:

·      Jason, can you tell us what you mean when you say Roger is so happy?
·      Delia, what do you mean by confused?
·      Anyone, is there anything in Jason’s response that is different from your idea?
·      Did anyone use a similar or different way to talk about Roger's feelings?
·      Does anyone want to ask Jason a question about what he has just said?

Students sometimes confuse ideas with the words used to convey them. The same idea can often be expressed with very different words, words that might even seem to be contradictory. Conversely, very different ideas can sometimes be expressed in a way that makes them sound very similar. Here is one final example:

Leader:  Why can’t Roger say ‘Thank you, M’am’ at the end of the story?
Jason: He’s completely surprised.
Delia: I agree, he’s shocked.
Leader: Delia, can you tell us why you think Roger is shocked?
Delia: He knows that he did something really, really bad to this lady. So there is no way that she should ever be nice to him.
Leader: And Jason, is that what you mean when you say she is “completely surprised”?
Jason: I’m not sure. I think he’s surprised that he’s going to get the shoes after all.
Leader: Delia, is your idea about whether he is going to get the shoes?
Delia: Not really. It’s more about Mrs. Jones and what she is doing.

When students have fallen into rhythms and patterns of discussion that suggest they are not listening to one another very carefully,  elevate the expectations and deepen the interaction by asking follow-up questions that encourage attentive listening.

Mike Wolfkiel is a Senior Training Instructor for the Great Books Foundation. He has an MA in philosophy and a BA in philosophy and religious studies from Marquette University. And to the delight of his crabgrass and the dismay of his tennis game, he spends his spare minutes trying to write fiction.

No comments:

Post a Comment