More than the content of the texts the students read, the goal of a literature class is to allow students to gain skills of critical thinking and analysis. The essays they write are a performance of this skill, while peer review, revisions, and conferences with the professor help students hone their skills.
Before they can even begin to apply these skills, though, they need to develop them in class discussions.
This semester, there are 29 students in my Survey of Early British Literature. All 29 are invested in and excited about the class (to varying degrees, of course), but five or six students tend to dominate the discussion. They raise their hands immediately when a question is posed, and it becomes difficult to regulate the balance of voices when the other students have come to rely on these five or six always having an answer.
Apart from the basic concern of encouraging participation from every student, this does not allow the quieter students to develop the skills they will need for their essays. Since they know others will provide answers if they remain quiet, they don’t use the wait-time I try to provide to really dig deep and allow themselves to form their own thoughts and interpretations. It also is detrimental to the students who never have to deal with criticism or pushback against their ideas from anyone but the professor.
As I became increasingly frustrated by this, I decided to manipulate the roles of each student in our first class on the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. Using a group activity called “Leader, Skeptic, Scribe” (from The Pocket Instructor), I assigned each student a role directly opposite to their demonstrated classroom tendencies.
The five or six outspoken students became the Scribes, required to take notes on the group’s conversation and forbidden to talk. The quietest students became the Leaders, required to provide a preliminary answer to a set of questions. To prevent this from being a complete disaster with the quiet students being frozen and each group not getting any results, I made sure that each Skeptic had already demonstrated some critical ability and would be able to guide the group further, no matter what the Leader started off with. I also assigned at least two Skeptics to each group, to make sure that there would be enough critical analysis to be beneficial and allow the activity to work.
I handed out an assignment sheet to each group (image below), and talked them through it, stressing that although we call one member of each group the “Leader,” this is a mutually supportive group discussion. I gave a little speech about the benefits of this activity, pointing out that as we write essays, it’s difficult to be our own critics, and that this exercise allows us to practice those skills.
The Leader, I said, would have to defend or change their original arguments in the face of pushback. We often forget to do this when we write our own essays, because our arguments seem so clear to us. Having others attack our arguments helps our own critical thinking. The Skeptics would have to analyze the Leaders’s argument and look for inconsistencies or lack of evidence. Looking at an argument from the perspective of “what’s wrong with this” or “how can this be improved” is an important skill in our own writing, as well. Attacking someone else’s argument helps our own critical thinking. And the Scribes would have to pay careful attention to the twists and turns of the entire debate, which allows them to be more aware of how interpretations and textual evidence work together in an argument.
The activity started off quiet and slow, as most group activities do, since each group has to settle down and make sure they understand the activity. It soon got loud and intense and involved, with the Scribes scribbling furiously and the Leaders and Skeptics turning pages, marking lines, reading aloud in Middle English… As I continually made my rounds to each group, I realized most groups would only get to one character out of the three assigned to them. But in large part that was because their discussions were far more intense and detailed than I had anticipated.
The results were incredible.
First of all, the eager and talkative students actually listened to their classmates, some for the first time all semester. Though none of them said this outright, I did notice in at least two of them a new respect for their classmates that I had not seen before. In the following class, two students began explaining something they had discussed in their group, and the more talkative student (who had been the Scribe) deferred to the quieter student (who had been a Skeptic) by saying “no, you say it, you’re smarter than me.”
The most egregious talker had tended not to listen to any part of the conversation in the days before this activity. They would offer answers to my questions, they would offer detailed and lengthy explanations and interpretations of points in the text – but almost never did those comments engage with their classmates’ comments or respond to other points made in the course of the discussion. In the class following this activity, they were almost entirely silent, and their few comments directly responded to what others had said.
That in itself would have been enough for me to consider the activity a resounding success. Having the overly-vocal students quiet down would automatically create room for the more hesitant students to participate and contribute, and to use class discussion as a place to develop critical skills. But a comment from one of the quieter, less confident students told me the activity had also been successful in a more direct way.
In the class following this activity, I asked my students to take a few minutes and answer a few questions about how things are going in terms of the reading, writing, and class discussions. This is a method I’ve observed some of my colleagues doing, and they always talk about how helpful it is to allow students to provide this feedback and evaluation halfway through the semester rather than waiting until the end.
One student directly addressed the previous class’s “Leader, Skeptic, Scribe” activity. They are one of the quietest students in class, always attentive and listening intently to the discussion, but never raising their hand and declining to contribute when I cold-call them. I had, of course, assigned them to be the Leader in their group.
Here’s what they wrote in response to my question about discussions:
I like all discussions and group work. I just prefer not to be a leader but it wasn’t so bad, being able to talk first was great.
And with that, I felt the activity was a success. I could not have asked for a better response. Of course, as I mentioned above, I had deliberately chosen students who were already more comfortable with voicing thoughts to be the Skeptics.
But allowing the hesitant students to be Leaders, forcing the students who tend to think that their thoughts and interpretations of the text are not worth sharing, to not only contribute to the conversation but to actually begin it – there’s a sense of power they might gain from that. It gives them the opportunity to critically think about a question before anyone gives them a possible answer, which is in itself important, and it shows them that they can do it, too.
“Being able to talk first” does not simply mean having their voice heard before anyone else’s. It also means contemplating an issue or a question based on their own mind and their own interpretation of the text – allowing themself to figure out what they think without the clutter of everyone else’ voices in their head. Of course, the others’ ideas will then engage with their own. But in terms of development of both critical skills and confidence, “being able to talk first” is no small thing.
This student will almost certainly not magically begin to spontaneously offer opinions and insights from now on. Maybe they will reach deeper for an answer when I cold-call them. Maybe not. But for one day, for one class session, they stepped out of their comfort zone (okay, they were forced out of their comfort zone…) and discovered that “being able to talk first” is quite nice.
Image: a screenshot of the activity sheet I handed out in class.