September 26, 2011

Deepen Student Thinking With Seminars

For the last few years my students have participated in "debates" every other Friday - students would read about a controversial issue, then sit in a circle and discuss their own opinions. I wanted to improve my students's abilities to support their opinions and ideas with logical reasoning. I also wanted to foster their appreciation of a variety of perspectives.
And every year students got better and better at supporting their own views and respecting the views of others. Another real plus - the students loved these debates.

But there was a problem -

The debates felt too antagonistic. I realized that I had set it up this way by asking students to defend a position. This antagonism meant that students learned to appreciate others' ideas, but they weren't very open to changing their own minds. As a graduate student, I realized that the best discussions about tough issues happen when people are open to changing their own minds. Perhaps students would deepen their thinking even more if these discussions didn't have an Us v. Them undercurrent.

So... I did some research and made some changes...

We had our first "seminar" last week on the topic of school uniforms. I used a format similar to the one pioneered by the National Paideia Center. Here's how it went:

* I showed the students some photos of common American uniforms. Then the students read a 1 page nonfiction article exploring the pros and cons of school uniforms from Storyworks magazine. While reading, they wrote their thoughts in the margins and made a chart of 3 pros and 3 cons.

* We discussed the "norms" of a seminar and the students chose a goal to work on from this list -
Look at the speaker
Refrain from talking while someone else is speaking
Speak at least twice
Speak loudly so that everyone can hear me
Share talk time fairly
Make clear statements
Refer to the text
Ask a question
They wrote their goal on an index card "tent" for all to see.

* I prepared an opening question, "Students should be required to wear school uniforms. Do you completely agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or completely disagree." We answered this question in round-robin style.

* I had prepared 7 core questions to choose from. Because only 3 students said they agreed, I started with "How important is clothing to your identity?"

* Students shared ideas back and forth. I intervened as little as possible. The most interesting portion of the seminar centered around the question, "Which is more important, safety or freedom of expression?"

* The seminar was going strong when we finally had to wrap it up after about 30 minutes.

* The students each wrote a brief reflection on the seminar. They had to answer two questions:
1. What are you thinking now about school uniforms?
2. How did the seminar help your thinking, list a specific person who helped you?

A sample student response:
"Now my thinking about uniforms is it depends on the school. For example a big school should and a little school shouldn't. This seminar helped my thinking when Hannah said it depends on what school, because that's true! Also when Summer commented on my opinion it helped me think more about what I said."

So now the big question, did changing the format from a debate to a seminar achieve my goal of fostering a more collaborative, thoughtful dialogue?

The answer is a resounding YES!

The debate format I used before created an atmosphere of Us v. Them. Students felt that they needed to convince others of their position and sway them to change their minds. As a result, most students became even more fixed in their opinions, rather than more open to the ideas of others.

In the seminar the entire tone changed. The students said things like:
"I agree with Joseph because..."
"Now that Madison said... I'm thinking that..."
"I think Tyler has a point because... but I also disagree because..."

I also noticed that at the end of the seminar the students were much more satisfied with the experience than they had been after debates. Rather than being concerned about which position "won" the debate, they expressed amazement at how talking together deepened their thinking.

All in all, a positive change


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  1. I really enjoyed reading through all your posts. You have some great ideas for contemporary teaching methods and your use of technology tools.
    Thanks for sharing. I will be interested in hearing how the kidsblog digital portfolios work also.
    Verona Gridley

  2. Great ideas! If only members of congress and the house treated their sessions more like your seminars, together they could come up with better solutions to the issues we face as a nation. Unfortunately too many seem stuck in the debate mentality and short comings you described in your students becoming "even more fixed in their opinions, rather than more open to the ideas of others." Issues are usually complex and rarely can one person come to a perfect solution on their own. Perhaps through more teachers like you, the students of today will be better leaders in the future. I really enjoy reading all of your blogs, especially knowing that what you write about is not only theories and ideas, but also new practices you have implemented with your students.
    - Christina