October 17, 2017
Discussing Difficult Topics in the Classroom
Some classroom discussions are easy: comparing approaches to solving a mathematical problem, weighing various interpretations of a poem, or examining the historical roots of a profession. Sometimes, however, students raise questions—oftentimes unexpected and sometimes controversial—that can be truly complex and vexing public issues. Just consider the events happening in today's world that deeply affect our students!
When should instructors dedicate class time to discussing these issues, and what role can or should an instructor play in handling these types of discussions?
It is the impressionable minds of young college students that are continually morphing into fertile state of enquiry, and forming opinions on sensitive subject matter. Therefore, as tertiary educators, we may be faced with spontaneous controversial or hot button topics in our classroom discussions at some point(s) of our teaching career. My goal in this snippet is to provide steps to C.R.A.D.L.E. unplanned discussions that can sprout up during classroom dynamics.
- Be in Control. A myriad of opinions can spark a heated debate with opinions spiraling out of control. Maintain composure and display level of authority in this case. Lead the discussion yet be respectful of the situation.
- Revisit topic. If the nuances of the topic are unknown then one approach would be to ask students to research the topic for discussion at a future date.
- Assent to neutrality. Sensitive topics can lend to some biasness. As a facilitator, ensure you uphold neutral ground and not intercept your own personally formed biasness into the discussion.
- Honor Diversity. Use this opportunity to transcend the topic to other cultural or country landscapes.Including all students in discussion can be beneficial to the intellectual growth of the student.
- Listen to the student. Provide the student an opportunity to voice their opinion without interjecting. Make them feel innocuous in the classroom and not fearful of retaliation of comments made by them.
- Be the Enabler of ideas. Enable the discussion of ideas not students. This is key. Create a safe and nurturing environment dismissing any defensive statements spewed by the students in the discussion. The discussion should be free flowing and unthreatening.
RESOURCES FOR DISCUSSING DIFFICULT TOPICS IN THE CLASSROOM
Books (These titles are available in the CTL professional library, room 724. These books are available in print or ebook format through interlibrary loan at http://bit.ly/2yTst4A. You will need to login with your Faculty Portal credentials.)
Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Throughout the book, Brookfield and Preskill clearly show how discussion can enliven classrooms, and they outline practical methods for ensuring that students will come to class prepared to discuss a topic. They also explain how to balance the voices of students and teachers, while still preserving the moral, political, and pedagogic integrity of discussion.
Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2016). The discussion book: 50 great ways to get people talking. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
The fifty easily applied techniques in this timely manual spur creativity, stimulate energy, keep groups focused, and increase participation. Whether you're teaching classes, facilitating employee training, leading organizational or community meetings, furthering staff and professional development, guiding town halls, or working with congregations, The Discussion Book is your go-to guide for improving any group process.
Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility
TeachableMoment Classroom Lessons
Although intended for high school teachers, this Web site includes a long list of current issues that can be used to guide classroom discussion. For each issue, you will find background information, activities to do with students, and links to relevant media.
Instructor Presence Online
Students can easily feel isolated in a face-to-face classroom despite being surrounded by 20+ students at a time, so you can only imagine how this could be heightened in an online environment. Thus, instructors, particularly those who teach online, need to be intentional about creating a sense of presence in their courses so that students know that somebody is leading their educational experience.
How can you do this? Videos, photos, narratives—depending on one’s comfort level with the medium—can help create this sense of presence in advance of course delivery. Rob Watson, Director of the Business Incubator as well as a faculty in the International School of Business, and prior recipient of Kendall College Award for Excellence in Teaching, uses video quite a bit when he teaches online:
First let me say that teaching online is more difficult than teaching on-ground, flat out. As an instructor I found it natural to create engagement when teaching in front of actual students, but when I began to teach online I found it difficult to duplicate my success in online classes. While my on-ground course evaluations were always strong, I actually had some complaints and really bad course evaluations when I started teaching online. How could I make my on-ground teaching style successful in an online environment?
I decided to start using some of the tools I had close to me to see if it made a difference. The first thing I started doing was audio lectures on the weekly topics. I would use the voice memo function on my iPhone to do anywhere from 3- to 10-minute lectures discussing the weekly topics, comments on discussion boards, and resources for more information. I would then e-mail the audio file to myself and upload it to course documents or attach it in an announcement. I noticed a change in student engagement immediately. If a week went by without an audio lecture, I would receive emails from students requesting that an audio lecture be done.
Overall, it seemed these audio files created a stronger connection between me and the students. This also had a direct impact on student satisfaction as I there was often specific mention of the audio lectures as something students liked about the course in their evaluations. One of the benefits I hadn’t realized about the audio files was that students could download them and listen repeatedly as they attempted to complete the assignments.
Today, I still use audio files from time to time but more frequently I use the Kaltura Video Capture function in Blackboard. What students like about the videos is similar to the audio files only that they can see my face. Taking online classes can be a lonely experience so students often say the videos make it feel more like a “real class”. Blackboard also gives some functionality that I didn’t have with audio files through screen capture and video conferences through Collaborate. I also use the videos to actively comment on what’s happening in the participatory and social aspects of the class like discussion boards, I try to address specific comments students have made and challenge assumptions that I see students making in the discussion forums. I think this commentary reminds the students I’m reading and watching, and listening to their feedback or perspective.
Also, when you upload a video students are forced to login to the Blackboard site to view it, this causes students to be “in” the class more often. There’s a lot of information out there on the subject matter so I use the videos to add context and spotlight the most relevant information and sources.
Overall the addition of audio and video to my online “teaching toolbox” has totally changed the student experience in my class. Good stuff!
Want to learn more about using Kaltura to record videos, visit our list of Balckboard tutorial videos in the Teaching Toolbox at http://www.teachingtoolbox.us/tutorial-videos.
Having a Ball with Review
The purpose of the Ball Toss Activity was to prepare students for an in-depth class discussion regarding students' reflection on sustainability, both personal and professional, learned throughout the course. I chose this strategy because it was a unique platform for students to review course information and even provided a bit of physical engagement! More importantly, it gave each student a chance to 'break the ice' by having to speak in front of everyone.
To set up the activity, students arranged the desks into a large circle and placed a paper in front of them with their name, hometown/country, and other various countries they have lived in or visited. One student was given the 'Sustainability Ball'—a beach ball that I had found a local teacher resource store which included 107 basic questions about sustainability. That student answered Question #1, and then threw the ball to another student. That student answered the question that their right index finger had landed on and threw it to another. This process was repeated until every student had participated.
The students embraced the activity immediately. It fostered a collaborative environment as students helped each other answer questions! The discussion that followed was amazing as the activity helped refreshed course topics and created an atmosphere where students felt comfortable to ask each other questions based on their cultural perspective and individual experiences. Not only was the activity fun, but it was an educational experience for everyone where the students applied the knowledge learned throughout the quarter in an engaging and thoughtful way.
For more information about this technique on the Ideas for Teachers Web site at http://bit.ly/2gLNCTw.
New Books in the CTL
The and other professional books are available for faculty checkout in room 724. You can also browse our collection online at https://kendallctl.libib.com. Many of these books are available in print or ebook format through interlibrary loan at http://bit.ly/2yTst4A. (You will need to login with your Faculty Portal credentials.)
Hafer, G. R. (2014). Embracing writing: Ways to teach reluctant writers in any college course. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Embracing Writing responds to the writing-across-the-curriculum movement in a way that enables educators to integrate writing into their courses not just painlessly, but productively, instead of simply increasing their workloads with writing assignments that students dislike. Embracing Writing elucidates the principles of academic writing and shows instructors how to integrate writing with course content, blending them to enhance and deepen the higher education learning process.
King, K. P. (2017). Technology and innovation in adult learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Adult learning is on the rise, and there is no mistaking technology's role; whether they're learning with or about technology, today's adult learners come with unique sets of needs and skills that demand specialized approaches. Traditional pedagogical techniques don't transfer directly, and learning technology requires its own unique approach to development and use. Technology and Innovation in Adult Learning equips practitioners to further adult learning and shape the future of the field, while providing a rich perspective for classroom inquiry and research.
Seemiller, C., & Grace, M. (2016). Generation Z goes to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Authors Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace interpret and outline the implications of the data and offer higher education administrators, student affairs professionals, and faculty members recommendations for program, process, and curriculum changes that will maximize the educational impact on Generation Z students. Understanding and adapting to Generation Z's mindset and goals is paramount to supporting, developing, and educating them through higher education. Are you ready to welcome the next generation of students to your campus?