Our students are participating. But do our classroom conversations matter?

Students (10th-12th) discuss where to place each philosopher they’ve studied on a continuum of statements about ethics, epistemology, human nature, and metaphysics.

On any topic, in any language, whether we understand what’s being said or not, we know a great conversation when we see one.

People make eye contact. They lean in. Their faces are expressive. Their hands and their pacing convey some urgency: they want to be understood and to understand. There are visible indications that they are trying out new ideas: silent pauses, scrunched up brows, tilted heads. There is nodding to indicate common ground, and there are upturned palms and pointed fingers to mark disagreements. There’s almost always laughter.

These are the conversations that draw us in from afar. We crave these unpredictable and rich human interactions, hoping they will remind us that we matter and are worthy of being heard, hoping they will free us from our unthinking routines and narrow expectations of what’s possible.

Conversations are great when they help us experience the joy of discovering other ways of seeing and being in the world. Great conversations are opportunities to encounter and make sense of new information in partnership, to think in parallel alongside other human beings who care as much as we do about finding the truth. Ultimately, by both challenging us and fulfilling us, great conversations remind us who we are and who we want to be

Most of us, of course, have been trained to expect rote, shallow, and procedural talk in the most important spheres of our lives. Students arrive in our classes with much the same expectations we bring to faculty meetings: an authority figure has set an agenda, and we must get through it. Well-intentioned administrators face the same challenges we teachers do: how do we break people out of these low expectations? How do we create the conditions for our students to have great conversations?

I’ve been thinking about these questions this semester as I watch my colleagues and my students and reflect on my own practice.

Here are three insights I gained from my experience so far.

1. Find great content.

Madame Carraway and Katie (10th) discuss a French vlog about violent video games.

For a few years now, I’ve subscribed to what I like to call the Big Daddy approach to teaching (and parenting). There’s a moment in that 1999 movie in which Adam Sandler’s character, a man completely unprepared for fatherhood yet fostering a young child, tells his new son:

From now on, you do whatever you wanna do. I’ll show you some cool s___ along the way. That’s what it’s all about.

The eminent biologist Rachel Carson expresses this idea a bit more eloquently in this beautifully illustrated excerpt from her writing. She writes:

If I had influence with the Good Fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength. If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gifts from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.

In this model, the teacher or parent becomes a guide, showing the child all that is worth wondering about in the world, and sharing those experiences as the child makes sense of what she notices. By introducing kids to what’s best and most breathtaking about their discipline, teachers become curators who get to re-live the sense of wonder that brought them to their academic field in the first place.

That’s what I saw in my colleague Carmen Carraway’s one-on-one French class with Katie (10th). She selected multimedia French-language resources exploring various sides of a question adults have been passionately (and sometimes sanctimoniously) debating for generations: does consuming violent cultural production make people more likely to be violent?

Madame Carraway chose polarizing and emphatic content produced by writers who, through their range (from a formal journalistic article to a quirky amateur’s video blog), showcased the rich and varied ways French speakers can use this language to persuade. Her expert curation inspired Katie to delve more deeply into the writers’ and speakers’ linguistic choices – Katie was asking questions, evaluating the structure of the arguments, and laughing at the speaker’s eccentricities. The relevance of the question (and the enthusiasm on display in the texts) drew Katie into exploring the language’s beauty.

I saw something similar in my middle school seminar on “Great Books and the Problem of the Western Canon.” We’re reading Lord of the Flies (and other commonly-assigned texts in an effort to decide why we read certain books and not others). This particular class has been very curious about the novel’s insights into human nature, so I’ve shared relevant ideas from philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, and the kids are piecing together their own sense of what it means to be human.

I’ve tried to be a Big Daddy-esque curator for this class, “showing them some cool [stuff] along the way” and then discovering alongside them. Last week, they had the opportunity to make sense of what they’ve been learning: I asked them to work in groups to visualize a key insight about human nature that explains the underlying roots of the conflict between Jack and Ralph.

Evalynn and Christi (both 7th) try to visually represent the psychological and philosophical roots of a conflict in Lord of the Flies.

Kids had demonstrably great conversations in my classroom that day because the content was worthwhile. They were reading an engaging and relevant text, and they had been exposed to some of the most influential thinkers in Western philosophy.

When helping students have discussions that matter, there’s no substitute for meaningful content.

2. Identify the constellation.

In his seminal work exploring how children learn, cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget emphasizes the importance of mental representations: a way of assimilating new information into evolving and flexible structures. Great content is fine, in other words, but we have to have someplace to put it if we ever hope to truly know or use it. Content can seem meaningless and forgettable if students lack a framework that helps them see its relationship to other ideas and texts.

I liken this framework to a constellation: a field of knowledge has a particular shape that becomes apparent to students if they know what they’re looking for. Those of us lucky enough to grow up seeing stars (not many were visible from my childhood home in Queens) likely remember the delight with which intelligible shapes emerged when someone finally showed us what to look for, and how impossible it was to ever look up and see a random and meaningless collection of stars again.

When teachers identify the broader structure that the specific content fits into, they reveal to students all the different things they can do with the content. When we identify the constellation, we show students what is possible. 

Philosophy continuum: each emoji sticker represents a different philosopher. Students place them on the continuum between two opposing philosophical poles.

“Identifying the constellation” can take many forms, depending on the discipline and learning goals.

In our philosophy course, Kevin Oliveau and I sketched the contours of the field by identifying five polarizing issues that differentiate the thinkers we’ll study. We placed each pole at either end of a continuum. For example, on one end we wrote “the universe has a purpose,” and on the opposite, “the universe is a place of random interactions and emergent behaviors.” On the first day of class, kids drew dots on each line representing their personal philosophy.

Now that we have studied twelve different schools of thought, we wanted students to begin considering how these thinkers relate to one another. We printed copies of the continuum, distributed emoji stickers, and decided which sticker would be best to represent which philosopher (a hilarious activity: Stoics are the grimace because of their restrained approach to emotional pain; Epicureans are the doughnut because of their devotion to desire and happiness, although some students pointed out that they would describe the donut as a “vain desire” and discount its pursuit altogether). Next, students worked in groups to decide where to place each sticker. The video above shows part of one group’s conversation. (It’s so difficult to film students without making them nervous and shy!)

The “constellation” doesn’t always have to relate to content; it can also be a framework to practice a particular skill. This is most obvious in language instruction: teachers provide grammatical structures that students can use to contain new vocabulary words and practice syntactic variety.

In Spanish 2, Vanessa Moreno introduced the structure “cuanto tiempo hace que…?” (for how long…?). Her students were able to place all the words they had learned during this unit within that syntactic frame. The structure enabled students to take the content they had learned and put it into action, discussing activities of interest and sharing parts of themselves with their peers.

Sra. Moreno provides grammatical structures for sharing favorite activities and asking how long students have been involved in them.

These structures allow kids to do something with what they’re learning, which of course is the ultimate goal. 

3. Step up and step back.

“Step up and step back” is a collaboration norm used at High Tech High. It’s a beautiful and efficient way to remind kids that when they’re working with their peers, they should bring something to the table, but they should also make space for other people to participate.

This is good guidance for teachers as well. Once we’ve shared great content with our kids and identified the disciplinary constellation within which the content fits, we have “stepped up” enough. It’s time to step back. Kids need the time and space to make sense of the content on their own terms, without relying too heavily on the teacher’s expertise.

The video clip above is from a whole-school advisory we designed around the following scenario:

It’s 2067, and Elon Musk has made possible his vision of colonizing Mars and “making humans a multi-planetary species.” Because of scientific innovation and the construction of an interplanetary infrastructure, it is now economically and technologically feasible to send one million people to Mars to establish a self-sustaining city. This is an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild human society, using our wisdom and experience to avoid the suffering that has long seemed inevitable on Earth. A global council is convened: twelve people who represent the human condition in all its diversity. This council is charged with the creation of a Bill of Human Rights on Mars, a set of ten principles by which to organize society for the promotion of human dignity and flourishing. What are those principles?

This is great content. It’s a worthwhile question that asks kids to draw on all they’ve seen and done in the world so far.

We also made sure to “identify the constellation.” We had kids brainstorm a list of ideas they’d want to take to Mars, and ideas they’d hope we leave behind. We cut out each item and asked students to work together in small groups to choose the most important five to take with them, and the most important five to erase from human history altogether. We included blank pieces of paper so that students could write in their own ideas, too. Kids placed their group selections in envelopes and included a rationale; they had to articulate the principles they relied on to make their selections.

(With one exception, an especially contentious group that required a faculty monitor), these conversations happened without much teacher direction at all. It was time for us to fall back and let the kids figure it out for themselves.

Students shared their reflections afterward. Shailee (10th) noted:

We as a society don’t really believe in redemption. How do we build a society that self-corrects, that helps us improve, that doesn’t treat people like animals?

Elling (9th) shared:

I was surprised by how different each person’s thoughts were – things I didn’t expect people to disagree on.

And Ben (10th) noted that the exercise was a great opportunity to generously understand our differences because, although we were talking about specific issues that seemed polarizing, doing it this way helped everyone explain the principles on which their ideas rested. He said:

I learned a lot about what other people value.

Because we provided great content and identified the constellation, we could step back. Kids had challenging, nuanced, memorable discussions during this activity, and they came to conclusions they never would have arrived at with superfluous teacher interference.

Here is a word cloud that collects all the kids’ responses from the day’s activity:

This word cloud represents each student’s explanation of the ideas and institutions they’d want to bring with them to Mars. The bigger the word, the more frequently it appeared.

Looking at this word cloud and thinking about all my students said and learned during this advisory, I know why teachers put so much effort into preparing kids for meaningful discussions.

Great conversations help us build the kinds of relationships that make ourselves better people and the world a better place. 

Find out more about the great conversations we have at LSG here.

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