I was going through some old blog posts this morning and stumbled upon a hidden gem. A comment by the late Grant Wiggins that was, like most things he did, hugely insightful and deeply humble. Really it’s worth a post of its own.
Grant was writing in response to this blog post about “disciplined discussions” in which i discuss how to keep a discussion purposeful and focused- just because a lot of people are talking doesn’t mean it’s a useful discussion- or even a discussion.
Having taught in a socratic seminar format for over a decade, studied it, and trained people in it, I can say with confidence that the key to avoiding tangential, snarky, and illegible comments is to have two things in place: a crystal-clear product or performance goal for which the discussion is a means, and a set of norms, sentence stems, and other protocols that are made explicit and transparent. …
The first point is more important than most people realize. If there is no goal or point to the discussion, everyone quickly resorts to random commentary. (Think how often staff meeting discussions are pointless and random without an explicit agenda.) For example, if we preface the inquiry in your anecdote, Doug, by saying: Let’s see if in this discussion we can clarify the idea and oddities of rate of change, using examples and experience – in order to develop further inquiries/experiments/projects about rate of change. That makes a huge difference than if we just say: Let’s talk about rate of change OR Who has questions?
That’s why I often made clear to students that the EQ for the unit was also the Essay Topic. In the DVD for ASCD on EQS, you can watch me do this with HS kids around a series of activities and readings centered on the question: Who sees? Who is blind? where the readings were The Emperor’s New Clothes and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The EQ guides advance note-taking and sets them up for writing.
I’ve italicized four points from Grant’s response above to be able to reflect upon them further:
- The key to avoiding tangential, snarky, and illegible comments is to have two things in place: a crystal-clear product or performance goal for which the discussion is a means, and a set of norms, sentence stems, and other protocols that are made explicit and transparent. …
I agree strongly. Grant uses slightly different language than I do in TLaC 2.0 but as always his is precise, economical and eminently practicable. It’s easy to over look these because the latter needs to be established well in advance and the former needs to be set before discussion begins. That means more work. But it helps make sure that a great discussion isn’t conflated with a mere surfeit of talking
2. (Think how often staff meeting discussions are pointless and random without an explicit agenda.)
Indeed. Let the death by meeting we have all experienced cause us to reflect on what we subject our students to and ensure that we are productive and deliver value.
3. Let’s see if in this discussion we can…
Here Grant is proposing how the teacher in my example–the successful one–could have been even more successful by steering students toward a clear discussion goal from the outset. I agree with his point and would only add that you can make it even more clearly by writing the purpose of the discussion–what Grant would say was the Essential Question–on the board or somewhere else where students can be reminded of it and you can refer to it, even non-verbally with a gesture–to keep folks on task.
4. That’s why I often made clear to students that the EQ for the unit was also the Essay Topic.
This is another outstanding point. You validate the discussion by aligning it to the writing they will do. Saying, “You are talking through the topics you will write about” is a great way to increase the quality of and engagement in both exercises.
Anyway, I paused when I stumbled upon Grant’s thoughts this morning… hidden in the “comments” section of a blog with perhaps a quarter of the readership and relevance of his own. That too was typical of him.