Monday, December 31, 2012

12/31: Discussion Facilitation Skills Support Learning

Our focus should be not just on seeing possibilities, but creating opportunity; and not just on creating opportunities, but on creating an environment that leads at least the most malleable people on our campus--the students--to seize opportunities.
~ Louis Schmier, in email 12.11.12 on the Professional and Organizational Development listserv

To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved
~ George MacDonald (Scottish author/poet d 1905)

The business of life is not to succeed, but to fail in good spirits.
~ Robert Louis Stevenson

We are privileged to learn something of value in . . . every interaction. Our teachers are all around us.
~ Karen Casey, A Life of My Own

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.
~Spoken by the Countess of Rousillon in All’s Well that Ends Well, (Act I, Scene 1) William Shakespeare

Happy New Year!  (image borrowed from newsletter of Dunn Gardens, Seattle, WA)

Executive Summary:  At 19 and a college junior, I helped in a freshman biology lab.  My supervisor, Betty Gilbert, offered me an opportunity to speak about cell division in a pre-lab talk.  I “prepared” a week ahead for the 5-minute task:  a snap, I thought. Two minutes in, a stumper question and an important lesson:   knowing-to-teach is getting it at a very different, deeper level that knowing-to-test.  Test questions about mitosis were simple for me—understanding was different.  Betty trusted me and walked away.  I never forgot.  (That was in 1963: now Professor Gilbert is in her 80s, lives in a family homestead in Vermont, drives on long bird-watching trips from time to time, and regularly commutes to Dartmouth’s library in Hanover, NH. ) Although the focus here is on skills for discussion, we build trust through all our behavior with students and with each other.   This post offers resources to expand your repertoire of skills for leading rich discussions.

What is discussion?  In an early part of my career, I might have described discussion as a loosely-structured  question-and-answer session.  It is far from that:  healthy discussion requires careful advance thought about outcomes and skillful management of direction and student responses.  Like any skill, competence with facilitating discussion expands with practice and mistakes.  In return, it offers (1) students a rich window into their own thinking, and (2) teachers an unparalleled assessment opportunity.  It also gives students a chance to utilize concepts and to deepen their thinking through articulation and exchanges with you and with fellow learners, and provides an opportunity to build confidence and trust:  trust of your students in themselves, trust of your students in you and trust of students in classmates.  Some issues:   How can I get a discussion started?  How can I keep it going?  What can I do if it falls apart?  How can I avoid lapsing into lecture?  How can I encourage involvement from quiet students, prevent a few from dominating exchanges?  How can I deal with inappropriate responses?  Should I grade discussions or participation?

Here are five bottom-line keys:  (1) Enter a discussion, as you would any activity in any class, with a clear view of academic and skill outcomes: What do you want to happen?   (2) Have a clear picture of your role as a facilitator.  (3) Pack a toolkit of skills for what-to-do-when unexpected things happen or the discussion or tone takes an unwanted direction.  (4) Have central questions ready, and plan to encourage student preparation as needed.   (5) Plan or script responses that you can use when students answer badly, incompletely, incorrectly; or when incivility springs forth.  There are many discussion-planning resources available, in print and online.  A few of the best and most complete are listed below; it’s worth looking at several, because-- though many sources mention similar issues--counsel about challenge management differs in interesting ways and you’ll learn a lot from comparing them and deciding what fits for you.  Each includes a wide variety of additional links, including some how-to video.

Princeton:  This is a wonderfully organized piece that covers planning, structuring questions, and dealing with problems.  A roadmap opens the show, making it easy to navigate rich content: Tips for Discussion Facilitation

Bok Center, Harvard:   This is a compact, printable document with brief tips and a bibliography leading to other resources: Harvard Bok Center Discussion Tips and Resources

Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching:   This user-friendly web page neatly capsules basic principles, then moves to specific tools, strategies and models, leading the reader to expanded resources by using additional annotated links:  Vanderbilt University Teaching Resources:  Discussion Tips   

Indiana University:  This nicely-organized page that includes counsel about the usual variables but also a significant component on whether to and how to grade discussions:  Indiana University:  DIscussion Tips    Also see Leading Discussion of Sensitive Issues.  From any IU page, search “discussion” for more resources.

University of Washington:  While constructed for teaching assistants, advice here will support all faculty:

MIT:  We can manage student responses, even poor ones, in gentle ways that encourage everyone, build trust and model civility.  This is a neat page about how to respond to students in a discussion:  MIT:  Responding Efffectively to Student Questions .  Another counsels question-building:  “What Makes a Good Question?” at  MIT:  What Makes a Good Question?  

Yale:  A three-page bullet-point, neatly-organized list of hints for discussion leaders:

University of North Carolina:  This is a big, useful document that explores many aspects of guided discussions, dating back to 1992.  Likely intended for graduate teaching assistants, it nevertheless contains much useful advice for faculty: University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill:  Guiding Discussion

Warm wishes always,

Mike Dabney

Write me:
702 Wake Robin Drive, Shelburne, VT 05482

Call me: 802-985-0088 (Vermont) 808-781-3294 (nationwide cell, does not work well at home)

Travel schedule includes New York (January), Seattle (February, March, April, June), San Diego (June), Los Angeles (early February and late June), San Francisco (March and April).

TEACHER TRAINING has been much in the news, much under scrutiny.  Highlights:   What makes a Great Teacher?   Building a Better Teacher, from the New York Times (March 2, 2010):

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