Making Use of Classroom Discussions as “Positive Interruptions” for Learning

23 Jan

Gloria Mark has shown that modern workers switch tasks an average of once every three minutes.  Once their focus on a given task has been interrupted, it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to it.  Some say we should eliminate those distractions.  But I think today’s managers are capable of coping with and sometimes even thriving on them.

Mark’s research also shows that 44% of the switches cited above are caused by “internal” rather than “external” sources of distraction – meaning that our minds simply wander.  We can’t blame technology for our failure to focus, because our brains are built to multitask.

If – as Cathy Davidson notes here and throughout her research on neuroscience, technology, learning and change – our brains are wired to multitask, constantly “on”, and shaped/reshaped by all we do,

then the class sessions we shape as teachers can help foster processes of learning by making wise use of disruptions and divided attention.

If – as Davidson notes of neurological research in this passage:

Research shows that accident, disruption, distraction, and difference increase our motivation to learn and to solve problems, both individually and collectively

then, as educational psychology and scholarship of teaching research note, discussion for learning strategies can provide frameworks and tools for creating positive interruptions.

For this post I’ll propose that selecting occasions for group discussions and creating class session plans incorporating select formats for small group and/or whole class discussions can create positive interruptions and divide attention deliberately so that students engage in

  • perspective taking
  • divergent thinking
  • comparative analysis and
  • collaborative problem solving

while also practicing the skills of

  • making sense of an important reading alongside homework & presentation elements,
  • working in tandem to talk through important information & difficult ideas,
  • delegating who will make use of what tools during discussion for further, clarifying research,
  • organizing their work related to topic under discussion for the time on task,
  • using technology tools to seek and organize information, and

As I watch students given structured discussion opportunities with room for mucking about enough to discover new questions as they look for what more to understand about a given topic, I see – in classes I observe, classes I teach, classes at the core of consultations – students who find ways of engaging.  And always, the tracks they take end up being pretty darned amazing.

  • Items 1-4 below set out of resources culled from a collection I curated for my Teaching in Higher Education future faculty students – here, those created by the University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence (and quoted directly in passages below), and
  • Item 5 below will become a place for sketching out ideas – big, adaptable ideas that could be a spring board for thinking about ways of coupling discussions with homework, classroom lectures and in-class use of technology during an early-in-the-term class session focusing on key course ideas/a core course concept.

1.  Framing Small Group & Whole Class Discussions within Class Session Planning

2.  Types of Small Groups

What type of small group should you use? It depends on the size of your class, the length of time you have available, the physical features of the classroom, and the nature of the group task. Here are several options you could try.

3.  Small-Group Tasks

Groups thrive most when their task is challenging and closely related to the course content, course objectives, and students’ experiences and interests. Following are some sample tasks that you can adapt to your discipline.

4.  Related Resources 

  • Planning Class Sessions – to align class sessions to an overall course plan by making use of integrated design process of linking outcomes, assessments and activities
  • Types of Questioning – to guide asking/talking aloud some reminders of question types
  • Classroom Demonstrations – to foster integrative analysis with demos, labs, experiments
  • Review Sessions – to engage analysis & problem solving via adapting end-of-term ideas to a more frequent pattern – end of month or unit; before each major assessment
  • College Level Reading Skills – to provoke and scaffold reading for learning by understanding why & how students can be overwhelmed by college level readings and our way of attaching reading to courses rather than incorporating it into learning.

5. An Early Term Scenario

Undergraduate Classroom

As someone who incorporates reading of primary sources, writing with specific tasks and for specific audiences, and a combination of teacher- and student-driven formal and informal research through out a semester, I typically assign a discipline specific reading early in the term – and typically I know students will have several difficulties with the article as they read and respond to it.  Those difficulties include wrestling with research structure, unfamiliar language, new uses of familiar ideas, and potential disinterest with the topic of this particular article.

But to have students push through these difficulties – which are moments for disengagement – I might just ask them to report on four things about the reading via a short response they will bring to class, along with the annotated reading:

For the article overall,

(1) a sentence summarizing the research question or focus with authors’ reasons for pursuing it;

(2) a one sentence description of the research process used – including theory, method, strategies, hopes;

(3) a statement of the  main finding with bullet points allowed for setting out a list of important results or ideas.

And groups of students are assigned each to a particular section of the article in order to write

(4) A paragraph explaining that section to someone who has not yet read the article, noting alongside the key ideas where a reader might face difficulty with the section – as a reader, as a thinker, as someone in the discipline, whatever.

The thing of discussion that’s important following a reading assignment like this is that students have opportunities to check their reading understanding, to hear information and insights they’ve missed, to seek out connections, and to converge a shared understanding of points of analysis/agreement/disagreement.

So maybe this class discussion would begin with students in small group clusters assigned to take on one of the short sentence writings – to come to a consensus, for example, on the research question.  And perhaps someone could transcribe this on GoogleDocs or use the white board and a photograph to capture the idea while another student made use of an online resource you’d suggested to verify understanding or key terms or to see what else the author had written on this topic that might help illuminate the research question.  Distracted?  Nope, intentionally delegating tasks and using tools, interests, skills of the group.  Along with each group doing this work, there are opportunities then for the entire class to come together for a follow up discussion of research question, methods, findings – the students’ shared writing and work together providing support across the broad discussion.

The longer paragraphs?  Perhaps these come in as a close to the class.  By asking students to revise their paragraph based on ideas heard in groups and insight clarified by the class discussion, the ideas that drifted by can be wrangled into a statement of revised learning at the end of class.  By asking them to follow up that paragraph with a sentence about how and whether reading theory became less difficult because of or during the class conversation, you help remind learners that meeting difficulty and going on that journey is part of the learning.

What to do with this writing?  Perhaps students keep a log of their learning – in notebooks of paper or via blogs.  Perhaps the writing gets posted to a class discussion thread so that student record their collective learning.  Perhaps along at the end of the focus on this article some of your students develop next questions they’d pose to the author – and send those to the author via Twitter.  Perhaps other students curate a bibliography of related readings that’s posted to a shared social bookmarking site.  Maybe still others record professionals in the field talking about the everyday use they make of theories embedded in the article and post these to YouTube.

And, in the end, perhaps what your students provoke in their own positive interruptions in learning will become starting places for others’ learning.

Graduate Classroom

When confronted with the task of discussing “learning” with graduate students and post doc fellows enrolled in my Teaching in Higher Education course from multiple disciplines who will – or already do – teach in formats varying from small seminars to large enrollment courses that might be held in campus, community or online classrooms, and who I already knew to have every kind of learning preference I could imagine while also having very little grounding in the research methodologies and practices of teaching/learning researchers from across spectrums and countries, I made use of my Personal Learning Network to divide the task of finding resources that would help me scaffold learning and attention, make room for divergence ideas and corollary questions.

For that group of students, Class Sessions 1 required absorbing, analysing, comparing and assessing learning theories in order to derive personal meaning and professional frameworks; while Class Session 2 proposed that developing a cross-disciplinary interpretation of scholarly methodologies regarding research into learning alongside theorizing about teaching.  All grounds for distraction animated by drift from dissent or overwhelment, perhaps. All grounds for divided attention sparked by needs to understand the material theoretically, professionally and personally.

While I have posted a set of reflective field notes from the Teaching in Higher Education Class Session 2 as part of a public record that’s taking shape in restructuring that course, I wanted to suggest here ways of thinking about teacher-facilitated, student-discussions as positive interruptions for learning in graduate courses across the curriculum.

Cited References

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