Leaving a Class for a discussion

I saw this some time ago, probably in The Teaching Professor online magazine thingy. The basic idea is to leave your class alone when they are having a discussion. I have done this a couple of times. Yesterday was the first time this semester. Here is the deal. In this class (Physics for Elementary Education Majors), they collect evidence and build models. For that day, the experiments were giving students evidence about what happens to a fan cart when the strength of the fan changes and what happens when the mass of the cart changes.

When it came time to discuss the ideas, I made sure that everyone collected similar evidence and then I told them to discuss these ideas on their own. The primary reason for leaving is that many students want to base their answers on authority (me) rather than evidence. If I am not there, they will have to base their answers on evidence. What do I want to see in a discussion?

  • Build ideas based on evidence.
  • Critically evaluate other students' arguments
  • Have confidence that their models agree with the evidence.

When I am in the room, I think there are some that think either I won't let them go wrong or that I will give in and give them the answers. Anyway, after I left them they came to get me after 10 minutes. I am really not sure what went on in the room, but they commented that it went well. It can be scary to let your students alone. I am pretty confident that they can do it on their own.

More like this

We do that at CU, too, especially in the beginning of an activity. We make a point to look really busy with paperwork at the front of the room.

There is also some interesting research work that's come out of U. Maryland that shows what happens while students are alone working on a tutorial (struggling authentically) and then the TA comes up and directs their attention to a certain part of the tutorial to try to get them unstuck ,and then she leaves and then the real reasoning work begins again. We've seen this in our tutorials here too -- we had a "plant" at a table. Students were struggling, the instructor came over and felt like he cleared up all their difficulties, and then he leaves and the "plant" reports that the table descended back into chaos.

The lesson is -- productive reasoning happens while students are alone... the instructor only sees certain kinds of "answer making" when he/she is present.