Less is more: a simple lesson design that elicits complex exchange

by Derek Wong 


In SP1541, students discuss in groups how popular science book chapters appeal to their audience. After 4 weeks, I found the classroom atmosphere quite interactive, and I wanted to challenge students with more open discussion in the class. So, during the group reporting stage, I added impromptu follow-up questions based on students’ input when the class discussed the book Music of the Prime (about prime numbers, mathematics). For example, when one group thought that the technical content in the book was confusing, I asked the class what they thought the writer was thinking when deciding to write like this. I was hoping someone would start a discussion about audience; whether the content is construed as appealing, challenging or confusing depends on who reads the book. Then I was hoping the conversation would naturally go on to discuss the writer’s background in relation to his preference and ultimately writing decision. To my surprise, I was met with quite some silence.

I believed they had ideas, and they were familiar with the language and angles of analysis. I wonder why nobody seemed to want to share. Did I provide not enough space for them to express? Or were they unprepared for speaking up? Mark Miller, a frequently cited teacher-blogger, wrote in his blog post The space between the question and the answer that while question is a great way to keep students thinking and therefore learning, there’s no guarantee that every student is doing so, and the way to encourage thinking is the expectation that everybody at any point will have to be prepared to say something. The key seems to lie in creating such an environment.


Deconstruction in progress

So, in the next book chapter lesson, I assigned each student one private turn to speak, responding to only one simple question: what do you think of the book chapter? As they made individual contributions on a first-come-first-served basis, I made brief note of everybody’s response on a shared document so that later speakers could refer to previous speakers’ ideas in case they’d like to echo or comment on those. After everybody had spoken once, I opened the floor for free discussion.

The result was quite encouraging in three aspects: disagreement, interesting ideas from “quiet” students, and interaction.

Students expressed quite diverse opinions about whether folklore, witchcraft, and chemistry (the themes of this chapter) appeal to them. Some like chemistry and therefore like the chapter anyway; some are first fascinated by the historical event of witch hunt and later come to appreciate the scientific explanation; others aren’t so impressed as the history bit winds up off-putting for them. They didn’t disagree with each other literally, but the range of opinions expressed on the same theme is a perfect display of the spirit “agree to disagree”. And incidentally, this disagreement between students, who are also readers here, demonstrates the readership they need to face as writers.

A few quiet students who usually didn’t speak much in group reporting inevitably needed to contribute by the design of the lesson. At first, I was afraid this would be awkward for them, but many of them turned out to be surprisingly insightful. For example, one such student brought up how the book chapter’s attempt to use modern chemistry knowledge to explain ancient witchcraft links the past to the present, and projects to the future. As a common rhetorical feature, we’d talked about this a few times in the class. But when can apply the idea in an open discussion, you’d know they’ve learnt it for real.

How students picked up ideas not just from the person immediately before them but also from quite a few turns before shows real engagement. You really need to have the desire to echo someone’s ideas to want to remember that for 10 minutes plus before it is your turn and add to it. The bond between students and interconnectedness among ideas gave the classroom a community vibe.


Putting it back together, better

These findings are also corroborated by the survey I conducted right after the lesson. Students enjoyed and felt encouraged to express ideas freely. They also liked hearing ideas and opinions collide, which wasn’t always possible when the lesson activity is group-based. This seems to answer my initial question of why students were silent when asked an open question in the previous lesson. Perhaps they felt it’s not their place to express individual opinions when things should be agreed upon by the group.

The benefit of freedom and space was also realized towards the end of the lesson. During individual speeches, students made frequent comments about the use of the deontological (in and of itself) and teleological (external application) appeals utilised in the book. Afterwards, the class was directed to pick up any topics for open discussion, and students continued to exchange ideas about the appeals and sought clarification from each other. This student-led-and-discovered intellectual intrigue just so happens to be a common confusion reported in the mid-term survey. As it turns out, the open classroom space had facilitated autonomous learning and eventually enabled students to sort out issues they deemed important.

I didn’t try this approach without worries. An unstructured lesson offers no guarantee, and like one student pointed out in the survey, how the discussion would go can depend on whether the class could follow the book chapter and understand the aspects of analysis. But as this experience shows, sometimes all it takes for them to engage and help out each other is just one opportunity, and that “less is more” is still a workable philosophy in an increasingly complex landscape.



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