Devil’s Advocate your class…always.

With all the advice I’ve seen recently about giving students a voice, letting students lead their own learning, and be a facilitator not a teacher, I began to wonder to myself: “What does that look like in the classroom?” Do teachers just sit back and let go of control? How do teachers guide instruction while not providing any direct instruction?

It is a delicate balance that I have learned over the years that begins on day one of class. One way I start my class is with a conversation about shifting perspectives and personal reflection. Once students have become aware that other perspectives exist and that I, the teacher, am operating from one (or all) of these different perspectives, they become attuned to where they need their thought process to be. Establishing a functioning protocol for openness in class is essential.

1. Create a space where showing student thinking is accepted and encouraged.

The hardest part of student led learning is that there are multiple types of students in a classroom who have varying levels of comfort with participation. Now as an instructor I want all of my students to engage in class discussion but I found it very difficult early in my career to have students who were shy engage in debate and discourse. I knew deep down that they were often some of my brightest thinkers and sometimes some of my best writers but they often lost credit because of their ‘lack of participation’. I realized after almost ten years that I was approaching the problem from the wrong perspective. It wasn’t that they didn’t have anything good to say, they just didn’t feel comfortable talking in public. That is when I had another epiphany. Communication is not all verbal. Actually 70% of our communication is nonverbal. If I could create a protocol for students to show they are paying attention, tracking the conversation, and have an opportunity to participate by agreeing with the current speaker, then that IS the very definition of participation. In addition when a speaker can see that others are listening they feel more comfortable that others agree with their line of thinking.

The protocol I discovered is used by many teachers and I am certainly not the first. It is the sign-language gesture for “same-thing”, or, “I agree”. The thumb and pinky are both extended and you toggle back and forth pointing your pinky towards the speaker. You would be amazed when students adopt this gesture as part of normal class participation protocols. You will see students vigorously gesturing that they REALLY agree with a speaker or even using both hands to ‘SUPER-REALLY AGREE’.

It also allows the teacher to facilitate faster discussion in class. How many times have you been in a class, either as a teacher or student, and one person raises their hand with a comment then the next person called on says THE EXACT SAME THING? It goes on for three or four people before the instructor cuts off conversation and moves forward. With the gesture protocol, any instructor can quickly see who is paying attention and who is getting in on the conversation. In addition, students no longer all passively wait their turn to say the exact same thing that the previous speaker said because now they are focused on the conversation and once they toggle their hand to indicate that was the same thing they were thinking. It speeds up class and allows students greater control of the conversation all at the same time.

2. Allow for and foster dissent.

I have a simple protocol that I stole from a middle school debate video I watched a few years ago. When students disagree they are allowed to stand up out of their seat and raise an objection. They do this by standing and hold their palm up at their waist. They must be silent and wait to be acknowledged. The speaker has the choice of acknowledging the objector or proceeding with their comment. The teacher in the room has the option of allowing the objection to be voiced. I love this technique because it gets students out of their seats and participating in class. There are a few drawbacks that you should be aware of. Students have informed me over the years that some kids just want to object for the sake of objecting (always like to be a devil’s advocate) and can sometimes get a class off track. While I don’t disagree with this perspective, the possibilities for coaching in class debate is too rich for me to do away with this protocol. I’m always looking for feedback though so if you try it, let me know.

3. Be maniacal about teaching pressure.

Give students an impossible task. Tell them that they will be pressed for time and don’t keep it a secret that they have to deal with it. School is an opportunity to practice dealing with pressure. When students realize learning is not the product but the process, they start to engage more vigor and personal investment. We all fear working under the gun, so to speak, but we also rarely get the opportunity to practice that sensation so we become more accustomed to it. It takes time, effort, diligence, and perseverance to overcome the sinking feeling that we’ve all had at one time or another when faced with a deadline fast approaching. Structuring a class to consciously engage with pressure for no other reason that to experience the sensation has the benefit of building up tolerance to it and slowly raising the bar. I don’t know a single athlete who was world class the first time they stepped onto the field. Why should we think our students will react differently?

Adding in a reflective piece about their process to get a final product completes the circle. Having students be self-aware (metacognitive) about their process, their successes, and most importantly their failures is the essential. It sometimes takes students a day or two to mull things over in their heads before they are ready to really articulate what they went through. Over time, you might find that students develop a sense of pride about how they overcame the mountain which now, in their rearview mirrors, looks more like a molehill.

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