Tag Archives: student voice

Topics and Methods for Class Debates

In previous postings, I (Clive) have recommended debates as a way to give students a voice in university and school classrooms and also introduce some variety into class activities. Of course, the topics have to be interesting to the students if they are to get really involved; and the overly combative tone of traditional debating needs to be avoided so there are no hard feelings.

This term, in my graduate class of 22, I used two debating topics that worked very well. They were: (1) Teaching Values in School and (2) Formal Professional Development for Teachers. In each case we formed 4 groups (by numbering off from 1 to 4 around the class, including myself) and then assigned “positions” to the groups as follows:

Teaching Values in School

Group 1: On the whole, teachers should keep their values to themselves

Group 2: It is often appropriate for teachers to promote the values they believe in

Group 3: On the whole, schools should advocate general “human” values (e.g., treating women and men equally) even if they conflict with the values of the family

Group 4: On the whole, schools should honor and respect the values of the family, even if they conflict with general “human” values

Formal Professional Development for Teachers

Groups 1 & 3: Formal professional development has a very important role to play in teacher learning and school improvement. Examples of effective formal PD include….

Groups 2 & 4: Formal professional development does not play a major role in teacher learning and school improvement. Examples of more important methods and factors are….

Each group spent 20 minutes preparing their case, with each person in the group proposing and outlining an argument and/or example. Then each group in turn presented their case to the whole class, with every member of the group speaking. Finally, we returned to the whole class circle and went around with each individual saying what they thought about the topic (we didn’t have time to go all the way round the class, but this final activity also proved very valuable).

Notice that the “opposing” positions were softened by using phrases such as “on the whole,” “it is often appropriate,” “not a major role” (rather than “not any role”). Also, the emphasis on giving examples to support one’s case was a big success – I hadn’t used this before.

So, this was my experience. If you have a chance to experiment with debates, let us know what topics you used and how it went – we can do a guest blog!



Giving Voice to All Students: Jigsaw

In an earlier posting I (Clive) DSCN0710advocated giving students a lot of “air time” in class, and outlined several techniques for ensuring that all students are heard. I’ve just (re)discovered a further technique – “Jigsaw” – and am using it in my summer courses. I can’t believe I took so long to see its potential! IMG_0038

In Jigsaw the readings for a class are assigned beforehand to different students, and when they go into small groups each has to speak to “their” reading. This reduces the reading load and gives each student a chance to speak to their item. It also decreases the likelihood of one student dominating the small group. Moreover, it takes some pressure off the teacher to expound all the readings themselves.

I used to employ Jigsaw but stopped because it seemed as if I was forcing students to read the articles; also it seemed to require having the same groups for every class, a practice I’ve moved away from.

What I do now is give every student a permanent Jigsaw number – either 1 or 2 – and assign just 2 articles for small group discussion. This means I can form new groups each class. Another advantage is that with more than one student speaking to an article, the pressure on individual students is reduced and the discussion becomes more collaborative.

As with any group work, of course, the topic has to be interesting to the students so they approach the discussion with enthusiasm rather than just going through the motions. So far, it seems to working!

Including All Students in the Conversation

I (Clive) am a great believer in whole-class and small-group discussion. However, three and four years ago I was terrorized by a series of individual students who dominated discussion in class, speaking at least 50% of the time – they would have talked 90% if I’d let them. I’m sure they did the same in their small group, if I wasn’t in the group.
This forced me to develop a set of techniques for giving everyone a turn. They’re simple but effective. Most students appreciate them, and they’ve enabled me to relax and not always be cutting people off (though I still have to be firm). I wish someone had introduced me to them long ago.

     The techniques assume the class is no larger than 35 (I have any bigger class divided up) and is seated in a large circle (I arrange the seating before the students come in). They also assume that students get a lot of “air time” in class, otherwise it’s impossible for everyone to have a turn.

Here are the techniques:

  • Going around the room, with each student (or every 2nd or 3rd student) saying what they think about the topic in hand (don’t worry if you don’t get all the way round).
  •      Discussion in 2s and 3s around the room, followed by reporting from each group.
  • Numbering off to form small groups, followed by discussion and reporting back.
  • Individual prepared presentations (ungraded, maximum 4 minutes) – 2 to 4 per class – with 3 people to the left or right of the presenter responding.
  •       Whole-class discussion after a “mini-lesson” from me, with a speakers list formed as people put up their hands.

I find students are very glad to be called on in these ways: no one has ever declined. And the approach greatly strengthens community as we hear from and get to know everyone, including many who’ve been largely “voiceless” throughout their school and university career. It fosters oral literacy and results in truly inclusive education.

If anyone has other strategies, please let me know!