Silent Discussion

Classroom discussion is a valuable opportunity to share ideas and develop communication skills, but often, the full benefits are enjoyed by the most extroverted and precocious students in the class. While I do believe that everyone should develop skills in all areas, especially those that are not as strong, I also believe that teachers, or better yet, metateachers, should design learning activities that provide equitable opportunities for learners with different strengths. The ‘Silent Discussion’ is just such an activity.

Simply explained, it’s a way for a group to hold a discussion without speaking. I tried it recently and the results were fantastic, so I thought I’d share.

In our current unit of inquiry into Rights & Responsibilities, there are three lines of inquiry we have been following:

How rights are viewed globally
How rights are granted
Actions required to protect rights

Everyone knew that the lines of inquiry would guide our learning for the next few weeks, and the unit had been provoked by a guided inquiry into the Bayaka people of Central Africa. The Silent Discussion was intended to develop our understanding of the concept of Rights and focus our attention in a socially creative manner.

Organizing the Silent Discussion
1 Print the lines of inquiry, one each, on large paper (we used A3).
2 Place the papers at different corners of the room, or around a central table (consider elbow room).
3 Everyone browses silently with their favorite writing implement, writing comments and questions about the lines of inquiry.
4 Read others’ comments and questions, reply, continue.


The activity started slowly, and grew in energy during a fifteen minute session. I injected some provocations and modeled different ways to engage with the activity (drawing pictures, circling and connecting different comments/questions). Finally, we posted the sheets and reflected on our thoughts and interactions.

I believe that the activity works best if it begins with abstract concepts or statements, rather than topics. It was also helpful to play thoughtful music (I generally stream KUSC).

It occurred to me that a techologized version of the Silent Discussion could be possible, but I rather like the museum-like energy generated by thoughtful browsing and the visceral nature of physically constructing our collective understandings on paper.

Another detail that would have extended the activity would be to post provocative images around the room, and perhaps provide videos or news articles to further contextualize the lines of inquiry.

Have you learned or taught through an activity like the Silent Discussion?

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Published by

Bart Miller

Father, Teacher, Composer, Philosopher

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