“Get into pairs and discuss with the person next to you…”
It’s the go-to model for workshop activities. One to ones are by definition dialogues, and we also try to capitalise on the social constructivist nature of learning in our group sessions. The whole of my PGCE beautifully modelled social constructivist principles in the way it was taught. And the amount of independent learning in Higher Education means there’s plenty of time for students to work on their own outside class, if they want to. However, I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how many of my workshops include paired or group discussion as a first resort.
Why? Because I can’t stand it myself as a student.
I’m an introvert. I like to think things through carefully and work out what I think and how to articulate it before I then bounce that idea off others. I don’t find that starting off with discussion helps me to develop my understanding of a topic. Discussion helps later to refine it, sure, but dialogue with peers isn’t the thing that first helps me put those building blocks of understanding together. I’m not shy, I love a good debate as much as the next learning developer, it’s just….. just give me a moment, ok? I’m thinking. And that’s alright – we all learn differently. It’s just that in any group teaching scenario – even a good lecture needn’t be a monologue – it’s the kind of group discussion work which favours extroverts which is the one that is our first choice as teachers. Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World which Can’t Stop Talking notes this in the context of education; her description of the highly extrovert learning culture at Harvard Business School made me feel quite ill!
Why do we teachers like groupwork in workshops so much, when we suspect it may not suit all learners? Partly as we know it’s supported by theory as being good practice, of course. But I think it’s also because it allows us to see and gauge activity concretely- it’s reassuring to us to hear and see learning happen. It’s unsettling to see a student in the midst of a group gazing blankly off into space – what are they thinking? Is it anything remotely to do with what I’ve asked them to do? Or are they thinking about lunch? Game of Thrones? Nothing at all? What about the person next to them – are they being denied their chance to socially construct their learning because they’re sitting next to someone who won’t engage with them? Oh no! We wander over to engage with them, nudge them into interaction with others, check what they’re thinking.
But I’m beginning to suspect this is more about our need for control as teachers than the student’s need to learn in a way that suits them. We’re teaching adults – do we really need to exert control in that way? Either they are engaging and learning in a way that suits them rather than us (and as long as it works for them, fine), or they are bored – or distracted – or tired – but sometimes we have to let go and accept that how and whether they engage is up to them, as long as they are not disrupting the group dynamic. They’re adult, independent learners. Just because we can’t hear them engaging doesn’t mean they’re not learning.
Learning may be socially constructed, but doesn’t happen in a social vacuum devoid of anything but learning. One error I used to make was not allowing for this in sessions in the first few weeks of term. Sure, I don’t know the students- but I’m a learning developer, I don’t get to build an ongoing relationship with a cohort. I accept that and deal with it. But that early on, they don’t know each other either. Issues of creating and saving face in a new peer group may take precedence over learning. So my cheery cries of ‘Now get into groups! Turn to the person next to you! Discuss with your partner!’ may not, as intended, have had the happy bonus of helping them make friends as well as learn something, but plunged them into a fraught negotiation of priorities with potentially lasting consequences for the rest of their degree. By an unspoken shared understanding, my team never, ever use icebreakers in our workshops. We’re all pretty introverted and find them excruciating and counterproductive.
Even later in the term when a cohort has got to know each other, I feel we can overemphasise the social element of learning in our teaching. Some of that cohort will meet up later to go over lecture notes, talk over an assignment, revise together. And some won’t. They’ll be quietly processing their learning alone, as they need to. There are still plenty of opportunities to learn socially, even for the introvert – discussion in seminars, feeding back in workshops, our learning development one to ones. Even a good essay is dialogic – written for a reader – and therefore social. So I think we should pause before we automatically include yet another paired or group discussion to aid learning. What’s the balance?
It’s also a more Western model, which students from Asia may find unfamiliar and uncomfortable. I do feel that when living and studying abroad, students need to engage as fully as possible with the models of pedagogy in the host country – as a modern languages student, I’ve had to do this myself. I do wonder though if a more inclusive teaching environment might embrace a diversity of learning styles better, whether introvert/extrovert or cultural.
So I am going to worry less if I see students in my sessions not engaging in discussion but staring into space or choosing to sit alone. I am also going to see if I can design in more workshop activities that start off with solitary work to suit the introverts, allowing them to build their understanding alone before sharing and refining it. And I am going to openly embrace the diversity by designing activities which give students the options to do either.