The Most Important Aspect of Lively Student Engagement? Feedback.

Recently, I did a post on inquiry and my attempts to create more lively discussion in my classroom. I focused on the use of the Harkness Discussion Method. You can check out my earlier thoughts and methods here.

Today I want to talk about a follow-up discussion I had with a colleague. I had just finished up a meeting with a student, let's call her Facilitator N, regarding her agenda and duties for this afternoon's Harkness session.  My goal in these meetings is to diffuse any nervous tension my student has, and to touch base with them about how to effectively organize a discussion. After Facilitator N left, my colleague leaned over and commented on what he observed. Here's what the ever-wonderful Mr. Choquette had to say

Mr. C: "You know it's a funny thing about Harkness, we often forget that the most worthwhile part of the method is giving feedback."

Me: "I couldn't agree more."

Mr Choquette is a wonderful teacher and person, so I greatly appreciate his counsel in all things. When he shares his pedagogical views, I make sure to stop and listen carefully. He really had a point about Harkness feedback, and it got me to reflecting on my methods.

Often times teachers seem to get caught up in the process of discussion. We devote a great deal of energy to prepping our students for discussion, we then add more when we observe and coach our kids through discussion. If you are anything like me, you get very caught up in discussion prep and student performance during class. I'm always intrigued by where the students will take the discussion topics. My interest is further peaked when I compare discussion performance from class to class. Each session always leaves me fired up and ready to implement the next week's preparations. However, Mr. Choquette's words are a sobering reminder of the importance of feedback and slowing things down. I think that for as much attention and structure that we bring to the planning and implementation of a Harkness discussion we should bring at least as much to our closing remarks and feedback to the students.

Here's my method:

During the discussion:

  1. I draw a map of the conversation.
  2. I code the map with specific symbols representing ideal skills employed by the students (e.g. "T" for text reference/facilitation, "Q" for question raising, "C" for chainsawing a topic, etc.)
  3. I color code the lines on my maps so the kids see not just how much they contributed to the discussion, but specifically to what topic.
  4. I highlight kids based on their overall performance (e.g. silent, involuntary/prompted speaking, "on fire" performance, sophisticated analysis, etc.)
  5. I also take notes on key ideas/examples discussed (if possible).

After Discussion:

  1. I snap a picture of the discussion maps with my smartphone. I post the photo to our class Edmodo page.
  2. In the same Edmodo post I provide written feedback in the following format:

    • Class Performance Grade: Out of 14 Ideal Criteria. Based on the total number of criteria they meet a class average score is determined. Individual performance can either move a student up or down. See my Student Harkness Handout for further details.
    • General Group Feedback: General thoughts, content ideas to revisit or pay special attention to
    • Facilitator Feedback: Notes on the overall performance and constructive advice.
    • Student "Shout Outs": Individualized notes on "significant" student moments or contributions present in the discussion.

Here's a Recent Example of My Feedback Method:

This first map comes from our first student-led discussion of the year:

Class Average Score: 10/14

General Comments: All in all I was pleased with the group discussion. At first I was a bit concerned about the aggressive nature with which the ideas were discussed. There were more than a few moments where pockets of the group engaged in ferocious debate as opposed to constructivist discussion and critical thinking. I pondered this for a while, and wondered was this a negative? Until I realized that what I witnessed was my students putting on their “game face” for all the right reasons. Still, I’d like to remind you to understand that the purpose of our discussion isn’t competition; it’s team building and creating a welcoming environment for all members.

Facilitator Notes: J, I really admired the quality of the agenda you made. Your questions raised were well thought-out, and insightful. Your candor in the group was reassuring. It was refreshing to see a student facilitator be unafraid to put their views into the discussion. You did a solid job of guiding your peers through the agenda and helping them to break down the questions. Each chainsaw recap was effective and reflected your leadership. A student who can recall the full breadth of the topic discussed is one who had it very well laid out and organized. You laid out the questions and kept the discussion and information organized—you did that. It’s not easy being the first student facilitator of the year, but you made it look effortless.

Student Shout Outs: J your voice was a constant presence of support and leadership. You did a great job of informally facilitating the group by reminding your peers of the bigger themes and concepts of the content material, and you did a good job of redirecting them at times.

Keep after it team, you’re getting there!

Here's the following week's discussion. A different chapter, a different facilitator, and group mindset.

Class Average Score: 12/14

General Comments: I’d say that this, by far, was the most fun discussion yet. You could tell from the beginning that this conversation would be different. The “bacon-chopper”, the laughter, the good-natured response to questions (and clever quips about them) was all in all what I like to see most in discussion. I found myself having a harder time than usual finding constructive criticisms to give. That being said, don’t grow complacent, we’re still developing as a discussion group! My main comment about this would be to remind you of the ideal “the loud do not dominate and the shy are encouraged.” Here’s my observation. Did everyone participate? Yes. Did everyone participate freely and of their own accord? No. Did we have excellent leading voices? Yes. Did the lesser voices receive encouragement? At times, yes—but it’s the “cold call” nature that I worry about. Encouraging the shy should go beyond, “Do you want to read the question?” or “Hey “bacon-chop” that!” When you develop a lively attitude, make it fun, but develop a community of support. As for the more silent folks, get bold, your team needs you to speak out more. Your voice can only benefit your audience.

Facilitator Notes: K, you’ve set a real standard for raising the level of discourse. Your rebranding of “chainsaw” as “bacon-chopping” was in of itself, hilarious. To go a step further and to provide a cardboard and hand-labeled handsaw was totally random and awesome. You brought fun to the circle, and your attention to the facilitating your agenda made the discussion easy to follow. Awkward silences were a foreign concept today. Bravo.

Student Shout Outs: First off thanks to all the juniors for being amazingly welcoming of the “new” 10th graders who joined your session. A “tip of the hat” to the 10th graders is in order. You transitioned seamlessly; you mixed it up and at times gave the upper classman a run for their money. Iz, I loved your total confidence in question asking. Every time you asked a question it raised the discourse level. B I was very glad to hear you speak your mind openly without prompting this week, keep it up! J I appreciated your willingness to draw in your outside study of GDP and skyscrapers.

A weekly ritual, decorating the chalkboard, and a new talking piece, the BACON-CHOPPER.
Why bacon-chopping? Their response, why NOT bacon-chopping? I can't argue with that.

What's the Endgame?

As teachers we are taught that feedback should meaningful and timely. By implementing a specific design and scaffolding our students for success we can begin to help our students understand what is expected of them. Tailoring our feedback to that design and scaffolded student understanding benefits the student immensely. I feel that my system brings meaning to the post-discussion experience. It gives them something to think about in between weekly Harkness sessions. This time between sessions is what makes the feedback portion of Harkness discussions the most important aspect of lively student engagement. That time for reflection is key as it allows for personal growth. In my mind that's really why we use these sorts of teaching methods, it's not just about encouraging students to engage with us or the material, it's about encouraging our students to grow as individuals.

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