18 January 2008

Classroom social dynamics - where do they come from?

Yesterday I had small groups discuss some questions in class related to the key concepts we were learning this week. I gave them three to five minutes depending on the question, the incentive was that the table(s) with correct answers would receive bonus points.

As I wandered the room and monitored each table, I saw something that didn’t surprise me much. At tables where there were lively discussions everyone had an equal vote, no one really swayed the conversation – unless someone produced a note they had taken as evidence. Conversely, key students – those students with a “reputation” as being smart” due to their grades and comments in class – could sway a conversation just with a comment …. They didn’t need any evidence – there was an inherent trust in what they said.

Today I gave a quiz that I had been talking about all week. In scoring it, I noticed the students that were actively participating in the discussion yesterday scored higher on the quiz. In case you’re wondering, yes – the questions yesterday were about the topics on the quiz.

As a teacher, what did I learn from this?

Social dynamics is a key part of class and no one taught me this in my bachelors to get a teaching certificate. In my Master’s we covered it indirectly. Yes, I was taught classroom management and that was/is immensely helpful. But, social dynamics is different.

For me, social dynamics equates to students getting “out of their thinking box” and looking at situations/conversations freshly. This is much easier than is sounds.
We began a new semester two weeks ago and now I have all the new students I will get – schedules are finally settling down. The difference in thinking levels between the new students and ones who were with me last semester are night and day.
I use a lot of discussions in my teaching. I’m convinced that students learn more from each other in these group discussions than any time, energy or material I present. I always have discussions after I present material to let students absorb it.

I ask a lot of questions to students in my teaching. What was apparent from the discussion yesterday is I have to be careful about the mix of students in group work, given the high number of new students I have. I need to mix the old students with the new students, otherwise the new students are bound to get off track … both in groups and in seating and also in class discussions. This takes an enormous amount of focus and concentration on my part – stamina.

I think that stamina comes from my business career. To be successful in business you have to dissect situations and examine them against your goals – at least I had to do that as a project manager. Honestly, I don’t see where they young teachers – just out of college – get that knack – that insight. I know there are no college classes teaching social dynamics.

The push in assimilating new teachers seems to be focused on college grads. Are we setting them up to lose? What if we focused on pulling successful business people into teaching …...would they stand a better chance for success?

People skills. Without those skills a teacher is going to be hurting, perhaps trying to make friends with students rather than teach them. I think we need to hire teachers with strong people skills and equally strong content knowledge.

Hiring a nerd won’t work – students will eat them alive. At the other end, hiring someone with no content knowledge won’t help the students learn much. We need a knowledge skill and people skill balance in teachers.

That’s my two cents today.

BTW, here is an excellent video about getting out of the box. (grin)

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