Learning is difficult enough, but to be successful, we need to feel safe in our environment. Part of that involves finding our place in the group so we do not get lost. As important as this is, many teachers have so much to cover that they skip this social aspect, which can cause communication problems later in the class. Just as disastrous, many students have a façade that they maintain, and that prevents them from participating as themselves.
Part of encouraging authentic communication is to allow time and space for social interaction in class. That might mean using an icebreaker activity at the beginning of the class or during breaks. Another way might be to acknowledge that we use façades as a defensive mechanism in unsettling situations. The false appearance is part of trying to distance ourselves from strangers and their reactions. This can actually be counter-productive. To be a successful student, we need to feel safe enough to interact with others as ourselves, rather than as the mask we put on. Establishing expectations and then enforcing them can help students feel safe enough to be themselves.
Balancing the Individual and the Group
Depending on the size of the class, finding a way to balance voices of the group and each individual student can be difficult. Even a small class can have a wide array of opinions. Splitting the class into small groups will help solve that by allowing more people to have a chance to express their opinions on a topic. If each group comes to a consensus and reports back to the class, then the class as a whole can negotiate a final conclusion or agree that several perspectives are all valid.
The Story Needing to Be Heard
Some stories need to be heard more than others. They may be an original or unusual perspective, or they may challenge a well-entrenched assumption. Depending on the composition of the class and how much mutual respect the students have, directly asking the student to share the story might be feasible.
If the class is not so well-established or has members who have not quite caught up to the class’ expectation for respect, singling out the student with that particular story puts the student on the spot. People with unusual ideas often encounter resistance or even hostility.
Rather than putting the student in that situation, one option would be to use that student’s story as a discussion or assignment prompt without identifying the student. The story gets told without putting the student in a precarious position.
So Many Urgent Stories
When there are many urgent stories to tell, going around the room to give everyone a turn takes too long and often results in inattentive students while those who have not had their turns spend more time planning their own response than listening to their peers.
One way to handle this would be to give everyone five minutes to write out their urgent tale then collect into small groups to share. The group can decide on which story to share with the class based on criteria such as the most original or the most interesting.
By writing out their stories first, students would have no need to mentally plan out how to tell their stories, so they would be more likely to listen to others when the groups share their stories. The small group sharing allows all students to have an opportunity to share more quickly. Having to come to a decision based on criteria would require students to pay attention to the other stories and consider their merits critically.
Some topics are so controversial or have so many viable answers that no consensus will be reached. There is no unified group voice. Depending on the topic or on the purpose for the discussion, that might not be such a bad thing. There are subjects for which there is no single right answer and forcing a consensus would be terribly artificial in a class that states a preference for authenticity.
In the event that there are too many perspectives to articulate coherently, listing them and grouping them by similarities might be useful. This can show that the differences in opinion may not be as severe as originally thought.
Finding and establishing a social order is important to creating a safe learning environment. Once that happens, students will feel safer and more willing to take risks. Sometimes problems can occur in such an open classroom, but these can be solved with a little creativity.