Home > Uncategorized > Shane Rambles about Conferencing

Shane Rambles about Conferencing

Well howdy-do, Greg!

I’m finally back with a brand new letter/ post/ ramble. We (mostly you) have been writing a great deal about Habermas and how he plays into our whole theory of Communicative Education. This past week, you asked me to take us into the realm of practicality with a post on conferencing, as it was one of the very first things we presented way back at TYCA-GA. We presented on conferencing straight out of the gate because we both (I think) believe it to be the ideal teacher-student interaction.

Before I hit that, Habermas identifies the three elements of communicative action: sincerity, factuality, and ethics. I would say that these three things play huge roles in the interaction that takes place between teacher and student during a conference. I call on this old visual aid that we drafted about a year and a half ago:

Habermas with Greg 1162013 93402 PM.bmp

First, I think conferencing allows for a more sincere discourse. Students are under less pressure from their peers to perform a particular role (as the class clown or whatever) when we have them in a one-on-one or small-group situation. I don’t think we can ignore the social pressures to perform that students experience. In a traditional classroom, they are even being asked to play the role of the student, which may not be entirely sincere. At least when we sit with students and talk with them, we remove some of those social pressures. I think that allows the student to be more sincere. They are less afraid of being ridiculed for “dumb questions.” They can be honest.

Second, I think it is easier to communicate fact in settings with fewer people. I’m a huge proponent of not having too many cooks in the kitchen, and sometimes all of those voices in a classroom can muddy the facts. There is always a student looking for the exception to every rule, and I think sometimes that can confuse people. I think one of the most significant challenges to the factual element of the speech situation in the traditional classroom is attention spans. Note that here I am treating factuality as the systemic aspect of a course (grades, expectations, etc.). We know that the discussion of these systemic mandates are factually what the system expects, therefore we need to be factual with our students when discussing them. But there is no way that students with attention spans like ours can stay tuned in for that entire discussion. So, despite our best efforts, traditional classrooms do not lend themselves to very great interactive discourse regarding the facts of the course. BUT, conferencing does. One-on-one situations decrease concerns with attention spans. We no longer have to worry about the exception-seeker clouding someone else’s understanding (he can still seek exception as that is probably how he learns, but he doesn’t have to hinder someone else who may be hurt by the exception seeking). And in the case of negotiation (which I will discuss in more detail a bit later), one-on-one is always easier than one-on-twenty-four.

Third, the ethical dimension should be the easiest for us in every case. We should know when coercion is at play, and we should not do that. However, I find coercion to be a crutch in lecture-hall settings. “Pay attention to this. There will be a quiz at the end.” In my experience, telling students to pay attention because it is important doesn’t mean they will pay attention. However, in a conference setting, students are more receptive, it seems (anecdotally), to “do this because it will help you” than they are in classroom environments. Maybe you can help me on that. I’m sure that’s inexperience talking.

Now, between the two of us, we’ve employed a variety of different conferencing techniques. I’ll discuss each one briefly here. In the comments, you can fill me in on anything I missed.

1. Grading Conferences: I stood outside of your door for a while and listened to one of these. You discussed the paper in question with the student for a while (apparently an hour). At the end of the paper, you “negotiated” the paper’s grade. To me, it seemed like you knew what you were going to give the paper, and the negotiation was an illusion (perhaps you could speak to this). What I did like about the exchange was that you told her exactly what made the paper a “good paper” but not a “better than good paper.” You were clear. You used language from class discussion to reinforce the value of those ideas. You got her to see that the grade you were giving the paper was the grade the paper earned.

Here is my concern: While the discussion seemed to be very productive, I worry that the exchange could exhaust students into accepting the grade you’ve deemed appropriate. If they really believe they deserve a B+ and you really believe that they deserve a B-, they ultimately default to you because of your role as teacher. We’ve discussed this power relationship in past, and we’ve talked about how the teacher is the teacher because he or she has extensive training in a subject area, which means that he or she is better suited for assessment.

My question: If a student tells us that they understand, but they don’t, how do we fix it? Of course this is an example of the breakdown of communication (in this case, the student is not being sincere), but how do we know that is what is happening?

2. Process Conferences: Here is my favorite kind of conference. I think that students learn better one-on-one, and I think we can better personalize instruction in these settings. In a traditional classroom, each student has a different level of understanding of whatever is being covered. If one student “gets” thesis statements, we should require that student to sit through a lesson where we are still discussing thesis statements, but we do because we’ll be covering something else in a little bit. But one-on-one, if that student is crushing his thesis statement, I don’t have to waste his time talking about it. I will know he “gets” thesis statements because he will show me in the draft he has brought. Then, we can focus on things he does need help with. This is a great thing, as it allows for the teaching of different abilitied students at their level of ability. We can cater the challenge appropriately.

The concern, though, is getting students to show up for these conferences. Offering a grade seems to be coercion (especially if not showing up equals a zero), but I’m not sure how to get 100% participation without that. I would love to read your thoughts.

3. Drive-Thru Conferences: This is another Greg Kelley invention, and I’ve never watched you perform these, so I’m not sure exactly how they work. I do a version of this in my class where I move around while students write and give them one-on-one attention, but you actually leave students writing in the classroom and spend one-on-one time with other students in the hallway. I’m pretty sure this is when you do your grade conferences, am I right?

This version solves the “how do I get them to show up” problem as much as it can. If a student isn’t coming to class, may God have mercy on their soul, anyway. So they are there. I think they are more likely to be sincere since the whole class isn’t listening because, in theory, they should be working. I’m going to defer to you on this topic, though, since I have very little experience with this type of conferencing the way that you utilize it.

4. Small-Group Conferences: I’ve used small-group conferencing sparingly, but I think it works pretty well. Groups of three-five students sign up for a time slot (a half-hour) and they come through and we have a small-group discussion over whatever is giving them issues. When group one is done, they move to the back of the room to continue working and group two comes in for a short discussion. Eventually, the whole class is working, and everyone has received almost individual attention.

Final ThoughtsIn all of these models, real learning happens when everyone involved interacts. This is why conferencing is such a superior for to a lecture in my opinion. Interaction is more likely to happen in these settings because of the smaller numbers and the decrease in pressure. All of this promotes sincerity, and it allows for a better focus on the factual dimension. I’ll be interested to read your thoughts on the ethics of conferencing…specifically avoiding coercing students into attendance.

Until next time,


Categories: Uncategorized
  1. December 4, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    Yes, we certainly do agree that the teacher-student conference is as close as we are likely to get within the educational system to the Ideal Speech Situation that Habermas speaks of. As is so often the case in this blog, any of the sections you present could stand expansion as an essay in its own right. In this case you raise some important issues, having to do with sincerity and ethics, especially in the section on the grading conference. If I already have determined a grade to assign before I negotiate, then I am violating the condition of sincerity. And if I wield teacherly power to force the student to accede to that grade, then I am violating the condition of non-coercive ethics.

    As quickly as I can, I want to reassure you and our Dear Readers that a grading conference does not have to take an hour. In my developmental classes, in which the timed essays are graded pass/fail, I set my little teacher-timer to four minutes for a drive-through conference. The idea here is that readers of the exit essays are going to spend no more that to judge whether an essay meets the standard of success for developmental writing. So I should explain what I mean when I say that I negotiate an essay’s grade. If I have already determined what the grade should be, then any negotiate does not deserve the name. I often meet with students to explain how I arrived at a grade—I don’t always grade in conference with them. So if I arrange a “grading conference” with the student I definitely have not read the paper in advance. If this conference is to qualify as communicative action, it must consist of a “discourse oriented toward understanding.” It therefore becomes incumbent upon me to specify the place for negotiation in such a discourse.

    The chart you resurrected is helpful, I think. I can’t negotiate my subjective state, my thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and already existing understandings. I can only express it as accurately, that is, as sincerely, as I can. And since my expressive powers are limited, I can’t express subjectivity with perfect accuracy, much less with absolute comprehensiveness. So in the subjective dimension alone, the ideal speech situation is just that: an ideal, a guide, not a goal to be achieved. The situation is different with ethics, however, and must approach the ideal closely. My partner in discourse and I can and indeed must refrain from the imposition of coercive power. I can’t negotiate to determine whether my counterpart somehow consents to be pushed around. So while expression of the subjective dimension always falls short of the ideal, and while the ethical dimension is a kind of absolute, they are alike in that neither is a site for negotiation. So if negotiation is to have any place at all in a communicative situation, it must be in the realm of fact.

    But facts are facts, I hear you cry. How can facts be a matter for negotiation? Well, there are infinite facts in the world, and no verbal exchange could—or needs to–accommodate them all. So who is to decide which facts are relevant and sufficient?—Only the participants in the exchange, obviously. A fact is a claim generally accepted to be true. For example, on the eastern side of the Atlanta metro area, where you and I live, is a big granite outcropping known as Stone Mountain. The existence of this geological phenomenon is a fact. Also factual are bits of information concerning the route to the mountain, the existence of a state park there, other nearby attractions, and so forth, all of which might be relevant if we were planning a picnic at Stone Mountain. In making these plans, we would probably not need to discuss whether the outcropping is composed of igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic rock or whether it meets the height specification established by geologists to qualify as a mountain. These topics aren’t forbidden; they’re just not necessary for planning a picnic.

    Many facts, like the existence of Stone Mountain, are relatively pure and simple. These are the generally accepted observations of science. There is, however, another realm of fact that is much more problematic, namely the regulatory principles established in the various social systems, political, economic, therapeutic, educational, and so forth. Well, I can see that my meditation on fact and the negotiation of fact needs to split off into its own letter. For the moment, in relation to teacher-student conferencing let me note the difference between the pure and simple facts of, for example, the rules of grammar and syntax and the problematic, systemically determined facts of, for example, curriculum, grading, placement and so forth. As you say, we have little choice but to treat systemic facts like facts of nature. While the impersonal, nature-like operation of systemic mandates merits critique (a critique to which you and I have much to contribute, Shane), for the interaction of teacher and student, systemic functions are facts as solid as the facts of objective science. They are thus a locus for negotiation. Hence, if I am a math teacher helping a student master the quadratic equation, the fact that this mathematical concept is a mandated item in the curriculum of MATH 1111 might well be relevant. The fact that MATH 1111 is a prerequisite for MATH 2111, not so much, perhaps. But these are matters for my student and me to decide.

    So here’s the problem, or maybe it isn’t a problem. The negotiation of fact shows us, and not for the first time, that the interaction of teacher and student is not symmetrical. The teacher presumably maintains a greater repository of factual knowledge in a discipline than does the student. Nevertheless, the establishment of relevance and sufficiency of fact is a matter of negotiation. What does it matter who names a fact first? Facts are indeed facts, but it is up to us, teacher and student together, to determine which facts are required to carry out the action of the student’s learning. Admittedly, the teacher might well be tempted, as you strongly suggest, to abuse power by, for example, exhausting “students into accepting the grade you’ve deemed appropriate.” This reply has already turned into a verbose tail wagging the more concise dog, so I guess I won’t respond in detail to each of the conference configurations you treat in your letter, Shane. But since the grading conference seems to be the most controversial, perhaps it can stand for the virtues and defects of teacher-student conferencing generally.

    It has surprised me in my many years of conversations with other teachers that they are often skeptical to the point of taking offense at the idea of a negotiated grade, but they accept the requirement for grades as a natural fact. Now, we both, you and I, Shane, have just argued that as a practical matter teachers and students must treat systemic mandates in just that way, as objective facts. Nevertheless, the path to mutual understanding can be determined only by the participants. While it may be true in our educational system that at some point the teacher must assign a grade, how the teacher arrives at that grade (and we are arguing that it can be in cooperation with the student) is a matter with considerable leeway. How the grade might be used by stakeholders (who might be abstract and impersonal) outside the teacher-student relationship is really no concern of the teacher and the student. I can tell you Shane, that in 31 years of teaching, no chairperson, dean, principal, registrar or any other representative of the educational system has questioned a final grade I have assigned. The system may mandate that a grade of C is equivalent to between 70 and 79 points, but it’s never very clear what a point is. So far, the educational system has deemed my judgment, which is tempered by my understanding with the student, sufficient. The bottom line for me is that so long as the student and I understand one another, the grade we come up with serves both our own purposes and those of the institution that required grades in the first place. Within the teacher-student relationship, the grade is one factor of understanding.

    Now, there is always the understanding that precedes understanding. So before the student and I commence the grading conference, I make sure that the student understands how we are using grades (as a tool for mutual understanding) and what in general the various grades denote. “B means good,” I say, “and everybody can achieve good results.” “C means not so good, and A, which is difficult to achieve and therefore rare, means better than good.” F pretty much means the student gave me nothing to work with, or what the student did give evinces “active contempt for these proceedings.” Like A, an F is rare. I don’t know what D is supposed to mean. With these ground rules, which I discuss frequently with the whole class, out of the way, I grade the paper, or whatever it is, as I normally would except that my internal dialogue is a dialogue with the student. No doubt, well before we reach the end of the reading, I have an idea whether the grade falls in the good, the not-so-good, or the better-than-good range. But this is the key point: I’m not going to impose that grade on the student. Instead, I will solicit, and be open to, the student’s own understanding.

    I always close the grading conference with the question, “What grade does this essay [or whatever the assignment is] earn?” Often, at first, the student interprets this question as a pop quiz, as if the student is supposed to guess what letter I have hidden behind my back. If the student responds with “I don’t know” or “I can’t say,” I review the evidence that we acquired during our read-through. Together we review the evidence and determine whether the assignment qualifies as good, not-so-good, or better-than-good. The best word for referring to this interaction aimed toward shared judgment is negotiation. And I should quickly distinguish this term from bargaining. When we haggle, say with the seller of some product or service, we are trying to get the best deal. The seller is trying to get the best deal for the seller, and the buyer is trying to get the best deal for the buyer. Each participant is attempting to gain victory, not to achieve mutual understanding. Indeed, bargaining assumes the withholding of information: how much the buyer is willing to pay and how little the seller is willing to accept. In the grading conference, in contrast, the facts are openly available to all (both) participants. By examining the evidence together and reaching a conclusion together, the teacher and the student accept “the unforced force of the better argument,” not the caprice of the victor in a power struggle.

    Shane, we have several times fielded the question, “Are you guys saying we can do without grades?” Well, yes we can; we can do without grades. But I think our project of Communicative Education starts with the teacher-student situation as it actually is. That is, from a systemic perspective teacher and student are merely functionaries in a machine-like apparatus. However, from a human perspective, teacher and student are persons coordinating a particular action, namely the student’s learning. The fact that these persons operate within (and to some extent for) a system is a superfluous point since every member of society functions within a congeries of intersecting systems, political, economic, and cultural. Systems are necessary and in any case inherent in modern life. But no system short of absolute totalitarianism can fully thwart the human capacities of consensus and consent. We are trying to set education, which is currently upside down, on its feet. Instead of thinking as teaching as the planning, delivery, and assessment of “content,” we think of teaching as a paradigmatic example of interaction aimed toward understanding. And “conferencing,” that is, direct teacher-student interaction, is the paradigmatic example of a communicative teaching practice.

    The big question in your letter has to do with the avoidance of coercion. I have avoided that question in this reply, and so I guess that’s matter for my next letter.

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