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:
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,