Category Archives: In Class Discussions

Planned and Surprise Debates

Debate is an effective pedagogical tool for engaging students in the classroom and guiding them through the pros and cons of complex issues. In my music classes, I tend to initiate two types of debates, planned and surprise. Both require active participation of all students, but exercise different skill sets.

Planned debates require students to conduct independent research and develop cogent talking points with teamwork and careful preparation. I announce a topic from one of the main themes in the textbook in advance and assign oppositional sides and supporters. Each student is given a worksheet to complete as a prerequisite for the debate. Students work together with colleagues through Moodle discussion forums and chats split into oppositional sides outside of class and a debate moderator I assign ensures that each student participates. While the actual debate itself can be lively and enriching, the gem of the activity lies in what students accomplish prior to the debate. Planned debates demonstrate student success in speaking, research, collaboration, and argument; however, the skills underutilized include listening, quick-thinking, and adaptation, all targeted by the surprise debate.

Surprise Debates are as spontaneous for the professor as they are for students. Whereas planned debates benefit from predetermined reference to specific topics from the textbook, surprise debates are effective in intervening when the primary course objectives are under scrutiny. I have initiated surprise debates when discussions are lackluster or when students are resistant to learning. When needed, I ask students to stand and without hesitation move to oppositional sides at the edges of the classroom. An object representing a speaker’s staff is passed among students who are immediately responsible for addressing the primary issue; students can change sides at any time. I observe silently and tap students who’ve just made profound statements to join me in the middle of the room so that all students are eventually pressed to speak. While much of the learning in planned debates is front loaded, the most beneficial aspect of surprise debates is the follow up discussion. Although I have not tried it, Twitter feeds and periodic clicker polls projected on the screen could assist students in monitoring changes in opinion and the direction of the discussion; both will be helpful in the period of reflection.

To maximize the potential gain of debates in music courses, it is important to consider targeted learning outcomes. Often music courses for undergraduates have specific content and perhaps one or more general education (liberal arts) objectives. While these should be at the forefront when engaging and assessing both planned and surprise debates, one should not forget the broader goals of higher education and the variety of transferable skill sets that debates require: critical thinking, adaptability, research, and public speaking, to name a few. As Snider and Schnurer have effectively presented, exercising these skills through debate across the Freshmen and Sophomore curricula will help prepare students for upper-level courses, graduate school, and future careers.

When to break it to ’em

I’ve addressed “why you need this course” many times in my syllabi and first day spiels. The intention to “get the record straight” before the class commences is certainly understandable. We don’t want students to harbor skepticism that may inhibit their learning experience. Furthermore, we may also wish to prevent any undesirable comments on course evaluations and We want the buy in immediately, so we turn to the selling mode on day one.

With this approach, however, the professor potentially risks one of the most important outcomes of higher education: critical thinking. Indoctrinating students before they have had an opportunity to engage with the material is denying them an environment where they can challenge the system. Do you want your students to speak their mind in class? Do you want students to develop thesis statements that creatively go against the majority? Do you want students to deconstruct long-standing theories? Of course you do!!! Well, then let them.

You cannot have is both ways. If you present students with your offer of value on the first day, then they will make their decision on whether to buy into it on the first day. Either they will accept the value because you told them to or they will tune out because your actions told them that you’re a phony. The semester will be a drag. However, if you want them to critically engage with course topics, you have to let them call you out from time to time. This is what an intellectual community does.

Breaking the news to them that your course will have long-term value is something that should come later in the semester and it should be initiated by the students. Everything will need to be thrown on the table when students begin to challenge what you’re doing and to question whether it’s worth their time. Your willingness to put your plan on hold when the time presents itself will convince students of your authenticity as an educator. Furthermore, all sides are now privy to course content and thus in a better position to discuss on equal grounds. It’s not fair to tell students they need the content of the course when you haven’t even shown it to them yet. If you can guide the discussion to allow students to formulate plausible connections between their learning experiences and future scenarios, the buy in will be far greater. And they will have arrived at this by exercising the inquisitive mindset we are trying to cultivate.

Not every student will see the connection, even after this conversation. It will be tempting to consider it shortsighted. However, if the class has the opportunity to challenge you and the encouragement to support that challenge with evidence, then they’re modeling something more valuable than you could over sell them with a lecture.

On Grading, Part 2

One of the biggest steps in transitioning students from high school to college classes is showing them the difference between text and context. When Western music cultures, for example, began notating music and eventually printing and selling it, music as a living cultural expression became a thing. The process of thingifying music–the academic in me says I should probably use a word like reify, but thingify just rolls off the tongue so nicely–explains how the canon of great works formed. This process crosses into other expressions of culture as well, where Shakespeare’s plays became curricular texts and Howard Zinn uncovered another history of America. The point is that when intangible activities and events become objects, something is left out.

When we explain this process of thingification to our students, we ought to introduce the concept of grades as an analogy. A grade is a measurement of performance within a limited parameter, whether it be a quiz, a presentation, or group participation. There are so many things to a class that cannot be measured because despite our best efforts we cannot contain or quantify them. Something is always left out. Have students make lists of everything they can connect to a course: trying to figure out what Schopenhauer is saying, tracking all of the diminutive variants of Crime and Punishment character names, crafting a sixteenth version of a thesis statement that will hopefully pass muster, to name a few. Grades on a transcript ten years down the line will not document these components of the class.

As we help students start to realize the limits of the text and the deep layers of the context, we should also help them start viewing the limits of grades. Grades have their purpose just as a history text has its purpose. But when we thingify the learning experience, we misrepresent value. Anxiety over the impact of grades on job prospects and scholarship requirements may not go away completely, but perhaps this conversation will help remind students that there are many worthwhile components of a class that cannot be represented on paper.

The Art of Conversation

I tend to converse at two opposite extremes: either I dominate the conversation (i.e. I am lecturing to my students) or I remain silent as I thoughtfully take in the ideas of others…or just plain tune out. Recently I was reminded of an etiquette game for children on the art of conversation. While sitting in a circle, children take turns sharing ideas and listening by tossing around the conversation ball. The lessons in this activity are that no one dominates the conversation, that everyone participates, and that it is as important to listen as it is to speak. The playful ball tossing is also a reminder to keep the conversation moving. From time to time I should brush up on this activity in both my professional and personal life.

College students could also stand to practice conversational etiquette. Usually the professor or a handful of students dominate conversation in the classroom. And while this structure may present some presentational benefits to learning, we should be doing more to prepare students for a highly transferable skill: the ability to engage in conversation on an unfamiliar topic with people other than their familiar network of friends and family. We have unrealistic expectations if we expect discussion-based learning to occur where the fundamentals of conversation are absent.

I truly believe in the Music Appreciation Class and my ultimate goal is that students will learn to enjoy having rich conversations about music from active listening habits. In a summer version of this class–Jazz and the American Spirit–I capitalized on my low enrollment in order to give the old conversation ball a try. While listening to Sonny Rollins’s “St. Thomas,” the students and I actively conversed, discussing everything from tempo and instruments present to the distinct timbre of Rollins’s tenor sax and his motivic exploration during solos. Some students even chimed in with acute observations of the drum beat and comparisons to the styles of Lester Young and Dexter Gordon. In small groups, this exercise pushes students to draw on background knowledge (whether limited or extensive) and remain in the conversation. In a sense, students have to improvise on the spot and remain in step with the other members of the group much like the jazz musicians they are describing. Note to self: with my larger classes this fall, I will need to break the class into several small groups.