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Openness vs. Safety in the Classroom

May 29, 2012

Words were said, and then voices slightly raised. Other words were returned. Hands shot up around the classroom, some shaking. One or two voices quivered. Someone left the room. The temperature of the classroom rose. Camps were set, flags raised and ideological ammunition assembled. All eyes turned to the front of the room, awaiting marching orders…

What’s your teaching style? Do you give readings, generate discussion, and then sit back and see where the discussion takes itself? Or do you have a rigidly structured class which involves copious amount of your personal politics, opinion or will? Or perhaps some sort of middle ground?

I’ve been having a lot of inner dialogue around this issue and have a few thoughts to jot down, which will hopefully stimulate some thought in your own practices.

1.) Openness and a ‘removed approach’ smack of a naive belief in objectivity, that somehow the instructor can be an objective, removed observer or facilitator that generously allows free dialogue, free thinking and free direction. We all have our agendas and politics.

2.) Openness demands ‘good faith’ from all parties and, honestly, this is difficult (if not impossible) to achieve in a classroom of wide ranging power relations. Even with set ground rules, the potential for derailment is always there.

3.) Openness and ‘open air time’ allows dominant and privileged bodies the chance to reinsert themselves at will, often to the detriment of others. Certain students always come the fore and this is not always a sign of leadership or engagement but a desire to control conversation, direction, etc… Respected feminist and antiracist educator Peggy McIntosh never allows a class wide ‘debrief’ time after her small group discussions for this reason, particular students dominate the air space, choose who gets represented how, and deny space to others.

4.) Intervention can be well intentioned but harmful. We may think that we know what power dynamics are at play when, in reality, we’re just imposing our reading on the events. Be careful reading into things.

5.) All students deserve a safe space to learn. Openness can negate some people’s safety (as could intervention). How do we balance space for people to sort out problems collectively with moments that are symbolically, discursively, or epistemically violent for some?

6.) We all have a political and ideological positioning but by staking particular claims in particular ways, do we silence dissent or difference? How do we balance the goals of the instructor (and institutions) with those of the students?

These are a few brief thoughts in thinking through some of these issues. Balance between openness and safety in the classroom is not easy to achieve, especially around particular ‘sensitive topics‘. How, as instructors, should we be prepared to deal with this?

Edit: Lisa Kabesh adds to some of this discussion over at Dry Erase Writings – check it out.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2012 12:30 am

    Fascinating post! I agree that we all have our own filters, and to me these filters are all-encompassing and thus also cover positioning and personal agendas, because they basically define what we perceive. And bringing different communication styles (and passions over our own agendas) into the classroom certainly makes an interesting combination, that can be intimidating for some students. Small group discussions with defined outcomes are probably the best solution.I very much agree about providing the (emotionally) safe learning environment to all students – yet I recognize the need for collaborative learning, because bringing different pieces of knowledge and understanding to the learning situation is very enriching and actually adds to the quality of learning of the group.

    • May 30, 2012 10:41 am

      I also enjoy small group discussions though they also have the opportunity for some to dominate (less so) and it typically tends to be the same students who ‘report back’ to the class, narrating their take on the discussion. What type of goals do you set for your students in small groups?

  2. May 30, 2012 9:58 am

    Thanks for the post– I especially appreciate your bluntness in regard to politics in the classroom (#1), and your point (#3) that certain students often can control (directly or indirectly) who gets to speak, especially in moments of classroom-wide sharing that might follow group discussions. I hadn’t really considered that before; being aware of it now may change how I handle the “share” part of any think-pair-share or group sharing I ask of students.

    One exercise that I like to use in group discussions is role-playing. I randomly assign students the following roles: facilitator, questioners, & public record-keeper, and these roles then rotate each week. More than one student can take on the same role in a single discussion, as well.

    I usually assign one student (or two) the role of facilitator. Another few might be assigned the role of questioner (they jot down a few questions as the discussion progresses and are obligated to ask at least one question of another student in the course of the discussion). The role of public record-keeper (she or he keeps a record of the discussion on the board) is voluntary, which allows shier students to participate more frequently, not to mention take ownership over that participation.

    The benefits of using these rotating but fixed roles as a discussion management system are multiple. First, it helps to balance the spread of who gets to speak and when in the classroom. And not just because, for example, whoever is the facilitator or a questioner for the week cannot avoid speaking. It’s also because student comfort can change based on who has the floor. I’ve seen students who are usually very quiet in “open” class discussions suddenly become much more voluble and relaxed during a role-play discussion facilitated by a friend, or by someone they’ve worked with previously in think-pair-share exercises. Another benefit of this system is that it gives students a clear idea of what is expected of them; as a result, they tend to perform better. Uncertainty will keep many students quiet. Finally, it allows students to practice and develop important communication skills.

    There is one role that does not rotate, however. That is the role of note-taker, which I, as the instructor, usually fill.This allows me to step back from the discussion and give students the opportunity to take the floor. At the beginning of each role-assigned discussion, I remind the class that as note-taker, my head may be bent to my page quite a bit, that I will only be able to participate sparingly, and that this means that if I do not make eye contact or do not respond to them directly, it is not because I don’t value their input. The result is that students tend to address one another, rather than me. It’s great.

    Thanks again for the great post. I wonder, could you share the Peggy McIntosh source?

    • May 30, 2012 10:39 am

      Great ideas, I love hearing how people work to balance this openness/collaboration/participation/safety issue.

      With your experience in role playing, have you found that in the chance to ‘not be themselves’ it lends to problematic portrayals of ‘others’?

      The Peggy McIntosh statement was something she spoke on this year at her Presidential address at AERA – Unfortunately I don’t think the talk is available anywhere online.

      • May 30, 2012 1:03 pm

        Thanks, Eric, for the Peggy McIntosh background info.

        In response to your question, yes, problematic dynamics do arise during assigned-role class discussions. The only way I’ve managed to mitigate (hopefully) this problem, is to make sure that I engage students in a number of different types of active learning consistently. Assigned-role discussions are mixed with think-pair-sharing, individual reflection, impromptu mini group presentations, one-minute papers, drawing & concept-mapping, and rapid learning stations (where small groups of students rotate through different stations or tables, and must complete a specific task in a limited amount of time).

        I guess it’s kinda like a shotgun approach to teaching and classroom management. I hope that for every student, at least one or two of the activities will give hit the mark– that it will give them a chance to feel comfortable, to take on more of a central role, or what have you.

      • May 30, 2012 1:36 pm

        Thanks for the comments Lisa. I think any class activity is hit or miss and has, more or less, a few possible undesirable outcomes. Realizing that we can’t control everything is a major step in more aware, responsive teaching, IMO. Thanks again!


  1. Managing Risk in Class Discussions | Dry-Erase Writings

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