Teaching and Learning

Safe Space for Discussion: Breaking the Cycle of Silence

Image by Karen Arnold from Pixabay

The dread of public speaking is surprisingly widespread. More than the death of a loved one or nuclear war, simply speaking in front of a group terrifies many adults.

For many of our students, who claim English as a second language or who struggle with a sense of “not belonging,” this raises fear to a factor of 10.

The result can be a vicious cycle of lower performance and self esteem. Playing it safe with silence can diminish the learning that comes with active engagement and intensify feelings of inadequacy.

Moreover, given the role of confidence in personal and professional achievement, the cycle of silence can undermine success in college, career, and beyond. For all these reasons, building a safe space for discussion can bring big payoffs.

My first step is to fill the classroom from the front. When I initiate this strategy on Day One, I explain that we will work as a team, and I also share the research that sitting in the front of the class is the ticket to a higher GPA.

Sitting close together enhances social security because there really is “safety in numbers.” Partnership configurations also facilitate social bonds. I encourage students to seek out those who share similar professional interests and to connect with study buddies.

This team-building strategy also supports engaged discussion. With a close-in configuration, it’s a snap to initiate a think-pair-share, thus allowing students to rehearse ideas before a large group discussion.

The final step in my recipe for creating “safe space” is to eliminate the greatest source of terror—the fear of making mistakes.

There are three simple principles that I keep in mind:  1) Define discussion as a performance requirement; 2) Prioritize the involvement of all individuals, not just a few; 3) Explicitly and objectively reward all meaningful contributions.

Principle #1: It’s essential to count discussion as part of the grade. I typically weight discussion as 10% of the total grade. After all, if discussion demonstrates engagement and enhances a learning community, then it should be credited.

Principle #2: I emphasize that the goal is for everyone to contribute at least once. To this end, our class rule is “Wait 10 to talk again.” And I explicitly solicit contributions from those who have not yet spoken.

Principle #3: Make sure to explicitly reward all contributions. My own patter goes something like this: “If your answer is correct, you earn a point. If your answer is super nova brilliant, you earn . . . a point. If you give a smokin’ dog wrong answer, you earn . . . a point. And if you ask a question on topic, you earn a point.”

In the first week, I lead students to discuss why all these contributions are truly valuable and why everyone’s involvement matters. After a pair-share, the large discussion begins—literally a discussion about the processes of discussion.

At the end, evaluation is a cinch. I place a signature sheet on each row and students sign for credit if they contribute at least once. Depending on the situation, I may allow an extra point for those who contribute more than once.

The points mount fast and by Week 3, I typically give out graded feedback. This stage increases buy-in as students see how their involvement makes a grade-point difference. At this stage, I also offer extra coaching and incentivizing for those not yet catching on.

I find that this extra accountability and encouragement brings everyone on board. By the fourth week, every student is enfranchised in a learning community based in active engagement, confidence, and an authentic sense of belonging.


4 Responses to Safe Space for Discussion: Breaking the Cycle of Silence

  1. Hollis Glaser November 22, 2019 at 8:22 am #

    This is really interesting. As a Communication professor, I’ve thought a lot about class participation (as I’m sure we all have). I like the seating arrangement. It makes a lot of sense. I also like that all contributions get rewarded. But here’s where I’m not sure I can go with you: 1) assuming that NOT talking is NOT learning; and 2) giving points. We know a lot of students are quiet and learn by listening. Also, there are some classes that have very sensitive topics and to not reward students who choose not to talk seems unfair. (I learned this from a teaching fellow in the Teaching Academy.) FYI, we have a colleague in ALL, Christine Jacknick, who is studying what participation looks like in the classroom, including a variety of behaviors. Also, we really don’t want everyone to talk every class, right? I’m not sure I could run a class where everyone wanted to talk. But maybe I’m wrong about that. Finally, the point system is just something I’m trying to get away from. I’m running my class on a contract-grade basis (without the contract–students get an A for completing 5 assignments, B for 4, etc.) and so I only have a 5 point semester and I just don’t want to count higher than that.

    Also, I do value discussion, but sometimes it’s more valuable for the class to hear from me, than it is for them to hear another students’ uninformed opinion. Forgive me, I’m sure I’m over-stating your method, but I welcome corrections, refinement. Thank you for writing this!

  2. CHRIS VINSONHALER November 22, 2019 at 11:08 am #

    Thank you so much, Hollis, for your thoughtful response! Premises are essential because a flawed premise leads to a flawed outcome. However, this method is not based on the premise that “Not talking is not learning.” Indeed, the method I’ve described here also incorporates active listening and note-taking, neither of which involves talking.

    That said, however, your question is important and I appreciate the chance to respond. Obviously, the constraints of blog length did not accommodate any discussion of the premises behind the method. So here’s a quick overview. I see that links can not be inserted in this response page, so I’ll include links below to the citations I’m giving here. One guiding premise for the method is Multiple Intelligences Theory (1). Multiple Intelligences Theory offers the insight that cognition functions across kinesthetic, visual, auditory, intra-persional, interpersonal, linguistic, and logical modalities. Speaking up in class is thus a learning dynamo because it activates all these modalities. Indeed, that is why just speaking aloud is such a powerful tool for enhancing retention(2) and also for problem-solving (3). These benefits accrue for the person speaking up in class, and there is the added benefit of rehearsing mindsets and skills that are correlated with professional success (4). However, the other benefit accrues to the group as a whole. What this method builds is a Community of Practice in which everyone benefits. Multiple discussants generate diverse vantage points, which is a proven asset in problem-solving and innovation (5). But most importantly, a community in which everyone contributes and all contributions are valued is the signature of practice in Academic mindsets, regarding belonging, change, and purpose (6)

    Another quesiton involves the universal utility of large group discussion. I guess a clarification is in order. I am not proposing large group discussions as the only teaching tool. It is but one method in the teaching toolkit—along with paired discussions, small group discussion, circle discussions, student presentations, group projects, micro-lectures, etc. I do emphasize It at the beginning of the semester because of its utility in building an environment of belonging. However, it’s definitely not an every day methodology.

    Regarding your aversion to points, I would say there are research-based upsides and downsides to any external reward system. The upside is the indisputable evidence that external rewards can incentivize and encourage performance outcomes. B.F. Skinner long ago demonstrated that the most powerful reinforcement is positive reinforcement, but here’s a cool recent demonstration of that fact (7). However, there is a downside. The downside is that external rewards can also diminish a sense of human agency (8). Regarding such complexities, I use a blended approach that recognizes the challenges of motivation across the board (9). So I agree that an empowerment pedagogy will ultimately locate the reward within the individual’s intrinsic motivation.. First, I always explain to students why our practices are beneficial to them in building success in college, career, and beyond. When students see value motivation becomes intrinsic. That is why, for example, I share research on sitting up front, and I give students time to discuss why all contributions—even “stinkin’ dog wrong answers”—are valuable. So the WHY is a huge element in enfranchisement. The other element is going “point free.” So yes. Once our Community of Practice has gelled with a sense of belonging and of safe space for risk-taking and mistake-making, I do indeed host class discussions (and many other learning opportunities) that are not externally rewarded. Such opportunities come toward the end of the semester. And in these events, yes, I also make explicit the WHYs of self-efficacy. ( ;

    To summarize, then, I would say the large-group discussion method is one option in a toolkit, not a universal everyday approach. It is based in Multiple Intelligences Theory and Community of Practice, and in research about the professional mindsets and attributes that will lead to success in the 21st Century. The method does employ external rewards (coaching, praise, points), but it functions within a Community of Practice that also explicitly nurtures self-efficacy, first by linking the “why” of the practice to student aspirations, and secondly by building a safe space where prepared individuals are ultimately invited to take learning risks outside an externalized point system.

    See these links:
    1 Multiple Intelligences Theory

    2 Speaking aloud enhances retention

    3 Speaking aloud enhances cognition

    4 Speaking in Meetings

    5 Value of diverse viewpoints

    6 Acadmeic mindsets

    7 Postive external rewards work

    8 Self-Efficacy

    9 The limits of self-efficacy

  3. Jan Stahl November 24, 2019 at 11:25 pm #

    Thank you, Chris, for sharing your strategies for creating a place for safe discussion. Last semester I had the pleasure of observing one of your classes in which nearly every student participated in the class discussion and were actively engaged together in the learning process. Your pedagogy impresses me as being based on solid foundations from the fields of psychology and education. I also reward class participation by giving points to students who participate and using small group discussions to enable more reserved students to feel comfortable talking to each other. I especially appreciate your suggestion about rewarding all contributions. Again, thank you for writing this!

  4. Chris Vinsonhaler November 26, 2019 at 8:50 am #

    Thank you, Jan, for your response–especially as someone who has observed my classroom! And you’re so right. The magic in the sauce can be reduced to the value of all contributions. It’s about making that mindset explicit, inviting students to articulate that mindset, and then rehearsing that mindset in a community that prioritizes the contribution of every individual.

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