I had a reccurring problem in classroom discussions: the boys put their hand up to speak far more than the girls. When the girls spoke, the boys often interrupted. Eventually, even the brightest girls became withdrawn.
I want everyone in my class to get a chance to speak. Classroom discussion thrives on a diversity of viewpoints. If a few are allowed to dominate, the whole debate suffers.
For help, I spoke with my colleagues at the Philosophy Foundation. Here are three strategies we’ve found useful to support diversity during discussion. They can be used to include all children who are at risk of being left out.
Wait for answers to questions
If the discussion is worthwhile, then learners need time to think. The average teacher doesn’t allow for this. Usually, teachers ask a question and wait less than a second before either asking the question of someone else or answering it themselves.
Of course, if the question is simple then it’s right to wait a short time before moving on. But quick-fire questions can create a survival of the loudest culture. The boys in my class tended to be more aggressive than the girls. If I didn’t pause after asking a question, the boys ended up dominating. I started waiting between five and eight seconds after asking a question. This proved long enough to see more hands, including girls’, go up in the air.
Learn your unconscious bias and plan against it
In a class that I taught a few years ago, I had selected five girls to speak one after the other. As I was about to pick a sixth, the boys shouted out “It’s unfair”. They were right. They helped me to see that I had an unconscious bias towards girls (in that particular class, anyway).
You may have no such bias. Or you might find that you have a preference for a certain type of learner. It could be based on gender, ethnicity, attainment level or personality type. If this is the case, try doing what I did: alternate between types of children. For example, girl-boy, white-non white, high level-low level and so on.
Alternating in this way massively reduced the impact of my bias. Also, the children realised that I was doing it and it set the expectation that both genders would be included. Those who were withdrawn became alert to the fact they might get chosen. Student enthusiasm and engagement went up.
This is a good strategy. But it won’t eliminate all bias or exclusion. My classes are maximally inclusive when I use several different methods of speaker selections. I don’t only alternate between boys and girls; I also pick names from a hat. Give each child a number, then pick from a number randomiser. Ask for a show of hands from only those who haven’t spoken yet in the lesson. With each extra method that I use, my unconscious biases are reduced.
- Speaking styles
The girls in my class were bright, but often didn’t express opinions forcefully. They didn’t challenge others or hold the floor. I took this to mean that they weren’t involved.
On reflection, I realised that there’s more to good speaking than adversarial exchange. For example, I noticed that some of my girls were better than most boys when it came to voicing opinions tentatively. This is a virtue, especially if they later discover that they were wrong. Some girls could express criticism tactfully and didn’t want to speak for the sake of it.
As teachers, we should encourage any learner who operates outside the adversarial model of enquiry. Our job isn’t to get girls to speak like boys. That would only confirm that they live in a man’s world. Our job is to support each student to best express themselves according to their own style.
Andy West is a senior specialist and training officer for the Philosophy Foundation. He tweets @AndyWPhilosophy
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