The Teacher’s Inclination to Lead and Maybe Cutting That Out
“Can I tell you something and have you promise not to get mad?” asked a student. This was after the Socratic inner circle got done their discussion and this student, a member of the outer circle, was critiquing the inner circle’s dialogue.
“Okay. Well, I think you interjected probably a bit too much in this dialogue.”
As the professor, I am always part of the inner circle’s Socratic dialogues. The discussion is mostly theirs, but from time to time, I like to come into it, moving drifting conversations back on track, tying things back to the reading, and sometimes asking new questions if I think the discussion is hitting a wall.
And she was right. I did interject too much. I even remember at one point inadvertently cutting off a student who was about to say something in response to another student.
This is, in some sense, how teachers are. When we are in more “traditional” classrooms and we ask a question to which an answer or raised hand doesn’t come immediately, awkwardness sets in. Even if 10 seconds go by, we often feel like we, as teachers, have a duty to fill the silence.
And I try not to do this. I generally pride myself on NOT calling on the first hand that comes up, but telling the class (for instance) that I want to wait for six hands to come up and reserve the right to call on any one of those. I am a former special-educator, who understands that teachers who call on the first hand inadvertently privilege rapidity over thoughtfulness, marginalizing the kids who take some time to really think about the question.
Yet, here was a student telling me, correctly, that I interjected too much. Why? Like it or not, I haven’t shaken that teacherly urge to interject when I feel like the discussion is stalling. And like many teachers, I sometimes interpret a 10 second silence less as the letting-students-think-it-through time that it usually is, and more like a I-must-provide-some-direction time. And that is because, truth be told, like a good many teachers, I am usually worrying in the back of my subconscious that somehow, I am losing the students and the lesson that seems like it’s going fine now will unravel if I let these 10 seconds elapse in silence.
That, of course, leads to a lot of interjecting where, in reality, it probably isn’t necessary. It also leads to some inadvertent cutting off of students who have used those 9 seconds to formulate their thought only to be cut off on the 10th. And if you are doing Socratic discussion, too much of this may lead students to start relying on me as the one who will reliably intervene if they just wait long enough.
So, during the second group’s discussion, I made a very conscious effort – that was sometimes quite awkward – not to intervene unless it was absolutely necessary. I even counted to 15 several times to keep myself from intervening too hastily. If the class is to be believed, and I think they are, I did much better at not intervening during that second group. But I can’t say it was easy. Even for a guy who knows good and well that he should keep intervention to a minimum during discussion, I am still trying to let go of the ways of the intervening teacher. Something tells me that I’ll be counting to 15 for a while yet.