Friday, November 10, 2017

Maintaining Student Equity in Classroom Discussions

As an English teacher, I often have discussion days in class either in the form of Socratic inner/outer circles or in a Harkness-style context. One thing that Harkness has taught me is that there is often a disconnect between how I perceive the discussion to go and what the data actually reveals upon reflection afterwards. What I mean to say is that many times in class I thought a discussion went really well: the energy was high, and the insights were diverse and illuminating, and I didn’t have to say very much at all. However, the data may have painted a very different picture; for instance, whether I immediately realized it or not, perhaps the conversation lacked the proper balance of gender equity. Or perhaps only 80% of the class truly participated, and the excluded 20% were the same students who always seem to be overlooked and therefore not heard.

How do we maintain real equity in classroom conversations, and more importantly, how do we track that over a sustained period of time?

One program that has been a game-changer for me as a teacher is the iPad-based app, Equity Maps. The program allows you to map the room digitally in terms of who sits where, thereby allowing the teacher to enter each student’s name as well as his or her gender. Once the discussion begins, the teacher can tap a student’s avatar to signal that the student is speaking; when the next student responds, the instructor taps that person’s figure on the screen, and the program draws a line to the next participant (just like one would do on paper in a traditional Harkness discussion). There are also options to mark when there’s chaos, silence, or smaller group exchanges during the live discussion. 

What’s amazing about the program, however, is what it provides once the class activity is done. Immediately, the instructor has the following data for reflection and assessment:

1. Instant playback of the group discussion
2. Data about how many times a student spoke
3. Data about how long that student actually spoke

4. Analysis of gender equity and whether one gender dominated the conversation

5. Overall assessment of levels of inclusiveness for the entire conversation

Equity Maps dispels any misguided perceptions on the teacher’s or student’s part about how well the conversation went and therefore forces one to be more honest about the greater value of that day’s discussion. It has made me a better facilitator, encourager, and evaluator of what needs to happen every day in a conversation whose main priority is promoting equity among all participants. What I’ve also come to discover is that the information can be insightful feedback for students: they need to see and reflect upon the data as well because deeper learning can only happen if we build in time for reflection upon that learning.

How do you maintain real equity in classroom conversations, and more importantly, how do you track that over a sustained period of time?

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