HISTORY OR HYSTERIA: Teaching and Evaluating Discussion
Given the opportunity, most teachers of history
find an energetic and dynamic student discussion to be among the most glorious
and invigorating experiences which can possibly decorate the daily round,
flush the cheeks, and bring a new lightness to one's plodding pace. Aside
from being fascinating to follow, such a discussion can provide reassurance
that one has actually managed to transfer to students, perhaps, some of
the excitement and pleasure of the discipline.
Most history teachers I have known have felt this
way at one time or another and have argued that developing the ability to
discuss issues is one of the major benefits students can gain from taking
history courses. However, to say that one "encourages discussion"
is essentially a cliché of the profession. I have even heard it argued
by teachers whose classes, I knew by experience, were devoted to lectures.
Indeed, it is all too often that teachers forego class discussion in the
interests of what many know as "coverage."
Even when teachers do encourage discussion, it is
unfortunately the case that the quality of student performance is rarely
quantified, and as a result, just as rarely influences grades in the course.
If it does, it is usually as some vague perception in the mind of the teacher
as she or he reflects on the performance of the students' achievements,
foibles, personalities, appearances, laughs, and other gateways to the comprehension
of academic competence.
I must be honest and make it clear from the beginning
that I strongly prefer to avoid giving number or letter grades altogether.
Grading is apparently a practice which, according to Neil Postman, originated
William Farish probably had no idea what havoc would
ultimately be wrought by his innovation. Thus, I write this paper with immense
trepidation, lest it prove to begin a similar descent into one of the darker
underworlds of Academe.
You see, between 1972 and 1984 I enjoyed the privilege
of teaching all of my courses with a final evaluation of Credit or No Credit,
accompanied by extensive check lists and analytical comments. I still favor
that kind of system. However, 1972 was quite a while ago, and this article
assumes that most schools, including my former school, returned to conservative
grading in the mid-1980s and remain firmly stuck there to this day. In fact,
it would seem there is now even greater pressure from politicians around
this vast nation- - absorbed and obsessed as they are by intellectual and
educational concerns and pastimes -- to quantify performance and to standardize
the results. Therefore, if one believes that discussion is an important
skill for students to master, the degree or nature of this mastery must
be, in some fashion, integrated as part of a student's grade.
Discussion usually assumes small groups of students.
My own sections at Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, consisted of anywhere
from eight to eighteen students. I suspect that once sections go beyond
twenty-five students, discussion as a disciplined activity becomes less
feasible. However, some large lecture classes do break down regularly into
small discussion sections, and here this technique might be useful. One
might divide classes of thirty or forty into half participants and half
observers switching the roles the next time around.
In most of the years following 1984 until my retirement
in 2000, I was teaching a two-year required World History course. I loved
it. I would argue that the two-year format is essential. The freshman year
was called Ancient and Medieval Worlds; the sophomore course was
called The Rise of the Modern World which began at 1400 CE. I taught
two sections of each course, as well as one section of an elective open
to juniors and seniors. This course varied from year to year, but it was
usually The Contemporary World, which was taught using student subscriptions
to The Christian Science Monitor, as well as with magazines and journals
such as Foreign Affairs. I graded discussion in all of these courses.
The best way to describe where monitored discussions fit into grading is
simply to reproduce what I handed out to students at the beginning of the
Your grade will be based on my overall assessment of your abilities as a student of history, as an historian, on your knowledge of history and the crafts and disciplines of history, of historical processes, and your ability to function as a participant in the community of scholars. This grade will be relative not to the students in the section or the course but relative to the totality of students I have taught in the last forty-two years.
I will arrive at that judgment after giving equal and careful attention to:
Full Period Essay Tests - one or two each quarter
Monitored Discussions - three or four each quarter
2 to 3 page Projects - prepared outside, one each quarter. Usually a book review.
Information from Conferences
No grades will be "curved". You have both a right and responsibility to ask me for a reasonably accurate assessment of your ongoing grade at any time. That will ordinarily be given as a range; e.g., "B/B+".
You also have a right and responsibility to see me and contest any grade you feel is incorrect. I may disagree, but sometimes I am persuaded. One way or another, I will respect and applaud you for seeking redress.
I had obviously designed this system to allow students
to compensate for their lesser skills with those which were stronger. As
a result, it was fairly difficult to fail; at the same time, it was fairly
difficult to get an "A+." I would average together quiz average,
test average, project average, and discussion average to come up with a
single grade as these were quantified. Class participation and other information
were not, which always left me some wiggle room to shade the final grade
one way or another. This grade I then converted from a number to a letter
designation, which is what went on the transcript and was reported quarterly
with a brief comment to the student.
When I designed the monitored discussions, I wished
to try to avoid the most common problems that plague so many classes. By
the time I did this, I had been teaching for twenty-five to thirty years,
so I had many examples in mind. I wanted to produce a legitimate exercise,
honestly presented, which would both interest the students, reveal more
of their thinking to them, and train them in discussion.
There were two chief principles that guided me.
The first was to treat discussion as a collaborative rather than competitive
experience. In this age of free market theology, that may be pure heresy,
but what can I say? I am an old relic of a semi-socialist who believes people
accomplish more by working with each other than against each other.
The second principle was truly daunting. It was
that teachers talk too much and should shut up and listen. This would necessitate
my depriving the students of my truly incredible expertise in a vast variety
of historical areas, not to speak of my wit, my bon mots, my incisive
vision, and my analytic precision. I could not make such decisions lightly
or plan such sacrifices without weighty thought. After days and weeks of
brooding and chewing over the tradeoffs, I decided that the urgent need
for experimental innovation transcended even these prices to be paid.
This is the handout I gave to my students:
Once every week, or once every two weeks, I will
supplement your reading assignment with a topic position or question to
be discussed by the class as a whole for all of the next class period and,
as nearly as possible, to be resolved by that discussion.
History is not an enterprise for individual competition
and achievement. History is a communal discipline in which the entire global
body of historians pool their information, insight, and curiosity to attempt
to find and refine at least the broadest current perceived truth about the
past and to persuade their colleagues of its possible validity. That is
why historians place such an emphasis on citations- -giving credit to those
who have come before and who have contributed to this ongoing struggle,
and to identify the sources of alleged facts.
When the discussion takes place, I will ask for
a volunteer to begin and then I will proceed to take notes. I will speak
only twice - once halfway through to give my perceptions of how the
discussion is going and to suggest what other routes might be explored,
and once at the end to offer my evaluation and my perception of how it went
and how you might improve the next one. Except for that, I will listen,
watch, and take notes.
You will then tear out a small piece of paper and
give yourself a numerical grade. Grade individually both for quality of
listening and for quality of speaking and then average them. I will collect
these, revise them as I see fit, add a comment or two, and return them to
you the next day. Naturally if you are dissatisfied with the revised grade,
you should tell me immediately and I will consider your reasoning.
Silence is not an option. To draw in shy people,
ask them for their specific opinion on a point under discussion. A monitored
discussion is the opposite of a debate! It is not competitive! I subtract
points if you are dominating the discussion and if you are withdrawing or
waiting to be invited.
The mind of a single human being is a pitifully
inadequate instrument. Only by collaboration, sharing, probing, questioning,
and cross-checking have we survived as a species- - such as we are. One
may rely on passion and rhetorical skill to aid in persuasion, but once
this becomes aggressive or domineering it misses the point entirely. Similarly,
a dominator often does not sense that she is dominating, and it is
the responsibility of others to politely and laughingly point this out.
Again, nudging those who are silent is equally in order.
You will be surprised at the degree to which your
collective minds can refine, articulate, and clarify the issues being discussed.
The students came to love these assignments. At
least, they said they did, and they kept nagging for more. It took
only three or four monitored discussions for them to understand the process.
After that, they focused on the topic quickly and were quite good at probing,
reflecting, and maintaining a coherent thread rather than simply throwing
out random statements.
|Let me describe a typical discussion. For years before developing these discussions, I used the following format for full period essay tests, handing it out five or six days in advance to allow for preparation. Students then wrote the test in class without notes. In this example, their readings and study during the first half of the quarter had been dealing with the period from roughly 700 CE to roughly 1000 CE:||22|
Defend, attack, or modify the following position with specific information:
|Because the students--at least those who had taken a course from me before-- were used to being asked to take a position on a position, I decided to use the same format for discussion. At the same time, because it was on a single night's assignment, the topic would, in most cases, be briefer. Let us assume that the night's assignment was to be a document--Al-Jahiz's description of the arrival of the Seljuq Turks in Baghdad in 1055 CE and his description of these peoples in general. In that case, I might have them take home the following topic to be used in discussion the next day:||23|
Defend, attack or modify the following
position with specific information:
In the years when I used a college text, most students would refer to it to review the original Arab Bedouins. In later years, I would keep several different college texts in my classroom and on reserve in the library. When the class met the next day, I would not be listening to determine who had used the most resources or how distinguished they might be. Although I never fully approved of it myself, students did spend much of their time outside of class completing, as well, assignments in math, science, languages, and other courses rather than mine alone. Some students were even known merely to read the document and then wing it on what they remembered or could cleverly make up.
I would read the position out loud and invite the
first comment. You can well imagine what I watched for. Was the group listening
carefully to each contribution? Was everyone being drawn in? How? Was it
deliberate, and who was doing it? Were students able to articulate? Were
they able to focus relatively quickly on a thread and to follow it out?
Were there individuals with comprehension problems?
It may be difficult to believe, but for a teacher
to keep her/his mouth shut for extended periods is a monumentally difficult
discipline. Once I discovered this, I tried doing it more and more because
I could use the practice. I began discovering how very intelligent my students
At the midpoint in the discussion my summary and
suggestions for the class might run a bit like this:
|All the time the discussion was going on, I was taking notes on students. This would be vital when it came to checking the students' evaluations of themselves. It was also extremely useful for me to scan before making my midpoint or final summaries. In addition, it made me pay attention. It is very easy, if student discussion is moving off in a direction of no particular interest to you, to find your mind wandering off and your eyes drifting toward the window. It is sometimes humiliating to discover how few truly important and worthy topics if not in your specialty or stock speeches can manage to hold your interest. You begin to wonder if students consider you to be a bit slow.||29|
The second half of the discussion usually proceeded
much as the first, and my final evaluation was often very similar to the
one at midpoint. Students then graded their own behavior on scrap paper,
with a simple numerical grade for speaking skills and one for listening
skills, which they averaged along with a few words of clarification.
When I had a free period, I would flip through these
looking at my notes and altering grades if I disagreed. If I did, I usually
wrote a clarifying note on the back. I would return these the next day after
recording them. The whole point was to keep the grading operation from becoming
a major time consumer and yet keep it valid. I had enough stacks of tests
and/or projects to be graded, and those required much more in the way of
time, concentration, and analytical comments.
Notice that I deliberately avoided grading historical
content. During a grading quarter the students were taking daily
quizzes, essay tests, writing two page projects, and thus I had plenty of
opportunity to evaluate their historical knowledge. The monitored discussion
was intended to teach them a great deal about what the intellectual
craft of history is, to sharpen those abilities necessary to participate
in a productive discussion, to make it clear that a discussion is something
quite different from "all stating their own opinions," and that
it should have not only direction but a sense of movement forward. At the
end of an historical discussion, all participants should be able to leave
feeling that their opinions have been changed and improved, however minutely,
from that which it was when they began.
For purposes of determining the students' course
grades at the end of a grading period, I counted quiz average, project average,
essay test average, and discussion average equally. This tended to eliminate
the extremely high and the extremely low which I felt was quite realistic.
As can be imagined, students who had difficulty with writing skills were
often the most enthusiastically prepared when they came to discussion.
I believe I can say, honestly, that by the end of
the year, my students were often conducting more enjoyable, focused, and
substantial discussions than many of those I had endured within the History
Division or, God knows, within the full faculty meetings. Students were
not making speeches, nor seeking competitive advantage, and they were sensitive
to the need for both direction and resolution.
In all fairness and with no substantiating documentation
whatsoever, I suspect that part of the success was due to the fact that
I was teaching young women exclusively. I taught coeducational classes for
eight years, and frankly, prefer them to single-sex classes. However, I
do suspect that teaching these skills to young men, while it would work
perfectly well, would require a good deal more deprogramming.
I have tried to keep this article light, but do not make the mistake of assuming that the issue is not a crucial one for the discipline. Ask the average person on the street how he or she felt about history courses. Count the number of times you hear, "Oh, I hated history!", or "I was just terrible at history!", or "I don't remember any of it." And they mean it. The late and greatly missed geographer Jim Blaut and I had a running argument. He took the position that geography was the worst taught subject in America. I staunchly argued that it was history. We must do everything we can to overcome the public image that history is a matter of memorization and is vaguely irrelevant to the requirements of daily life in the "real world." It is my experience that carefully monitored discussions have an important role to play. Given the immensely larger and more complex demand for making lucid connections over vast amounts of space and time, it would seem that World History stands to profit from such discussions more than any other course.
Biographical Note: Jack Betterly is recently retired from the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, where he taught world history. He is also a member of the World History Association's Teaching Committee, and is an active member of H-World and several other history listservs.
 Neil Postman, Technopoly (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), p. 13.
 The Human Record: Sources of Human History, Volume 1: To 1700, Edited by Alfred J. Andrea and James H. Overfield, Third Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998). Document 75, pp. 292-295.
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