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Questions: Teacherless Discussions & Leaderless Movements

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“The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics,” he writes, “the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.”

Paulo Freire 

Today the face-to-face philosophy crowd discussed scientific philosophy and the question of whether science itself can be considered objective. It was the group’s second attempt at facilitating its own ‘teacherless discussion’ and constructing collective knowledge on a topic (I reflected on the first discussion in a post here), and wanted to take the opportunity this weekend to foster some dialogue around the nature of such ‘leaderless’ collaborations.

Whether you were a participant in today’s discussion or not, there are a number of factors which limit or inspire individuals’ capacity to contribute to such democratic processes. Possessing prior knowledge, being able to act within previously-decided roles and responsibilities (teacher-student-expert, etc), peer relationships and even the physical arrangement of the discussion environment play a part in whether a social process meets its goals or not. So I arrive here this afternoon with a few questions, chiefly for today’s classroom participants, but potentially those beyond, about how these processes unfold.

So with respect to today’s discussion, but potentially including other similar experiences with democratic group processes, I am curious to hear:

  • Are there aspects of discussion which benefit from a lack of predetermined structure? What are they?
    • Or, are there benefits to formalizing or organizing a group in certain traditional ways, for example, designating a leader, prescribing topics or areas of expertise, capturing or introducing different ideas in progress?
  • What is difficult about engaging with a ‘leaderless’ discussion or group process?
  • What causes the discussion or group task to wander, or lose sight of its purpose, or sees people disengage?
    • What causes you to take your phone out, or to chat (off-topic) with a neighbour, or daydream?
  • What is happening in a discussion or group task when you are particularly engaged?
    • When is a discussion at its most productive?
      • And, what constitutes a ‘productive’ discussion?
  • How do we ensure full (or the fullest possible) participation of group members?

Part of what I am after within my role as a teacher in philosophy is bringing about an educational experience that allows for the rehearsal of skills required to bring about a constructivist vision of knowledge. In other words, a classroom dynamic that doesn’t rely solely on input and momentum created by me. The sort of passive consumption which comes from a teacher-led educational processes can lead to a kind of helplessness we might see exemplified in our apathetic democratic states and lack of social accountability for a host of laments many of us have about broader ‘society.’

With careful reflection on the above questions, and by sharing your thoughts with as specific examples or points as possible, we might work toward a clearer focus in our discussions going forward as a group.

Thanks for your input!

 

 

8 Responses to Questions: Teacherless Discussions & Leaderless Movements

  1. Jess says:

    Are there aspects of discussion which benefit from a lack of predetermined structure? What are they?
    I thought that having no predetermined structure led to each of us analyzing our own topics more to try and make the order work. It felt more organic in the sense that people were intentionally (or unintentionally?) connecting their own research to other groups and trying to figure out where they ought to go that was logical, which may have helped people understand theirs and other presentations on a larger scale.

    Or, are there benefits to formalizing or organizing a group in certain traditional ways, for example, designating a leader, prescribing topics or areas of expertise, capturing or introducing different ideas in progress?
    Personally, I dislike having one leader for all discussions and I would prefer to just allow the conversation to fester naturally, yet the transition from having a teacher to not having one is a difficult one. I think there are benefits to organization of groups, but I think a touch of anarchy is better for this class.

    What is difficult about engaging with a ‘leaderless’ discussion or group process?
    Going first (the fear of the unknown)!

    What causes the discussion or group task to wander, or lose sight of its purpose, or sees people disengage?
    Mainly in the beginning, when people don’t feel comfortable yet, but also when someone forms a controversial opinion or confusing statement, and people want to discuss it further and eventually get off topic.

    What causes you to take your phone out, or to chat (off-topic) with a neighbour, or daydream?
    Nervousness at there being nothing going on; being left to our own devices.

    What is happening in a discussion or group task when you are particularly engaged?
    If there is someone or a group presenting, they’re doing so in an interesting way or about an interesting topic, but if it’s a group discussion, it could be any number of things, from someone elaborating on another person’s point (or rather, clarifying it), to making a connection that others may not have seen.

    When is a discussion at its most productive?
    When everyone understands what is being discussed and feels they have something to contribute. That, or when someone has made a controversial statement, because it’s always interesting to pick others’ brains about the ‘why’.

    And, what constitutes a ‘productive’ discussion?
    One that stays relatively on-topic but flows naturally, with a little bit of contribution from everyone in the class

    How do we ensure full (or the fullest possible) participation of group members?
    Clarify points that are confusing (nobody wants to admit they don’t understand something) and let the class get comfortable within itself so that people don’t feel awkward when voicing their own opinions.

     
  2. sassidy says:

    Benefits of no predetermined structure:
    – ideas flow more naturally from discussion participants without the added stress of being obliged to discuss something in a certain way.
    *Benefits of lead discussions:
    – most people get a turn to speak, as the leader calls upon multiple people
    – leader keeps group relatively on topic and isn’t the only person speaking

    Difficulties of engaging in a ‘leaderless’ discussion:
    – cacophony of voices leads to important points being ignored/trampled on
    – not every participant speaks equally (defeating the purpose of a ‘group’ discussion)
    – lulls of silence because most human beings don’t like being the first to break them

    Causes of wandering off of discussion:
    – boredom and tiredness
    – some people have a short attention span
    – silence: it’s like a time bomb for the human mind that will go off if anything else to focus on is not rapidly found

    Wandering prevention and for full participation:
    – challenge people to jump in with the idea that first comes to mind in the discussion even if it’s “I don’t know what this even means” because it will provoke another discussion and make for less silent spots.
    – we could also simply put the phones on the ground out of reach.
    – sit in a tighter-knit circle, maybe. The space in the middle of the room can seem a bit vast at times.
    – experimenting: We could try discussing outside on the concrete benches. We could try discussing with the classroom lights out.

    **Next discussion, because our class hasn’t tried it yet, I think we should try not having a discussion leader at all and see what unfolds.

     
  3. David says:

    Are there aspects of discussion which benefit from a lack of predetermined structure? What are they?

    – The conversation can go wherever, which can make it interesting.
    – We learn how to get out of the awkward “silent pause”

    Or, are there benefits to formalizing or organizing a group in certain traditional ways, for example, designating a leader, prescribing topics or areas of expertise, capturing or introducing different ideas in progress?

    – There are a lot less silent pauses where no one knows what to do, but everyone expects someone to do something about it.
    – The conversation tends to stay on topic and on track. Even though it may wander off into a much different point, the leader will normally stray it back on topic.

    What is difficult about engaging with a ‘leaderless’ discussion or group process?

    – Long silent pauses are difficult.
    – Personally I feel like there is no control in the conversation. Trying to control of the class can also be hard.
    – I agree with Mr.Jackson that when there is a leader which is higher in the hierarchy such as a teacher or someone that we feel like their opinion is more important it changes the way we act. Personally I feel like I we care too much whether the “leader” agrees with our point of view or not, like we’re trying to prove something to him/her.

    What causes the discussion or group task to wander, or lose sight of its purpose, or sees people disengage?

    – When the discussion is not organized and lacks a purpose.
    – I feel like if the discussion doesn’t have someone such as a leader that recaps and guides the conversation in a way where we stay on topic, we tend to lose focus.
    – If the same people are the only ones that contribute, others may seem to disengage probably feeling like they are not needed in the conversation.

    What causes you to take your phone out, or to chat (off-topic) with a neighbour, or daydream?

    – When people don’t come prepared to classroom, as in they don’t know much or anything of the content. As a result, the lack of knowledge makes it difficult for them to contribute because they have a minimal idea of what the discussion is about.
    – Tired/ boredom. Maybe the topic is not as engaging as they would have thought.
    – The silent pauses, where no one knows what to do. Your first reaction is to hide so that you’re not the one that has to do something about it.
    – Maybe you’re nervous.

    When is a discussion at its most productive?

    – The discussion is at its most when a large majority of the classroom is contributing their ideas and opinions of the topic.
    – A productive discussion is when the topic is relevant and everyone feels engaged or the need to express themselves.
    – When there is a leader, but he almost rarely needs to lead. Instead, he can sit back and act like another person in the circle because the conversation has already started moving and it has enough momentum it doesn’t need any help.

    How do we ensure full (or the fullest possible) participation of group members?

    – In my opinion in order to reach the fullest possible participation we must come prepared to class with knowledge of what was set to view/read/hear. This way everyone knows the parameters of the discussion, and no one is lost in their own confusion of what the topic is.
    – It may sound odd, but I think that when you bring up a controversial topic, people that don’t normally contribute will become engaged into the discussion because everyone wants to give out their opinion.
    – Make sure we have a leader in the discussion.

     
  4. ktay says:

    • Are there aspects of discussion which benefit from a lack of predetermined structure? What are they?

    I think that not having a predetermined order for the presentations forced the group to make their own connections between their topic and the topic of others. This made the connections between our various topics clearer, and gave us a better understanding of how these topics relate and oppose each other.

    o Or, are there benefits to formalizing or organizing a group in certain traditional ways, for example, designating a leader, prescribing topics or areas of expertise, capturing or introducing different ideas in progress?

    I think that there are benefits of formalizing and organizing the group to some extent. Designating a discussion leader to keep the discussion in motion would benefit its vitality, and to prevent the conversation from suffering too many awkward silences. The leader would also be able to capture ideas in progress, and nurture the development of new ideas. A leader would be able to keep the group from going off-topic on separate tangents.

    • What is difficult about engaging with a ‘leaderless’ discussion or group process?

    The difficulties of a leaderless discussion are that people who want to bring up a point may not have the chance to do so because others might skip them. In addition, there is a degree of self-consciousness because there is no leader to protect your ideas from being ridiculed. In addition, there is the difficulty of going first, because there is the worry that the points you make will not be interesting enough for discussion.

    • What causes the discussion or group task to wander, or lose sight of its purpose, or sees people disengage?

    The discussion can wander when the group stumbles onto an unrelated topic that catches the majority of the group’s interest. As more people add their own opinion or view, the group veers further and further off course. This can lead to those who aren’t interested in the topic becoming disengaged and start chatting with their friends instead.

    o What causes you to take your phone out, or to chat (off-topic) with a neighbour, or daydream?

    I tend to use my phone when the discussion becomes boring or if the topic doesn’t interest me, or when there is an awkward silence.

    • What is happening in a discussion or group task when you are particularly engaged?

    I am particularly engaged after an interesting point or idea has been brought up, which catches my attention and makes me ruminate over the idea, and hopefully create a new idea of my own.

    o When is a discussion at its most productive?

    The discussion is most productive when 90% of the group is engaged and participating because they have a clear understanding of what is being discussed, and the discussion remains on-topic.

    • And, what constitutes a ‘productive’ discussion?

    A productive discussion consists of participation from everyone in the class, and the topic being discussed in depth.

    • How do we ensure full (or the fullest possible) participation of group members?

    To ensure the fullest possible participation, we can encourage the participants to familiarize themselves with the topic as much as possible. In addition, the group can discuss any questions that participants have so that a group understanding can be reached together. It would be nice if everyone felt comfortable enough with others so that they could voice their points without feeling that others will ostracize them.

     
  5. kelseyf says:

    I apologize that I did not respond to this post earlier, as when I checked the blog yesterday the post was not up yet. Below is my response to the post:

    Are there aspects of discussion which benefit from a lack of predetermined structure?

    I’ve always been the type of person who benefits from predetermind structure. At the beginning of the semester, I found the lack of structure, not only in discussions, but in class in general to be a challenge for me. However, after the few discussions we’ve had in class, I definitely see some benefits. Without a predetermind leader of the discussion, someone always seems to step up to take the position to facilitate conversation. To add, without a predetermind leader, it kind of evens the playing field for each member of the discussion, and allows everyone to speak as equals.

    What is difficult about engaging with a ‘leaderless’ discussion or group process?
    What causes the discussion or group task to wander, or lose sight of its purpose, or sees people disengage? What causes you to take your phone out, or to chat (off-topic) with a neighbour, or daydream?

    Before a leader of the discussion is determind, there is a moment of slight chaos, where no one is engaged in the conversation. Each person is deciding whether or not they should choose to be the leader, or let someone else step up. I’ve found in most class conversations that most people are engaged throughout the discussion. If people disengage or go on their phone, I could only assume it’s because they are uninterested in the topic, or have not researched enough to contribute to the conversation.

    What is happening in a discussion or group task when you are particularly engaged? When is a discussion at its most productive? And, what constitutes a ‘productive’ discussion?

    I try to engage and contribute to all class discussions, but am particularly engaged when I find the topic especially interesting. I think being prepared for a discussion (having information on what will be discussed) allows someone to fully engage in a conversation. Furthermore, I believe a discussion is productive when its members are contributing somewhat equally to the conversation.

     
  6. nadine says:

    Are there aspects of discussion which benefit from a lack of predetermined structure? What are they?

    The lack of structure can benefit the discussion in the sense that thoughts can flow freely. Our minds sometimes have randomness about them. We don’t think about what we should think ahead of time, we don’t plan our thoughts before thinking them, so why should we plan the way we express them? When we keep classroom conversations simple we can be sure that our ideas can more easily be expressed as they are fresh in our minds.

    Or, are there benefits to formalizing or organizing a group in certain traditional ways, for example, designating a leader, prescribing topics or areas of expertise, capturing or introducing different ideas in progress?

    Of course sometimes we think of things we wish we had said during a discussion afterwards. Or sometimes we simply can’t come up with anything to say as the discussion may not have any prompts. This is when having formalized discussions can be beneficial. When there is a lag in the conversation having prescribed topics to move on to can get the ball moving again. When there is no structure, I find we can sometimes become a bit off topic or be at a loss of what to say. Having prescribed topics ensures that we have something to talk about. A leader also helps to engage all group members rather than having only a few people talk to each other while everyone else listens.

    What is difficult about engaging with a ‘leaderless’ discussion or group process?

    Starting up a leaderless group process can be difficult when no one wishes to start the conversation. People do not often want the spot light to be on them, so when we all sit in fear not much gets done. It helps to have a leader encourage people during the start of a conversation.

    What causes the discussion or group task to wander, or lose sight of its purpose, or sees people disengage?

    I think that arguments/ debates about topics can lead people off track through the examples they use to explain them. I find that sometimes the examples themselves become the topic of discussion and it becomes less relevant to original task at hand. People sometimes also zone out when they feel they cannot bring anything to the conversation or when the conversation occurs only between a certain few people. In the latter case, people may feel it unnecessary to join in.

    What causes you to take your phone out, or to chat (off-topic) with a neighbour, or daydream?

    When a conversation becomes repetitive or off topic I will find myself taking my phone out or day dreaming. Generally, when I speak to a neighbour it is because I am voicing my thoughts on something relevant to the conversation directly to them.

    What is happening in a discussion or group task when you are particularly engaged?

    I find myself most engaged when there is a debate going on as I like to hear the different arguments and opinions of people as well voice my own. I’m also engaged when I find the topic interesting, when the person speaking poses questions to the group or when there is some sort of entertaining aspect tied to the conversation/ presentation.

    When is a discussion at its most productive? And, what constitutes a ‘productive’ discussion?

    I think a discussion is most productive when many voices are being heard. I find it is also productive when it remains on topic and strives to come towards a conclusion about something specific. A productive discussion would be one that stays on topic and has fair contribution from the majority of the class.

    How do we ensure full (or the fullest possible) participation of group members?

    Becoming comfortable and familiar with each other would be a good way to ensure that no one is too shy to voice their opinions. It would also help to have all group members well versed in the topic of discussion to limit confusion.

     
  7. jeff says:

    Are there aspects of discussion which benefit from a lack of predetermined structure? What are they?

    When many teachers teach, they have a predetermined lesson plan in mind– we need to touch on A, B, C, and D and it better be done by the end of the class– but in reality, our lessons are not always structured. For example, a weightlifter often trains using free weights rather than machines. The benefit of free weights is that other than exercising certain muscle groups, it builds the tinier muscles required for balance as well. Whereas an exercise machine may be very effective at training specific muscle groups, it fails in training the tinier muscles. In the real world, both major muscle groups and the balancing muscles are needed to be fully well-rounded. With a lack of predetermined structure, lessons can be found to flex our knowledge of the major topics, but also flesh out the more abstract ideas surrounding it, the ideas more applicable to our everyday life.

    Or, are there benefits to formalizing or organizing a group in certain traditional ways, for example, designating a leader, prescribing topics or areas of expertise, capturing or introducing different ideas in progress?

    There are benefits in formalizing in traditional ways, as it is the learning style most students are most adjusted to. As a result, there is a feeling of ‘familiarity’ and a sense of accomplishment when you reach 10% of what you’re supposed to talk about, then 20%, then 30%, etc. With a more formalized presentation, one could also present their areas of expertise in a way that is predetermined from the beginning and not subject to the direction of the class. For example, if one is familiar with butterflies in a biology class, a leader-less free-flowing discussion about insects may not allow the expert to share his knowledge if the discussion does not veer towards the butterfly path.

    What is difficult about engaging with a ‘leaderless’ discussion or group process?

    A leadership discussion is hard to engage as there isn’t someone to always be paying attention to. If there isn’t a person heading the discussion and moderating, one might not know when to speak, or if there contribution was valuable at all if the group doesn’t give feedback.

    What causes the discussion or group task to wander, or lose sight of its purpose, or sees people disengage?

    The discussion of a group wanders when an abstract example is used that might not be the best example, resulting in an argument over content rather than form. As well, when there is a lull in the discussion, it can often be attributed to the majority of people agreeing to a certain point, and therefore rendering any further contribution almost seemingly null.

    What causes you to take your phone out, or to chat (off-topic) with a neighbour, or daydream?

    When the conversation starts pertaining to something that has completely sidetracked from the original purpose, I feel that it would be easier to start discussing a topic with a neighbour instead of trying to control the leaderless group and get them to focus on the topic again. As well, when there are lots of voices coming from the group, it often feels like there is no room for direct dialogue and feedback, whereas talking with a neighbour can give you a sense of feeling on disagreement of agreement immediately.

    What is happening in a discussion or group task when you are particularly engaged?
    When is a discussion at its most productive?
    And, what constitutes a ‘productive’ discussion?

    In a group discussion where I am particularly engaged is when there is a disagreement over form and not content. I also feel that this point is also the most productive, as it gives the most insight into another person’s mind and how they might perceive things, while giving people a chance to articulate the things in their mind in the clearest possible way. It’s productive in the sense that it gives me a different outlook that I may not have seen if thinking about a topic by myself.

    How do we ensure full (or the fullest possible) participation of group members?

    To ensure the participation of group members, we must do our best to be inclusive of all ideas and try to see peoples’ opinions on different views. However, when there is a viewpoint that you disagree with, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t disagree with it. You should work it in a matter that continues the conversation in a productive manner, expressing your views while still understanding the other person’s viewpoint.

     
    • bryanjack says:

      Wow – such thorough and thoughtful responses thus far, folks! Thanks for taking the time to consider these meta-cognitive questions with honesty and reflections on what you think ‘works’ or has value. It gives me a much better vantage to challenge and suggest opportunities for learning for you as individuals, and a group.

      Something a few of you touched on that I think will naturally improve over the course of the semester, but that we could tackle more directly in the short term, as well, is the ‘comfort’ level across the group, when it comes to class-wide endeavours. Not only might the prospect of sharing contributions with the whole class strike some of us as socially daunting, this sort of scattershot approach doesn’t always allow for a natural flow of ideas as so few opinions come to shape the focus or outcome of the discussion. It might be interesting to see if the opportunity to share one’s thoughts, questions or ideas on the topic at hand with one (or maybe two) other people – even if we mixed up where people are generally sitting or with whom – would make the generation of themes or topics more representative of a broader segment of the class. Rather than calling on people ‘cold’ as questions or ideas arise, discussing with a small group and sharing out could lead to both more diversity of opinion, as well as a greater comfort level among the class.

      Let’s continue this conversation going into our Scientific Objectivity discussion, and into metaphysics as well!

      Enjoy your evenings,

      Mr. J

       

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