Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking - Part 13: Remaining Silent during Discussion

"Less is more" is a good maxim to follow when conducting discussions with high-school seniors about their life experience. Three cases in point had to do with Success, Family, and Sports that illustrate the Greek ideal of the Golden Mean, or the midpoint between the two opposite extremes of having too much and too little concern for the object in question.

Each discussion explored the twin dangers of allowing one extreme to take over one's life and the other of having it play no part at all in an effort to find the "middle way." Students were surprised to learn that this ideal of balance in living one's life is as relevant today as it was in antiquity.

In all three discussions, the worst decision a teacher could make would be to intervene, since students are more at ease when discussing a question among themselves. After discussing one extreme, students are then asked to explore the other and, finally, the middle position, so that they are, essentially, teaching themselves about dealing with these and similar problems later in life.

There is another type of discussion more traditional in format that features the teacher in the classic role of active facilitator. In this example, the teacher raises a firestorm of questions that challenge traditional assumptions. This segment prepares students for the Greeks' encounter with cultural relativity as they founded colonies around the Mediterranean and how this altered their view of the world. While role-playing the Greeks and the peoples they find, they discuss how each group sees the other. Students then have a final exchange, which ends in unsettling some of them.

Open-Ended Questions

It goes without saying that pointed questions that require simple yes-or-no answers lead nowhere or, worse, to preordained conclusions (a.k.a. mind control). Open-ended questions, on the other hand, prompt responses that can go in any direction, entailing student creativity and personal risk. Three discussions of this type had to do with the Greek view of the afterlife; whether believing in an afterlife today can affect one's view of this life; and whether one can be a good person if one doesn't believe in an afterlife.

As you will see from these three discussions, these questions spark controversy as students have to think on their feet at a level of conviction that embolden others to disagree with no less conviction. The teacher again remains in the background, except when having students generalize about their previous comments, or when placing what students have said in an historical context to help them understand the broader implications of their remarks.

These sorts of questions challenge students to explore both the unfamiliar and the familiar in unfamiliar ways. Some questions need simply be asked to elicit thoughtful responses, while others need but a story to create a mood for reflection. Students then consider a number of interrelated questions with no help from the teacher as the discussion takes on a life of its own as different sides of each question are explored. Only when an issue has been sufficiently mined, does the teacher intervene with another question that advances the discussion in another direction.

There are also times when the discussion flames up with sudden intensity. Such moments are gifts from the gods, as deep emotion is always the portal to an even better discussion as students become more deeply invested in the question at issue. These sorts of exchanges are more important than any prepared lesson, and fostering the conditions that allow them to happen is the essence of teaching. At such moments when student emotion seeks dramatic expression, the teacher cannot do better than withdrawing to the background and letting things happen.

Being Comfortable with Pauses

To create a reflective class mood, the teacher proceeds with a slow, methodical tempo with continual pausing as students are guided through unfamiliar terrain. Pausing is essential when discussing new material for, without these pauses, students feel rushed or overwhelmed, or may even shut down.

Nothing so conveys the importance of quiet reflection to students than being given sufficient time to consider a question, or so trivializes the respect that should be given their responses as unwarranted haste on the part of the teacher. More important than the teacher's questions is the unhurried stillness within which students can think. Creating such stillness is the art of teaching.

Students need time to reflect, and 15 to 30 seconds of silence, and sometimes longer, are by no means unusual before offering a considered response. This is especially true during the first few weeks of class when students are taking the course's measure and accustoming themselves to critical thinking. A teacher can give students time by repeating, paraphrasing, or embroidering upon a question and then remaining silent for students to think.

One cannot hurry this process. Students intuitively grasp the importance of silence and appreciate the respect accorded them in preparing their responses. The psychological effect that silence has on a class cannot be overstated. As long as the teacher is comfortable with silence and doesn't rush what is happening, all will go well.

First Three Days Crucial to Course

The first three days of a discussion course are crucial in determining which students will be active participants for the rest of the year. The teacher should therefore try to involve as many students as possible during these initial few days after volunteers have had a chance to speak. These efforts will pay rich dividends in the long run by insuring that a diversity of opinion will always be heard, rather than having the same students dominate the discussion while the others are silent.

Should one half of the class contribute the first day of class, the course is off to a very good start. The second and third days the remaining students can be called upon. This process continues for the next few weeks until the course expectations are firmly established.

Seniors bring to discussions an ability to wait quietly until each student is finished and a sensitivity toward the feelings of others when offering a dissenting view. They are also aware what this kind of course is trying to do, want it to succeed, and do their best to insure that it happens. Not everyone, naturally, will choose to participate, but enough students will for an interesting class.

Class-Participation Grades

Class participation can be increased by including in the marking-period grade two or three class-participation grades, each with the value of a major test. If students pay attention but remain silent, they could receive a participation grade of 75. If they contribute only occasionally, somewhat regularly, or always, they are graded accordingly.

Students can be informed of this requirement in the course description in the school's program of studies, their counselors at scheduling time, a reminder on the first day of class, and, of course, that most reliable of all news sources, the student grapevine.

Senior teachers are a school's quality control officers. Students who are brilliant test-takers, but who cannot think on their feet or remain silent, non-engaged onlookers during a class are, unfortunately, all too common in high schools today. However, they are in a different psychological universe if they know from the outset that they are expected to participate and will be graded on their participation -- not for right or wrong answers, but for thoughtful responses.

A teacher deals with all kinds of students: the glibly articulate who keep to the surface and the verbal strugglers who descend to the depths; the analytically gifted who cannot create an argument and the creative who lack a critical sense; the class orators who freeze with a pen and the precocious on paper who fall silent in class. A teacher works with all of them to develop all of their skills, especially those areas in need of developing, so that they all will be comfortable expressing themselves in college and later in life.

Advantages of Gender-Balanced Classes

It's always ideal to have gender-balanced classes lest boys or girls dominate a discussion. Boys can be educated simply by listening to how girls approach questions, and vice versa. Not that all girls think alike, nor do all boys think alike, but there is a basic commonality of outlook whereby both sexes can profit simply by listening to each other. The mere act of daily experiencing one's peers expressing themselves on a wide range of questions cannot help but have a civilizing and transforming effect as they come to realize that there are different ways of viewing the world.

Without wishing to generalize beyond the high-school seniors I taught over the years, I found that girls, with exceptions, were gifted at expressing themselves with facility, imagination, subtlety, and nuance. They were also more apt to carry a discussion, were sincere and open, and were especially sensitive to a question's human and moral dimensions. As a rule, they started with personal experiences or specific examples, sometimes getting lost in them.

Boys, on the other hand, usually began with abstractions or principles without providing examples unless asked to clarify their meaning for the rest of the class. They were also given to seeing a question's overall context, its implications and consequences, while keeping emotional distance in the process. They usually overlooked a question's human aspects, as though it were a mathematical problem.

As the year progressed, however, these tendencies diminished as listening to girls taught them to offer examples that clarified their meaning and to become more aware of a question's moral implications. The girls, for their part, became more adept at placing their responses within a theoretical framework, which gave them perspective and emotional distance from the matter at hand.

Not Seeking Closure on Questions

The teacher never seeks to resolve questions, but keeps them open and alive for students. The purpose of the course is, after all, to explore questions, giving each a fair hearing, along with their possible answers, while having students decide for themselves which answer is right. These questions cannot be resolved to everyone's satisfaction since they involve value judgments, explanatory theories, or metaphysical hypotheses which cannot be proven, as witnessed by thousands of years of disagreement, with pro and con arguments for every answer to every question.

Moreover, a public school is not an indoctrination center for a particular doctrine or viewpoint, but a place of inquiry into all points of view. A public school opens the minds of students by clarifying the options to questions without taking sides. It teaches them how to think, not what to think, and never to accept what cannot be proven.

Concluding Assignment for Readers

One man's truth is another man's falsehood.

Anything seems true if one is raised to believe that it's true.

An education isn't being taught the truth, but only what one's culture believes is the truth.

If one was raised in a different time and place, one would have a different view of the world, with different beliefs and values.

The fact that one wasn't is a matter of chance, which should make one open-minded toward the beliefs and values of others.

One's own education begins when one examines what different cultures believe and decides for oneself which one is right or whether none of them are.

Argue the above six statements as true and false.