Talk to your neighbor

Today, as many days in most of my classes, I presented a question, and asked students to come up with an answer in conversation with the person or people around them: talk to your neighbor.

In lots of teacher-training this technique is known as “pair share” or “turn-and-talk,” and it has a bunch of purposes. One is, in a lecture course (especially a 200 person(!) lecture like the one I gave today), it breaks up the monotony of the lecturer speaking, which makes everyone more attentive to what’s going on. Another is that, from a Freirean perspective, it reorients the classroom towards the students as producers – and not just passive consumers – of knowledge. Yet another is that it is generative: students are likely to come up with answers that the professor may not have anticipated, or to bring up issues that are unclear in how students understand the topic. Today, our first turn-and-talk did all of these.

But another reason that I think this is a significant little teaching tactic is that it makes students speak to one another, and to meet people they might not know. They will talk about the question and then – I hope – they will talk about something entirely else. This gives an opportunity to  shy students, people who don’t know anyone in the class, foreign students, and probably a bunch of folks I haven’t thought of to have a conversation instead of going from alone to passive listening to out-the-door. This is also important for a group of young people who tend to head for their phones when they are in an uncomfortable social setting; I concede that this may be a generational difference but I stand by it.

And so, in the service of pair-share, I do something that I think a lot of students don’t like: I wander around the room and make sure that everyone is participating. If someone is just sitting there, or typing away at their computer, or messing with their phone (which I expressly ask people to put all the way away), I encourage them, in a passing and friendly way, to talk to a person or join a group near them. Oh – do you mind if she joins you? How about you two work together? Can you move closer to them?

And I get that some of them might not like it. For some, I bet it can come off as meddling, as condescending, as not trusting a room of adults to do what is assigned, as not respecting their autonomy as students. I bet some of them roll their eyes when I walk away.

But I also think it is my responsibility to not always do what they like, or what makes them most comfortable. If I believe that teaching and learning are relational, which I do, then I have to intervene in the classroom to get people talking, relating. Even if they don’t want to relate at that moment, I think it’s good for us to connect. And maybe some people do want to connect, but they don’t know how; in fact, I think that is becoming more and more likely.

I don’t claim have research on whether this does what I think it does, but I have a pretty good hunch, and sometimes that’s what we have to go on.