When we consider the Guidelines for Universal Design for Learning (UDL), we find that Engagement (the third principle) drives the others–a student who is engaged in productive struggle is a student who is learning and making meaning. So, if the highest degree of engagement occurs when students are engaged in productive struggle, why do we as teachers do so many “group discussions?”
I think the obvious answer is that we teach the way we were taught….and we were taught in a setting and a mindset where students are passive recipients of information, the sole source of which is the teacher. If we believe that, then, yes, the best way to get that information out is to have students sit quietly while they listen to the teacher impart information.
We don’t live in that world anymore, though. Dr. Katie Novak talks about the fact that we live in the information age where the smartest person in the room is Siri–given the phone and a quick search, students can get any of the information that we think we teachers are the ones holding onto. Instead of dispensing knowledge like gum balls, our responsibility as teachers is to guide students in becoming “resourceful, knowledgeable, strategic, goal-directed, purposeful, motivated learners” (Universal Design for Learning Guidelines). We do not achieve that goal by having “group discussions.” Group discussions are just another way of having one person talking at a time, just another version of teacher lecture.
This becomes a number game. When we give 15 minutes to a full-class or group discussion, we might hear from two or three students. If we force involvement in the group discussion by requiring all students to respond, we are killing any hope of engagement. If we split the class in half and have the two groups talk at the same time, we double the number of students whose voices are heard, especially if students respond positively to having a smaller audience. If we have students turn and talk with a neighbor or partner or engage in self-directed work, we increase the likelihood of hearing from all students. Given those same 15 minutes, a student can go from zero minutes (full-group) to seven (if he/she uses half of the time in a turn-and-talk). Imagine that multiplied over 180 days of school….and you see the power of moving away from the fall-back of “full-group discussion.”
Of course, this is also true for administrators in their roles leading Department Meetings or Faculty Meetings. Every time an administrator lines up the teachers in rows and reads off of a Power Point, he or she reduces engagement and buy-in from staff. As administrators look to lead within the Guidelines for Universal Design for Learning, an easy way to increase engagement is to rethink the format of meetings to increase engagement. How can teachers lead parts of the meeting? How can break-out groups and smaller discussions happen? How can the information administration believes needs to be conveyed be shared in a non-group-lecture format? This is the challenge for administrators as they look to model the Guidelines for Universal Design for Learning in their own practice.