by James Somers, February 22, 2010

In college I was a relatively infrequent contributor to class discussions, even though I almost always had more fun when I did talk. I tried to explain why I held back in a half-finished essay, some years back, about a more general kind of “mental block”:

Last semester I had a class where I didn’t speak but should have—not only because the grade was 20% “participation,” but because I felt like I could add to what were mostly enjoyable conversations. Yet I never did.

The problem was that I didn’t say anything in the first few days, before other students had time to establish themselves. Because once the “talkers” were well known, the usual pressure to find something clever to say was made worse by concern that my debut would be inadequate. I had by that time become more of a silent face than an active participant, and I thought I would appear especially foolish if, when I finally did speak up, it was to say something trite or inconsequential.

This is transparently dumb reasoning, but I was taken by it. What’s more, I’m sure that at least a few of my classmates were too—this kind of “mental block”, or convenient self-deception, is as common as it is powerful.

Rather than dwell on the psychology of the “silent faces”—which, if interesting, is a bit well-worn—I thought I’d ask a different question: as a teacher, how do you get kids to participate? How do you foster a rich vibrant discussion, especially among students who are used to being quiet?

I think the trick is to cold call—to require that everyone speak, not just the volunteers.

As long as you are also highly encouraging, even for shallow or poorly articulated responses, the cold-calling process (a) directly forces some insular kids out of their shells, (b) indirectly coaxes out others who think they can do better, and (c) proofs participation as a socially acceptable activity.

Cold calling can come in many different flavors. The most salient might be the kind you’d find in law school classrooms that use the Socratic method, as in this classic opening scene from the 1973 film, The Paper Chase:

Of course Professor Kingsfield here isn’t very encouraging, which is perhaps why the experience is so hard on our protagonist, the young James T. Hart, who actually ends up vomiting after class. But it is no doubt possible to use the Socratic method without being a jerk about it.

As an example, I once attended a talk on corporate responsibility at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. The professor (whose name I unfortunately now forget) spoke energetically about a handful of big-time corporate disasters—like the Chicago Tylenol murders, which forced Johnson & Johnson to recall 31 million bottles of Tylenol and which led to the development of the now-ubiquitous tamper-proof containers—and the different ways that executives handled the fiascos. But before revealing what did happen, the professor took advantage of the fact that most of the crowd was hearing these stories for the first time, and asked us what should happen. In effect he forced us to relive all those tough decisions, a process which ended up being far more engaging than a straight lecture. When we found out what the various CEOs actually did, we could compare it to our own responses; we paid more attention because we had a stake in the outcome. The hour and a half went by too fast.

But it wouldn’t have worked without the following trick: anytime the professor would ask the audience a question or solicit an opinion, a few hands would shoot up, and instead of picking on any of these folks, he would point to a random person seated elsewhere and say, “There, you, I see a hand—I’m not sure if it’s up, but I see a hand”—and ask them to speak. He did this enough that everyone in the smallish audience had a reasonable expectation of being called on—which meant that we did think about every question he asked, if for no other reason than the fear of being publicly unprepared.

Cold-calling doesn’t have to be unexpected to be effective. Take creative writing classes—these are like any seminar or “discussion section,” with the caveat that, for whatever reason, the people who run them insist that everybody speak. Whereas it’s quite normal for a handful of students to stay quiet in other seminars, I’ve never been to nor heard of a creative writing class where someone could opt to be idle. The result being that creative writing classes turn out to be a lot tighter—not everyone becomes best friends, obviously, but (initially) forced participation engenders a kind of social closeness which, in turn, leads to freer and franker discussion, and on and on in a kind of virtuous circle.

It could be that fiction writers are self-selected to be outgoing, or that the process of workshopping poems and stories itself demands complete participation (maybe because it would be unfair to have your stuff critiqued if you weren’t also willing to critique other people’s stuff). Which would suggest that not all classes are created equally, and that something like, say, a math seminar can work just fine—optimally, even—without lots of participation.

But that doesn’t sound right, nor, again, does it jive with my experience. One of the best math classes I took was a small upper-level seminar on logic (we used Enderton). In every section, professor Mummert would ask one of the nine or ten of us to present a proof to the rest; we were “respectfully grilled” and were encouraged to do the same when someone else was up. Naturally the process forced us to have a solid grip on the material, and helped us learn how to present mathematical arguments—which, for most of us, didn’t come naturally.

The professor also—and this is rare for math classes—made a big deal out of having us interrupt his lectures. So if there was a point you were unclear on, even if it was something rather silly, you would stop him and ask—rather than feverishly trying to clear up your confusion while simultaneously trying to listen to everything that followed.

I later learned, while reading Paul Halmos’s I Want to be a Mathematician, that Mummert was using a kind of modified “Moore method”:

[Moore] turned out a record-breaking number of Ph.D.’s in mathematics; they loved him and imitated him as far as they could. He did it by what has come to be called the Moore method. It is also called the Texas or Socratic or discovery or do-it-yourself method.

At the first meeting of the class Moore would define the basic terms and either challenge the class to discover the relations among them, or, depending on the subject, the level, and the students, explicitly state a theorem, or two, or three. Class dismissed. Next meeting: “Mr Smith, please prove Theorem 1. Oh, you can’t? Very well, Mr Jones, you? No? Mr Robinson? No? Well, let’s skip Theorem 1 and come back to it later. How about Theorem 2, Mr Smith?” Someone almost always could do something. If not, class dismissed. It didn’t take the class long to discover that Moore really meant it, and presently the students would be proving theorems and watching the proofs of others with the eyes of eagles. One of the rules was that you mustn’t let anything wrong get past you – If the one who is presenting a proof makes a mistake, it’s your duty (and pleasant privilege?) to call attention to it, to supply a correction if you can, or, at the very least, to demand one.

The procedure quickly led to an ordering of the students by quality. Once that was established, Moore would call on the weakest student first. That had two effects: it stopped the course from turning into an uninterrupted series of lectures by the best student, and it made for a fierce competitive attitude in the class – nobody wanted to stay at the bottom. Moore encouraged competition. Do not read, do not collaborate – think, work by yourself, beat the other guy. Often a student who hadn’t yet found the proof of Theorem 11 would leave the room while someone else was presenting the proof of it – each student wanted to be able to give Moore his private solution, found without any help. Once, the story goes, a student was passing an empty classroom, and, through the open door, happened to catch sight of a figure drawn on a blackboard. The figure gave him the idea for a proof that had eluded him till then. Instead of being happy, the student became upset and angry, and disqualified himself from presenting the proof. That would have been cheating – he had outside help!

Moore famously said “That student is taught best who is told the least.” And the way to do that—whether you use some version of his eponymous method, or the “invisible hand” style cold-call, or nothing more than a round table and high expectations—is to demand that students speak, that they trade their jeans of silence for partici-pants.