learning through discussion. what does it mean?

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a week or so. I had occasion recently to visit a student teacher in a 7th grade life science class. The topic for the day was sexual and asexual reproduction. The lesson started out with a Brain Pop video. The plan was for a “class discussion” and then the students would take the Brain Pop quiz.

On the previous day, the students had each been given a handout on a plant or animal that reproduces asexually. I’m not quite sure what was done with the information, although I suspect groups made presentations to the class. At various points in the lesson the teacher asked them to refer back to “their” organism from yesterday.

The participation structure for the discussion followed the recitation script (IRE). The teacher asked questions about what was in the video and asked students to connect that information to the organisms they had researched. She affirmed whether or not the responses were accurate. Actually, not one student was able provide much in the way of a response, in fact, I’m pretty sure that any student who was called on, said, something like, “Um, I, I can’t remember the name of my animal.” The student were directed to look in their “interactive notebooks,” and after several seconds of silence, would say, “Oh yeah, yeast,” or “I can’t pronounce it.”

The students were genuinely trying. It appeared to me that they were not making the connections that were the intention of the lesson plans. The “discussion” involved quite a bit of silence. At this point I decided to step in. The rationale was that students seemed not to have incorporated the research on asexually-reproducing organisms into their watching of the Brain Pop video.

I hope the student teachers I “supervise” are used to me stepping in and modeling when I think it will do some good. I interrupted and asked the students, well a week later I can’t quite remember what I said. But the purpose was for students to provide their personal experiences with observing asexual reproduction. The discussion was lively and covered much ground. As I said to Betsy (pseudonym), the student teacher, afterwards, everyone is interested in sex and reproduction. It isn’t difficult to get a discussion going. Several of the ideas matched concepts from the Brain Pop video, although they were not referred to explicitly.

After 10 minutes, Betsy resumed her lesson plan and the students took the Brain Pop quiz. An overwhelming majority of the students got most of the answers wrong, in spite of the fact that they were designed to assess the very concepts students had volunteered during the class discussion.

Now I’m still thinking about this event. Clearly the students understood the concepts in the discussion and clearly they did not connect them with the formal instruction of the Brain Pop video. I remarked to Betsy that it appeared the students did not understand that the discussion was actually learning.

This has pretty profound implications. I will be writing more about this.

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