The most important silences of my teaching career have generally been my own

The most important silences of my teaching career have generally been my own, especially when my students are working in breakout groups. I suppose it should go without saying that professors can’t profess while their students are engaged with each other. But my experience of myself and other teachers has been that the compulsion to “teach” can overwhelm the value of any activity that depends critically on the quality of attention students pay to each other. And in breakout groups, which are small and intimate in spite of their large-group setting, students can easily elicit “teaching behaviour” from us if we are not careful.

The idea of breakout groups is for large lecture classes to break up into groups of 4 to 6 students to discuss a challenging, well-posed problem and produce a specified result within a specified time. Then the whole class reassembles to collect the results and discuss them before moving on. For nearly 40 years, I used this approach frequently in small high school and large first-year university biology courses, smaller upper-level interdisciplinary science courses, and upper-level ecology courses for non-scientists. Given this experience, it was no surprise to learn near the end of that career that student-student interactive engagement, such as occurs in breakout groups, is the most significant factor in the development of conceptual understanding by undergraduate science students.

It follows that we must allow groups to function freely, without input from us once they begin. I learned the hard way that without clear understanding of what they should discuss in their groups and what product they should return at the end, groups can function neither freely nor productively. For example, the task must be simple enough conceptually to grasp but challenging enough to require cooperative input from several people. But it became increasingly clear as I gained skill in using breakout groups effectively that I could reasonably expect them to stay on task, produce high quality, creative results, consolidate old knowledge and prepare ground for new learning, and even save time in class.
Here I want to discuss the challenge of learning from breakout groups by observing them at work. In many ways, this is one of our best opportunities to learn about learning. But lecture halls containing 50 or more groups of students in active discussion are extremely noisy places, making it impossible to learn much except at very close range. How can we get close enough to hear the dialogue without modifying its flow by our very presence? And once we are close enough to intervene, how can we resist the temptation to teach? It is difficult to be a fly on the wall in one’s own class.

It helps that students are less aware of themselves in these situations, and therefore less concerned about being judged or making fools of themselves. They are more aware of each other and of the material, and much less aware of us. In a sense, time stops for participants when they immerse fully in a task. Even so, until breakout groups have become a common and expected element of course culture, it is nearly impossible for students to ignore us when we approach.

We are less imposing if we do not stand, but approach slowly, carefully, and in a crouch or squatting, with our heads lower than theirs. Non-verbally, this communicates that we are aware we are entering their territory, and that we acknowledge their dominance (whether they want it or not). But when they turn to us, several kinds of “silences” can make it easier for them.

Shrug. One of the most effective methods is the exaggerated theatrical shrug, complete with cocked head, imploring eyes, and silly grin. Somehow that reminds students that the work is theirs to do and not ours. Usually, they respond with a brief smile of acknowledgment and return to their conversation.

Silly denial. “Sorry, but you can’t see me. In fact, I’m not even here.”

Friendly diversion. “Just snoopin’. Don’t pay any attention to me.”

Confession. “Sorry to disturb you, but your discussion was so interesting that I couldn’t help listening. Please. Go on, and I’ll just be quiet.”

Accusation. “You don’t want me to do your thinking for you, do you?”

Sometimes it is a good thing to intervene, however. In those cases I prefer to do it directly, but without addressing the content of the discussion at all. Here is one example. “The argument you’re developing is totally fascinating! It’s especially interesting that that group over there (point) is discussing many of the same things that you’ve brought up. But their argument is as different as it could be from yours, and it looks like they’re going to reach a different conclusion. I’ll bet it would be fun for all of you to go over there and see if you can get them to see it your way.”