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posted on August 1, 2016 | Teaching and Learning
The Most Important Silences Have Been My Own

The most
important silences in my
teaching career have generally been
my own.  Pro
fessors can’t profess while
students conduct important business
with each other, and that’s what
happens in breakout groups. 

In my own
learning, teaching, learning
about learning, and reflecting on
on all of that, teachers’
to teach
easily overwhelms students’
need to think critically for themselves
and pay careful attention to
each other, and they
need that a lot.


It is so, so easy
to get in their way!


When classrooms
suddenly break into small, intimate
discussion groups of 4 or 5 and begin
trying to understand something they
don’t quite understand, we call
that a breakout.

Two important functions
breakouts perform are to break
up lectures and make
them count more!

Breakout groups
are among many ways to exercise
creative, imaginative skills, but both teachers
and students can inhibit all of them. Two serious
inhibiting factors are that students
solicit “teaching
from teachers and teachers solicit
“learning behaviour” from students.

They easily
lock each
other into vicious
cycles of active teaching
passive “getting

On both sides of
that equation, teachers teach
the behaviours to students.
learn those lessons in various forms from
their teachers and from the institutions they
teach them in.  And teachers tend to teach
either as they themselves were taught
or as teachers of teaching taught
them to.  I was both a student
and a teacher in those

reinforce those lessons
by comparing notes with each
other.  Institutions  and governments
reinforce them.  And
students being
rewarded for success in that system

 bolts the whole thing together
makes it spin.

Cycles like
that can be hard
break out of,
but ….


When students
talk with each other in safe,
trusting environments about things
they don’t quite
understand, and freely
express their ignorance and need to know,
amazing things happen in their learning.
They learn more, remember it longer,
find it more useful later, and
grow more confident
that they can
do it.

They put more
into it, get more out of it,
and everybody wins. 
None of this
is rocket science and anyone
can learn to do it.

We know now that
interactive engagement
among students, like what happ-
ens in breakout groups, is the 
#1 most
important factor 
in developing concept-
ual understanding and problem-solving
ability in undergraduate science
students.  It’s the biggest thing.

We must
stir up certain kinds of
trouble in certain kinds of ways,
stand back, keep our mouths shut, and
let it happen. 
We must allow groups
to function freely without
input from us once
they begin.

Without clarity
about what
to discuss, the result
they need to produce, and how long they
have to produce it,
groups can’t be productive,
of course, and teachers must ensure that. They
must also ensure
a strong classroom culture
zero disrespect of anyone’s ideas,
by anyone, for any reason.

Tasks must
be simple enough to grasp
but challenging enough to require
collaborative input from several people
who know and trust each other. 
Tight dead-
lines deepen communication within
groups, and encourage com-
petition among groups.


Given those
conditions and given enough
practice, groups stay on task, speak clearly,
apply old learning effectively to new problems,
produce good results quickly, and have a good time.
Because they learn so much talking with
each other, we don’t have to talk
so much of the time.

Students learn to
learn in breakout groups.
Teachers learn to help them
learn by
snooping on

problem is

how to do it with
breakout groups.

Rooms with
many small groups talking
at once are noisy places. 
can learn some things at a distance in
that environment from body language,
facial expressions, and attentiveness
flowing through groups.  From
overall group dynamics.

But they can’t learn
much about the substance
of conversations except at close
range because of the noise.

How to get
close enough to hear the
discussion without modifying its
flow by our presence? 
How to resist the
temptation to teach? 
It is hard to be
a fly on the wall in our
own classrooms.


It helps a lot that
students who are fully immersed in
tasks are relatively unaware of themselves,
more daring, and more willing to risk being
wrong or foolish.  They are aware mainly of
each other, the problem they are working
on, and the ideas they are using to
solve it, and not aware of
very much else. 

In an almost
real sense, time stops in
breakout groups. 

If I tell a class
to report back in 7 minutes
and give them twice as long, nobody
We can stretch or squeeze time
at will, depending on the buzz, the
vibe, and the feeling in the room,
and nobody notices. 

nobody notices.  Teachers
tell stories to each other about
that at conferences.

Even so, it is nearly
impossible for them to ignore
us when we approach within distances
that vary among groups, vary over time,
and depend critically on circumstances
and architecture.  We have to feel
our way into groups.

Here are
a few things that can
 First, the professional litera-
ture of a
nimal behaviour, psychology,
anthropology, and sociology suggest a few
general principles.  T
hey apply
pretty well in approaching
breakout groups.


Approach slowly
and carefully, head lower than
theirs if possible, submissively,
aggressively or with an air of authority.
In my own case, it helped that my students
knew I was studying them anyway, in some
of the ways I studied wild animals. They
knew they were my guinea pigs for
learning about learning.

When you enter
their space, s
always notices.  The question is
ow to minimize the disturbance
and strengthen, rather than weak-
en, the conversation. Each of the
following responses to
discovery relies
on a kind



Most are
ritualized, theatrical one-liners
and tricks that signal students to
ignore us and get on with
their work.  


The Shrug

A simple
but exaggerated theatrical
with cocked head, imploring
eyes, and silly grin.  It is a silent but
effective equivalent of a
guilty plea. 

It reminds
students and teachers alike
that the work is theirs to do, not
ours, whether we are there or not.
usually flash brief recog-
and return to
the task.



The Silly Denial

“Sorry, but you
can’t see me.  In fact, I’m not
even here.” 
Most groups, most
of the time, ignore us and let
us in.  Sometimes they
want to be alone.



Friendly Diversion

“Just snoopin.
Don’t pay any attention
to me,”  and most of the
they don’t.



The Confession

“Sorry to
bother you, but your
discussion is so interesting I
couldn’t resist. 
Please.  Go on.  I’ll
just be quiet”, and they make us
honoured, ignorable witnesses
to their deliberations.


The Accusation

This responds directly
to direct solicitations of teaching
“You don’t want me to do
your thinking for you, do you?”

Usually they
smirk at you, ignore you,

and get back to the task at hand.
They really don’t have time
for us, anyway.


Call to Arms

Sometimes it
works like a charm to say
things like this:

“The argument
you’re developing fascinates me,”
I might say, “and I’ll tell you why.
group over there 
is discussing the same things
you’re discussing,
but it looks like they may
reach a different conclusion. 
I wonder
which group’s got it right.”

As often as not,
two groups become one
and the discussion continues
at a deeper level.

That is
a prime example
of what I call stirring up
trouble.  Stirring up trouble,
fomenting discussion, or whatever
you want to call it, is one of the more
important things we can do as teachers.
It gets students to do our work for us
and that’s a good thing, e
since it works better
that way.


Stirring up Trouble

 For our
purposes here, all I
mean by stirring up trouble
is giving students something to
talk with each other about
that meets certain

Ideally, it is
something important that they
understand something about, but
neither everything nor nothing
about.  Precisely because they only
partially understand it, they gain
greatly by discussing it
with each other.  

It’s sort of a no-brainer.


I stirred up
high school students in
Frank Spear and the Pea Seeds
and Teaching for Creativity in Science,
high school teachers in
Walking on
and first year university
until I retired.

Stirring up the
Architects of their Own Education
was thrilling from start
to finish!


My Letter to Martha Piper,
 my Story about Barry McBride, and my
references to Maria Klawe show how senior
university administrators can help make it
happen.  So can
Fifth Grade Teachers.

Perfect Circles,
Stories about Stories,
Engagement is Visceral,
Making Magic Together, and
It’s Not Just a Matter of Technique
give many other examples.

Classroom Culture.
When my colleague Craig Nelson
claimed in a workshop that teachers must
“take 100% control of the social environments
of their courses”, some participants objected that
our job as teachers is not to control our students but
to free them, but that’s not what Craig meant.  He
meant that until we make it safe for students
to risk expressing themselves, they won’t.

Edited May 2022

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