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Small Groups, Duh

So in my IF-supported class this week, Art: I Know it When I See It, we continued our class discussion focusing on possible responses to the question “What is art?”.  Last week they came up with two potential responses (note that I’m avoiding the word “answers” – I think it’s too final and decisive) and a constellation of concepts they believe are relevant to the question of whether a work is a work of art.

This week I began by asking them all what they expect to get out of our discussions (thanks Laura for the suggestion!), and once they generated a nice list of expectations, I asked them to suggest what practices we could all adopt to ensure that our expectations are met.  In my summary I separated the expectations into two categories: those that deal with course content (what they expect to learn about art) and those that deal with communication skills (how they think participating and facilitating will help them).   After they finished listing the good conversational practices, I asked them whether they all felt as a group that they could adopt those practices.  One person was absent from class, so I shared the list with her later and asked her to add any expectations or practices to it.  I think this supplied us with a foundation for better discussions.

When I designed the course I imagined myself modeling facilitation for the first few weeks, then breaking them into smaller groups.  This isn’t working so well.  The main problem is that although I only have 12 students, they simply can’t all be involved in an hour or longer discussion.  And of course they’re first year students, so they are staying up until 4:00 a.m. socializing, so they’re exhausted.  So on Tuesday we broke into smaller groups and I asked each group to come up with a new possible response to the question “what is art?”.  I circulated among three groups, and each came up with at least one new possible response.  The quality of the responses varied among the three groups.  One of the disadvantages of breaking into small groups at this stage is that they don’t yet understand facilitation, and I don’t have anyone assigned as a facilitator.  So when I’m not sitting with a group, they get off track and discuss something not really related to the main question.  We also don’t have record of their small group discussion, we only have a record of the outcome of the discussion when they all came together again to share the responses of their groups.  They all reported, however, that the small group work was much more helpful, and they felt more invested in the discussion.  Another problem I’ve had is that I didn’t frontload the course with enough assignments.  So they’re not doing much graded work outside of class yet.  This might instill bad work habits in them by the time the assignments become tougher.

So the one stone I’m going to use to kill two birds is this: start training them in facilitation beginning next week, and make sure someone in each small group is the designated facilitator and someone is the notetaker.  I’ll shift the groups around to make two groups probably, and I also have to tweak things a bit to fit this into the schedule so that everyone has a turn.  We have three more scheduled class discussion days like this, so I might have two students facilitate each time, taking turns, for example.  I think at this stage it’s time to give them some more jobs, and facilitating, notetaking and producing summaries of their discussions is one way to do it, plus they’ll have better discussions in small groups.  If anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears!  Thanks already to Jack C. & Laura for their comments on an earlier post!

Finally, I’ll end with a link to an interview which I found extremely enlightening.  It’s from a podcast called “Philosophy Bites” in which the hosts interview some of the top philosophers in their fields.  This one is with John Armstrong, and the topic is the usefulness of philosophy.  He calls philosophy an aid to reflection and self-knowledge, and the way he practices philosophy is very much like facilitating an IF-style discussion.  It’s about 15 minutes long I think, but quite insightful:

You can download it to an mp3 player or ipod and listen while you do the dishes.  That’s what I did!

Michael Gettings