This blog article shows you how to facilitate engaging and equitable group work by naming and explaining some principles, or ‘moves’ from spontaneous improvisation. These mechanise and demystify the experience of exploratory talk, giving everyone the same conversational tools regardless of perceived shyness or other such challenges.
What did you do? Why did you do it?
Interactive discussions, where the aim is to co-construct and explore shared knowledge, can be difficult for some people at the best of times, especially for anyone who may have difficulties verbally expressing themselves quickly and coherently. Such problems became apparent when I started teaching online and asked learners to talk in breakout rooms. And I’m not just talking about the silent rooms; even when everyone was comfortable to speak, there was a tendency towards monologic presentation talk (see Figure 1) rather than dialogic exploratory talk. Perhaps a flipped approach to learning exacerbated this; students were literally presenting what they had learnt rather than co-constructing more complex ideas.
So, I asked the students to start using the following principles (or ‘moves’):
Offer – This refers to the act of giving or initiating an idea. [“I think…” “Don’t you think…”]
Accept – Responding to an offer in a way that acknowledges, validates [“Yes, and..”] or challenges it [‘Yes, but…]. The opposite of accepting is blocking.
Extend – Giving time to focus, explore and elaborate on an offered idea. You could also call this ‘expanding’. [“for example,…” “..because…” “yes, and…”]
Advance – When it’s time to move on, an offer can be made which is new but preferably connected to the extended idea. [“Shall we move on?”]
Block – Rejecting or ignoring someone else’s offer without acknowledging its potential. Examples include someone giving a disconnected offer (not accepting) or dismissing someone’s offer too quickly (not extending).
Incidentally, these moves became a shared metalanguage, enabling students to appraise each other objectively without causing personal or cultural offence.
Once these principles were established with students (through explanation and/or demonstration), I could embed them into classes:
- When checking into breakout rooms, I sometimes use the chat to ‘coach’ from the side e.g. “Nice offer” or “Don’t block!” or “Can someone expand on that? Add an example?”
- When returning from breakout rooms, I do a quick anonymous poll: “I offered ideas” / “I accepted and expanded ideas”. Make this a routine. I have found that, as the weeks go by, more students are extending.
What was the impact of your practice and how have you evaluated it?
Before I introduced these principles into my teaching, I conducted a small poll of 20 teachers working with international students around the university. Sharing these findings helped me to frame the principles for students. The top selected skills which were seen as being most important to learn were being prepared for the seminar, building confidence to contribute (in other words, ‘offering’) and adding to others’ ideas (‘accepting’ and ‘extending’). All the teachers asked also said that international students needed to learn ‘ways to explore a subject in detail’ (extending). This suggests that the principles in this blog would at least help international students to collaborate more effectively in seminars.
Anecdotally, I noticed an increase in breakout room participation in those classes where I had explicitly introduced these principles. I intend to research the approach more systematically in future and would be happy for others to join me.
How could others benefit from this example?
By asking students to consider using these principles, group work becomes much more engaging and accessible; both face-to-face and online. These principles can also be useful for any meetings or discussions where collaboration is involved and is a helpful way to ensure everyone is heard.
Alex Holloway, firstname.lastname@example.org, Teaching Fellow, Language Centre