Reflections on a lesson that didn’t work

There’s a lovely section in Donald Finkel’s book, Teaching with Your Mouth Shut, where he describes a high school literature class discussing Homer’s Iliad.

The students generate their own questions about the reading — like, is Homer for or against war? — and learn from each other in a rich discussion, drawing on passages from the book, current events and their own experiences.

It sounded pretty cool, and I like the idea of getting out of the way and letting students learn from the text and each other, so although I’m not a literature teacher, I decided to try it out on Monday in AP Psych.

My students had just finished learning about personality theories, and their next unit is on motivation and emotion, so it seemed like a good time to engage them in a conversation about happiness. What could be more relevant and important to them than thinking and talking about their future happiness?

I gave them a short excerpt from Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness — which argues that we don’t know how to judge what will make us happy — and showed them Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk on how too much choice makes us less happy, not more.

Then I gave them a few minutes to generate their own questions and discuss.

And… it was mostly a flop. Very few questions, very little discussion, very little learning. You could hear crickets. Lucky I didn’t set aside a whole hour for it.

How did it go so badly? I thought it would work because I know these students are thinking about happiness (many wrote about it in their personality essays); the book and TED Talk both make some pretty surprising and controversial assertions; and these students are usually pretty thoughtful in their discussions.

Clearly I was wrong, and I need to figure out why. I have a few theories about why this discussion didn’t work:

  1. We haven’t practiced doing this kind of open-ended, student-generated discussion, so they weren’t really sure what to do. I need to do a better job of training them in this skill before we try it again.
  2. Maybe the questions I thought would come up — Do you think you know what will make you happy? How do you know if you’re right? Do you think most people are happy? Would we be happier if we took away some options? — aren’t things teenagers are ready to think about. My friends and I could have a great discussion about this, but we have a lot more life experience.
  3. In a similar vein, maybe the reading and video weren’t very effective prompts. The students all seemed to agree that Schwartz is just an old guy who longs for simpler days. In order to generate discussion, I have to find something they won’t agree on.
  4. It wasn’t graded. I hate to think everything needs to be graded, but the part where I said before that these students are thoughtful in their discussions? Those discussions were all graded. I’ve heard students joke that Socratic seminars are just “a chance for A-students to talk as much as they can for points”. I hope that’s not what’s always happening in discussions, but maybe it is.
  5. The happiness discussion was just before finals. I was actually trying to get the students to stop, relax, breathe and think before taking final exams — but they weren’t in the mood. I’ll look for better timing next time.

I’m not going to give up on the idea of ungraded, student-centered discussions, but clearly this is going to take some refining. Ideas are welcome.