Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Smartest Student in the World

In many classes I've taught, I've had the same student that you have had in some of your classes.  I've had The Smartest Student In The World.  This student is generally bright and engaging and very, very willing to answer every question and offer a comment on every situation.  I actually love this student because he is engaged, thinking, and willing to dive into the work of learning. Often it is a blessing to have him because if the class lags a little I can just nod in his direction and he will start talking.  The downside of his presence is that he will continue to talk and work his way into things when others want to, and need to (by the way, this student shows up in youth, young adult, and adult classes - he is everywhere). So how do you help this student learn within the context of a whole classroom of students, all of whom need to learn?  How do you help without killing his enthusiasm? Here are some observations

Many times I have put a student on "comment restriction".  Sometimes I pull him aside before class and say, "You make so many excellent and useful comments but I have 20 other students who also need to talk, so I'm giving you room to make just 3 comments during this class period - make them count."   Most take that seriously and I can see them measuring their thoughts and metering out their comments.  I think it makes for better comments.  Once they hit 3 comments I don't call on them anymore and they understand why.  Other times I don't tell the student up front, I just mentally keep track and when he hits 3 comments I stop calling on him.  If he approaches me after class and asks why I didn't call on him, I explain the restriction rule and thank him for his willingness, but help him see the need to create space for others.  I've never had a student get mad about it.  They all seem to get it and most laugh as they realize the truth of it.

You as the teacher are not obligated to call on every person who asks to be recognized.  I want to include all voices so I pick those to speak.  And I don't feel bound by who had their hand up first.  This is not a 'pull a number at Baskin Robbins and wait confidently for your turn' experience so I am free to call on whomever I want - whomever I think will add to the discussion.  Sometimes I look at a student who is very hesitant and gently say "Did you have your hand up?"  When they say "No" I follow with "But did you want to have your hand up?"  More often than not they will say yes and then offer something.  That gets more voices in the mix.

Here are two good phrases to have in your back pocket - "I see a lot of the same hands up - I'd like to hear from people who have not yet spoken".  That works.  And this one - "Let's just take one more comment and move on." 

I love to ask students for personal experiences that illustrate the point we are trying to make.  They are generally willing to share such stories, but after about 2 stories, we don't need anymore illustration.  It just becomes a redundancy that stops the discussion from moving forward, so I'll simply say "This is the last story we need".  And I like to emphasize that we need personal stories, not hearsay stories.  So when a student says "This happened to my uncle's neighbor's boss's son", I'm obligated to cut him off - with kindness of course.

Remember that participation is not the goal - it is a means to an end.  The end is learning, which is enhanced by stirring things up in the minds of the students. More voices help the mix so you can't let The Smartest Student in the World - or his partners - dominate and you at least have to offer the quieter students a chance to join in.  And if you can do it in a fun way it works a lot better.


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