" I permit to speak at every hazard..."


So we finished Gulliver's Travels in the first-year honors seminar on Friday, and my little project to get the students talking more seems to be working.

On Monday I had them discuss the second voyage, especially the Brobdingnag King's declaration that we were the most "odious race of vermin nature ever suffered to crawl upon the face of the earth."  I split them into four groups and gave them 25 minutes to mount a defense of humanity to a race of aliens who had decided we were verminous.  Each group got five minutes to defend while the other groups gave them alien rebuttals.

On Wednesday they went into groups again to compare technology today to the crackpot schemes Gulliver encountered in the Academy of Lagado.  I mean really.  Is getting ethanol from corn any less crazy than extracting sunlight from cucumbers?   On Friday I asked them to propose their own questions and lead discussion over the fourth voyage.  Me?  I stood around a lot, listening, watching them argue and shrugging my shoulders whenever they looked up at me to see if they were on the right track.  They call this teaching with your mouth shut.  I hate to admit it, but it's often the best teaching I do.

Sure it can be frustrating watching them go down a conversational dead end, but they will find their way out of it if you wait long enough.  It's better than me droning on because it's learning they have constructed.  It's usually the right answer, too.

This is the upshot of the famous penny test, which I've swiped and used over the years to show students the advantages of group learning.  The exercise works like this: you show students a sheet with 15 versions of the face of a U.S. penny (Lincoln facing left, right; the date, motto and elements variously scrambled).  Then you ask each student to individually select the correct representation. With a large class you may have as many as 10 different answers.


Then put the students into groups of four or five.  Tell them they can only have one answer per group. Within 10 minutes the entire room talks itself  into two answers (one of these will be right and the other will differ in only one small detail).

I've done this many  times and it's amazing how just getting them talking to each other, comparing assumptions, eliminating possibilities and finding consensus improves their accuracy and understanding.  I guess it doesn't matter how you get them to run the ideas through their heads (writing, testing, talking), just so long as you do.

The give-and-take of ideas is something we do quite easily.  For hundreds of thousands of years people sat around a fire, talking and teaching each other how to knap spear points. A yakking professor in front of a lecture hall is actually a fairly recent innovation. And I'm not sure it's much of an improvement.

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