One of the main goals for any group is balancing conversation in terms of participation. Typically, there are a few people who dominate the conversation and several who won’t or aren’t able to participate. One of the first jobs for the facilitator, then, is to balance the talk time out amongst the participants in order to help some talk more and others to listen more.
There are many strategies that can work, including helping students understand why they should speak in class in the first place. Many of them should be considered scaffolding techniques that help the group develop equity. Eventually, the group can organically find ways to engage each other through genuine interest, active listening, asking questions, and developing ideas. Since groups take time to develop such skills, these scaffolding moves might certainly be needed, especially for young or newly formed groups.
One of the easiest and quickest ways to balance conversation is to take turns going around the circle. Participants can pass if they have nothing to add. The issue, of course, is that the conversation will often be stilted and many comments will be unrelated. Still, the round-robin can be a great way to start a Socratic Seminar because it provides an opportunity for everyone to speak. In addition, a variation like Round-Robin Brainstorming can help create a lot ideas for the group to follow once conversation organically picks up. The round-robin can also be a good technique for the end of a seminar to ensure that participants have a chance to voice any last ideas.
The talking stick (or talking object of any kind) is a good way to structure conversation. The idea is that only the person with the talking stick can speak. Everyone else should focus on listening with respect. Talking sticks can be a great way for groups to practice taking turns, but they do slow conversations down, especially with very young students who often make a performance out of passing the stick around.
One of my favorite strategies when I first started was the “two cents” strategy. I gave each student two pennies and instructed them that they had to speak at least twice. Whenever they spoke they then put one of the pennies in a nearby basket. The great thing about the strategy is that the pennies are visual reminders—for the speakers and the rest of the class. For example, students who use their two pennies can be coached to look around the room and encourage others to use the pennies that are on the table or desk in front of them.
Similar to the “two cents” strategy, some teachers use talking chips in a variety of ways. The simplest form is essentially the same as the pennies, where students put in a chip each time they want to speak. There are other Kagan Strategies as well. Various rule systems then help create group equity:
- each participant gets one chip and once a chip is used the person can’t speak until “all the chips are in.” The chips are then redistributed back to the group.
- each participant gets more than one chip and once you use a chip, you cannot speak again until a certain number is reached in the middle.
- a team of students is given a number of chips and they have to share them.
- each participant is given several chips and a “goal board” or a bingo board to fill out as conversation proceeds.
It’s important to note that even when these strategies work well for balancing conversation, they often result in stilted conversations. Still, a choppy somewhat unrelated conversation is better than no conversation. But the scaffolding should come down at some point so that the conversation can become more natural. After all, adults rarely use such techniques, except perhaps for extremely volatile situations.
I often get asked how to help groups move past something like talking sticks. There are no easy answers, but a great place to start is to ask the students. The conversation can start with something like: “Okay, you know how we’ve been using talking chips to help with our discussions? Well, now I’m wondering if we can have a conversation without them. Like having a conversation with friends at lunch, only we’ll be having an academic conversation about this text… How do you think we can be successful at this?”
I have found that such conversations about conversation work extremely well!