Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Group Dynamics in Teaching

The collective personalities that emerge in groups of students remain a source of wonder to me. I am currently leading two separate discussion groups for one of my current courses, both similar in many ways: on task, focussed, prepared. But the different things they pull out of the same materials and the same lectures, within the same assessment format!

One group fluently navigates the details – accurately and persuasively, demonstrating a high respect for the text and a close attentiveness to the course material. I left the session both impressed – as the discussion unfolded at a very high level – and also a bit concerned, as the content wasn’t very similar to what I had expected to be working through, given the selection of texts. I had designed the course with the intention of focussing in on the more abstract theoretical perspective lurking behind the details, and I left the session wondering whether I needed to alter either my pedagogical approach (which at the moment allows the students to run the discussion, and only comes up behind their analyses to wrap things up at the end) or else my expectations for what I would hope the students would take away from this course.

So I spent my lunch break trying to decide how I would compensate in the next discussion – and, of course, what rolled out from that session was this highly abstract, distilled theoretical presentation of a sort that I might have expected in a purpose-designed theoretical course – which rendered all my lunchtime plotting and planning unnecessary. Of course, in this group the details of how this theoretical argument was advanced and supported emerged only grudgingly, as this is a group that leaps for the gist in quite a sophisticated way, but doesn’t struggle through the thickets of the text much at all…

The reality is that I’m actually quite happy with the conversational dynamic in both groups – although I can’t help but experience a mild curiosity about what would happen if I were just to blend them together: would one side win out? would a third position entirely emerge? Not much point in contemplating it, I suppose, when the unwieldy size would just force everyone to silence…


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