Enriching learning through student-led provocation

January 28, 2019

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

 This issue of Into Practice is adapted from Instructional Moves content produced by the Teaching and Learning Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Timothy McCarthyThough Timothy Patrick McCarthy, Lecturer on History and Literature, Public Policy, and Education, plays an integral role in class discussions for his course Stories of Slavery and Freedom, students are responsible for leading the majority of classes through an exercise McCarthy refers to as “provocation.” “The provokers do not come in and give a summary of what we’ve read or a mini-lecture about the top-line themes that might emerge from the assigned readings. I really want them to find some way to literally provoke us into conversation, get the juices flowing, and try to get all the students to think about something urgently at the outset of class.”

The benefits: Switching up discussion leadership gives students more agency in their learning, brings new voices into the conversation, and prevents the class from growing predictable or stale. McCarthy takes steps to ensure thorough preparation and effective performance from his students. “I always tell the provokers that they should be the most informed people in class on that day. They should be more familiar with the texts than anybody else.”

The challenges: For discussion and debate to flourish, the provokers have to both energize and sustain the conversation. Although it is time-consuming, McCarthy requires students to meet with him beforehand to help shape their provocation and craft an overall lesson plan for the class they will lead. “You want to give students as much agency as possible while also meeting your learning goals, a combination which rarely happens seamlessly. It takes intentional work.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • Intervene selectively. McCarthy generally strives to hold back in discussion but will intervene when he notices that something “really crucial” to student understanding has not yet surfaced.“There are other times where I will provide some context, but I try to open up as much space as possible for them to breathe and to engage before I swoop in.”
  • Demonstrate norms for discussion. Model what it sounds like to make connections between contributions or to build on another individual’s ideas. This sends students the message that participating in a discussion involves not only speaking but also active listening.“I will try to get as many comments on the table as I can, and then try to figure out: what are the points of connection here?”
  • Invite students to disagree. Well-crafted provocations and discussion questions can provide spaces for disagreement and may even encourage it. Cultivating the type of respectful disagreement that helps students grow academically and personally is tricky, especially when students feel strongly about particular issues. McCarthy models verbal and nonverbal behaviors that help his students learn how to “disagree without being disagreeable.”

Bottom line: Leading such provocations affords student facilitators powerful, pedagogical perspectives while challenging them to participate more broadly in classroom discourse. Students feel personally accountable to do their homework and are more intentional about preparing for class when tasked with leading a class discussion. It can also positively impact their contributions in the course as a whole.