Disrupting Discussion Rituals in the History Classroom

Andrew M. Koke, May 2014

Last spring, I noticed a disappointing change in one of my history courses’ discussion segments. Although the conversations had been outstanding at first, about midway through the semester our discussions lost momentum. Fewer hands went up to answer my questions and students held fewer interactions. They were watching more and participating less, the opposite of the classroom culture I wanted. In discussing this phenomenon with other colleagues, I learned that my classrooms were not unique in this regard.

History as a discipline is premised on a necessary dialectic that allows multiple voices to state, challenge, and clarify until a new product is reached. Professional historians do this in our writing, reviewing, and conferences. This process is critical to understanding history, but my classroom discussions had lost it. With my frequent intercession in class discussions, I had initially created a positive inertia, but those intercessions came with a cost. My students possessed what Robert B. Bain calls a “ritualized and traditional deference” to authority that hamstrung their own student-led inquiries. History classrooms, Bain argues, are places where students easily slip into a ritual of unquestioning acceptance; after all, students often reason that history is simply what happened, that this professor is an expert, and therefore discussion is over before it begins.1 In my effort to promote discussion, I had continually promoted myself as the authority in the room, a familiar ritual for my students that reinforced their reliance on me for answers.

Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/herry">Herry Lawford</a>, CC-BY 2.0.<p> Dance of Democracy by Mansoor Ali, Saatchi Gallery, London, 2008. The once-discarded chairs in this installation are not attached, but are part of a delicate balancing act.I turned to the Decoding the Disciplines analytical model to help me think about improving my student discussions.2 Decoding was useful because it helped identify the discipline-specific practice I wanted my students to learn. Unlike my classroom discussions, historians discuss topics a certain way: we rarely discuss the facts; rather we discuss the meaning of the facts. That is to say, rather than have a ritual of accepting authority, we have a ritual of questioning and contextualizing the authority inherent in any text.3 As a further mark of professionalization, we contribute and analyze aloud those contributions, we give space for others to speak, we civilly ask questions and seek to clarify, we organically come to a broader and better understanding than we had initially. All of this is ideal and part of being an historian—and a far cry from what my students were doing in my classes independently.

I can lead them to something resembling the ideal. I can work my classroom like a conductor asking for more from the back row; I can put in the energy and am ­gratified when it works. But in these circumstances, I am reinforcing that familiar ritual toward authority, and students come to depend on my constant interjections and clarifications.

The Decoding model helped me develop a new technique in my classroom discussions, one that would permit students to talk about historical meaning while also exhibiting professional habits. My students (21 freshmen) would be involved in a discussion in which I would not talk for 10 minutes.4 These “unguided discussions” were bracketed by two other discussion sessions. First, students discussed a complex question for about five minutes in small groups. This initial talk helped students clarify their thoughts and gain confidence. Part two was the central 10-minute discussion. After reminding them of the need for civility, I told them to begin, and I did not speak again, or give physical cues such as nodding agreement, for the duration. Instead, I wrote ­furiously and filled out a rubric I designed based on four elements: who spoke ­(contribution), who responded to whom (interaction), who tried to speak but was unable (lack of verbal space), and who offered thoughtful observations or clarifications (content). Part three was a metadiscussion, in which I shared what I observed and we talked about the experience. I praised them for the great moments, such as bringing the conversation back to topic or insightful interactions. And I noted the poor moments, such as the tangents and missed opportunities to allow someone to speak. We closed by returning to the insightful comments and exploring them further.

My class had just read excerpts of Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross Dunn’s History on Trial, so I designed my first unguided discussion around the role of a government in history education. The first question the class discussed was general, harking back to their high-school days: “To what extent should public education include matters typically taught by parents, such as hygiene, sexual safety, and manners?” This question produced a great deal of discussion, mostly about sex, but students spent significant time off-topic, and two students dominated the conversation. It was a good example for showing them how the assessment worked and how they would need to stay on task, make space for everyone, and fully answer the question. Despite the missteps, the dialectic I was hoping for occurred. Students started by suggesting the state should not be involved in parenting, but through dialogue they came to agree that some state oversight was necessary because parenting skills varied widely.

The second question involved our reading: “Why would a government care about the history education its citizens receive?” The resulting discussion was a roller coaster of lows and highs. There were times I wanted to interject, such as when “brainwashing” in communist countries came up, but students eventually challenged such statements on their own. There were times when I saw hands go up and no space was made for the contribution, but more than 70 percent of the class contributed to some degree. More importantly, the class raised the salient issues I had hoped for and to which I returned during the metadiscussion.

My students discussed whether it is in a nation’s best interest to raise its children to understand national history in a certain way; they questioned the degree to which professional historians should inform national teaching standards; they wondered if ­brainwashing children was inevitable in education, and then worked on defining that term. I was pleased. My students had provided a ton of material to revisit. And they did the work: they had challenged initial reactions, clarified significant issues, raised questions, conducted themselves civilly, and elicited contributions from students who did not normally speak.

In the metadiscussion, my students reported that the unguided discussion was both interesting and stressful. Several students thought it was easier to challenge or question their peers than to engage with me. Many also agreed that it was hard to keep the discussion on task and difficult to pivot from one thread of discussion to another. One noted it was hard to concurrently keep track of the thrust of the discussion, who wanted to speak, and what needed further discussion. They all agreed the 10 minutes went very quickly and asked for more time. However, I would hesitate to recommend more time—10 minutes generated a great deal of content.

I continued to use this technique throughout the rest of the semester, and discussions changed completely. Students became more forthcoming and more willing to answer for themselves, rather than letting another talk for them. Multiple hands were raised in response to any given question, allowing student interactions without my constant feedback. Occasionally students would ask each other for clarification rather than expecting me to explain. As I continued to keep track of the discussions with the rubric, I recorded discussions with more than 90 percent participation and greater student-led dialectic work. The quality of the content, however, remained approximately the same, and it was outside the scope of my rubric to determine improvement in this area. These unguided discussions have now become a regular technique in my classrooms from the opening week, allowing me to show my expectations for class participation and encourage student-led discussion.

Disrupting rituals is not easy, and some students resist doing more work and leaving familiar and comfortable patterns within the history classroom. It is an integral part of thinking like a historian, however, to continually think critically about authority sources, whether that is a text, a comment from another student, or an instructor. When we organize student-led discussions in thoughtful ways, we can lessen reliance on the instructor, thereby encouraging students to be more active and thoughtful in classroom discussion.

Andrew M. Koke is an academic adviser with Indiana University’s College of Arts and Sciences and has taught courses for the university’s Department of History. He received his PhD in Atlantic history from Indiana University in 2013.


1. Robert B. Bain, “Rounding Up Unusual Suspects: Facing the Authority Hidden in the History Classroom,” Teachers College Record 108 (2006): 2080–114.

2. Arlene Diaz, Joan Middendorf, David Pace, and Leah Shopkow of Indiana University have published widely on the Decoding model. For a bibliography, see www.decodingthedisciplines.org.

3. See Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Crafting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001).

4. Silence in pedagogy has been discussed elsewhere; for example: Erin E. Templeton’s “Silence Is Golden . . . ,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education (January 27, 2010), available online at chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/silence-is-golden/22936. I added to this technique feedback and metadiscussion to train young historians.