Print This Issue

Talk About Teaching and Learning
October 23, 2007, Volume 54, No. 9

Struggles and Questions from an Experienced Teacher

Lawrence R. Sipe

I consider myself a good teacher; I feel energized by my classes, and have some evidence (evaluations, awards) that I am doing a decent job of it. Nevertheless, after 12 years of university teaching (and 19 years of working in schools as a classroom teacher and a professional development person), there are a number of issues, questions, and tensions that seem to be perennial for me. In this essay, I’d like to highlight and explore some of them. First, a little context: I teach courses in literature written for children and adolescents in the Graduate School of Education. My classes are never large lecture settings; the usual class consists of about 20-25 students. I almost always have students arrange their desk-chairs in a circle, so everyone can see everyone else.

1. Encouraging everybody to talk.

In any class I’ve ever taught, there are some students who tend to dominate the conversation. I don’t think this is usually from a sense of self-importance; they just feel more comfortable about talking. Some other students seem to be naturally inclined to listening. However, there is a part of my teacherly persona that reproves me for not setting things up so that more (if not all) the students will engage in the discussion. This is something I struggle with all the time. I don’t believe in singling people out by calling on them: I have no desire to embarrass them and perhaps make things worse. I try asking open-ended questions (which is fairly easy when the subject is literature), or encouraging students to react to a statement made by another student. I’ve tried asking students to take five minutes to write about their responses individually, and then resume the discussion again. I try splitting the class into small groups of four or five; however, when I drop in at each group, I still find the same students dominating the discussion. Nothing really seems to work: the talkers remain talkers and the listeners remain listeners. It’s not that the listeners don’t have something interesting to say; when they write a series of journal reflections, they come up with some amazing ideas. Perhaps some people take longer to arrange their thoughts than others; the relatively fast pace of the classroom isn’t the best situation to accommodate their needs. I don’t know whether this is a solvable problem, or whether I should simply accept it, and cease to view it as a problem. But my teacherly persona rebels against this, too.

2. Learning when to speak and when to be quiet.

After almost every class, I wonder whether I have talked enough, too much, or whether there’s been an appropriate “just right” balance between the proportion of time I talk and the proportion of time the students talk. We might call this the “Goldilocks Problem.” Research on the way primary, elementary, and secondary class discussions go has discovered a form of talk that is unique to classrooms, and is abbreviated IRE. Initiation: The teacher asks a question or otherwise begins the discussion (“Who saved Red Riding Hood?”)  Response: A student or students respond (“The woodsman.”). Evaluation by the teacher (“Yes, that’s right.”) One IRE sequence tends to be followed by another, creating whole chains of this deadly (and teacher-dominated) talk. I try to be conscious of avoiding IRE sequences, which I think of as playing a game of “What’s on my mind?” In other words, I try to avoid asking questions or initiating discussion where the point is not to truly discuss, but to assess what students know. One alternative to this type of exchange is to encourage what linguists call “cross-talk”—students talking and responding to each other, with only an occasional comment by the teacher. This is something I find very difficult to do. The usual pattern in my classes is not exactly IRE; it’s more like one of my students wryly described as “serial monogamy,” where a student initiates a comment, and I feel compelled to respond. Then another student says something, and I respond to that student, and so on. In doing so, I suppose my motivation is to validate student responses. But the result is that I end up saying more than the students and being the center. Sometimes, to remedy this, I actually tell the students that I’m going to shut up for a while, and I look at the floor so that I don’t establish eye contact, thinking that this will encourage cross-talk. And sometimes I tell students that I don’t mind waiting instead of jumping in with a comment myself. But “wait time” is very hard for me—it feels like it’s a waste of precious classroom time to just wait for students to continue the thread of the discussion. 

3. Authority and knowledge 

The fact is that I do know more than my students about the topics we’re discussing. It’s silly to deny this. It’s not that I don’t learn from my students (and in the discussion of literature, this is especially true). But ultimately, I’m the professor (as one student put it, “You’re the guy with the tie!”) and they are the students. Some students write in their evaluations, “I think you should do more talking in class, because we’re here to learn from your expertise. I don’t see any reason for us to be floundering around when you could illuminate something about a text or an issue.” On the other hand, I do believe in the importance of students constructing their own knowledge, even if it may take longer. And yet…although the idea of seeing myself as the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” is attractive to me, I sometimes wonder whether I am not doing students a disservice by not sharing the expertise I have. In terms of student input, I find that they are almost evenly divided between those who want me to talk more and those who want me to talk less. This naturally leaves me with not much of an answer! How much am I responsible for setting the agenda for the discussion, and how much should I allow the discussion to go ahead in ways that might ultimately be more fruitful than the initial direction I had envisioned? Time is an important issue in all of this: there never seems to be enough of it to do all of the things I’d like to get accomplished. Over the years, I’ve found myself cutting down the number of readings and being much more selective about what we read prior to class; or I include an “optional” set of readings in the syllabus for students who want to pursue an issue further, without feeling obligated to read them. This has helped in small ways; however, I continue to wonder about my role as, if not “the” authority, then certainly “an” authority on the topics we’re discussing.

All three of these issues are, of course, related: they all have to do with my implicit or explicit philosophy of teaching and learning, and how this philosophy plays out in the day-to-day, back-and forth dialogue of the classroom. If these observations reflect any of your questions, tensions, and issues about teaching, I would welcome an email (to lsipe@gse.upenn.edu) so that we might begin a conversation. 


Dr. Lawrence R. Sipe is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education
and is a 2007 Lindback Award winner and a 2005 recipient of the GSE Excellence in Teaching Award.

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.


Almanac - October 23, 2007, Volume 54, No. 9