When it comes to discussion, consider equity of opportunity rather than airtime | Liza Garonzik | 5 Min Read

December 28, 2022

Any teacher who has ever run a discussion-based classroom will tell you that they want it to be equitable and that all students should be heard—that no one voice dominates. Many teachers even use tools—like Harkness Webs or Equity Maps—to track how many times, and for how many minutes, each student speaks. The goal here is admirable: make an abstract concept, “equity,” concrete and visible. But too often, students walk away from these experiences focused on speaking the “right” amount of times—not actually feeling belonging. 

Today’s discussion dilemma

How can you dig deeper than airtime in measuring equity in a class discussion? 

My response

Instead of measuring airtime (“how many times/minutes did you speak?”), consider focusing on equity of opportunity (“Do you feel like you can get your voice in when you have something to say? Do you feel like classmates listen when you speak? Do you know what success looks like for you in a discussion?). 

The knee-jerk response

How on earth do I do that? This sounds way more complicated than pie slices and spider web diagrams. 

Why it matters 

Building a culture where it’s not just about did-you-talk but it’s did-you-feel-heard will have enormous dividends in the depth, authenticity, and belonging students experience in a conversation. It will allow students to better connect with ideas and each other—and it will allow you to get to know students better too. 

How to do it 

  1. Define what belonging looks like for your classroomand how you can measure it:  As the teacher, you need to do the deep thinking first: what does equity in conversation in your classroom mean to you? Does it mean that every student gets similar amounts of airtime? Does it mean that every student knows if they want to speak, they’ll have the chance to? Does it mean students are all prepared and positioned to have something to say? And then figure out how to (reasonably) measure these indicators over time. For example, at R.E.A.L. Discussion, we survey students every three discussions on items like: “I know I can get my voice in when I have something to say; when I talk, it feels like my classmates are listening; if I have a question, I feel comfortable asking it.” 
  1. Nuance your definition of “success” in a discussion. Great discussion is a deeply human endeavor that often “feels good” or “just doesn’t.” But, for today’s students— many of whom rarely engage in screen-free, group conversation outside of school, and so lack that intuition—it is critical that you distill discussion into bite-size skills students understand and can practice. If you don’t, students will assume that success is having the “right size pie slice” or “the perfect number of lines going to your name in the web!”— and those outcomes will come naturally more easily to some students than to others.  Joe Feldman has written about the importance of proactively demystifying success, noting that “when academic expectations are hidden, grading privileges students whose families have had more access to those expectations, either from prior success in school or in institutions of power.” (Feldman 2018).
  1. Design for differentiation: Once the definition of success in discussion is demystified and nuanced, it’s time to acknowledge that students arrive at every discussion with different strengths—and so in order to all be challenged, differentiation needs to occur. I’ve seen teachers differentiate discussion differently with great success, but at R.E.A.L. we do something simple: ask students to set and reflect on a personal goal each discussion. This allows students to “choose their own adventure” in terms of the order in which they practice discussion skills—while ultimately holding all students responsible for learning all of the skills. What does this look like in practice? To return to the introvert example: they’ll always start with L (Listening) skills, before going for R,E,A, because that plays to their natural strengths. Concrete, check-list type students will often start with E (Excerpting), before R,A, and L, because it is the most predictable, least spontaneous of the four skills. Effervescent, social butterflies will choose R (Relate) ahead of E,A, and L, because they derive their worth from being in relation to others. And debate team kids will certainly choose A first because they love nothing more than asking the cross-ex stumper (even when it’s not necessarily appropriate). Differentiation gives students agency—and it will make your conversation better. Having students all working on different goals means the dynamic will be more like a symphony than a piano recital! 
  1. Reframe the who-talked-how-many-times statistics as part of the journey, not the destination. I would never say that airtime doesn’t matter. It does—and ensuring there is space for all voices will make the conversation better. But that should be part of the journey—not the destination. Consider equipping students with facilitation moves that help them make space for each other in real-time (there are all kinds of gimmicks for this: everyone starts with three popsicle sticks, and “spends one” each time they talk; toss a ball of yarn around the room as the speaker changes; etc.) rather than only monitoring this metric retrospectively. It allows for real-time course correction instead of post-game shame! 
  1. Reflect together on the experience of discussion, as individuals and as a group: reflection is how you build trust—and, importantly, rigor. If everyone knows one student is dominating or not making others feel safe, but there’s no time and space to acknowledge it, that “elephant in the room” will undermine students’ trust in the teacher and in the value of discussion in the first place! I always advocate for two levels of reflection: individual – Did I hit my goal? How do I know? How did it feel? How did others respond to my ideas? What do I want to work on next time?—and as a group: What worked? How do we know? What do we want to change? What’s our strategy for doing so? Referencing the “indicators” you design for your classroom will be critical in both the individual and group reflections. Reflections can be pure moments of feedback—or attached to grades. That’s a topic for another article! 

Closing Considerations

Equity is abstract, and conversation is an art. So: defining what, exactly, an equitable class discussion looks like is difficult, worthy work!  But by focusing on equity of opportunity rather than airtime, teachers can be proactive in designing classroom discussions where all students can feel heard and challenged.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Liza Garonzik for Intrepid Ed News.

Liza Garonzik

Liza Garonzik is the Founder of R.E.A.L. Discussion, a program that trains faculty to (re)teach Gen-Z students the discussion skills they need for success in learning — and real life. Her work is informed by an interdisciplinary research base and experience as a student, teacher, administrator, and trustee in diverse independent schools. Get in touch at [email protected] — there's little she loves more than a great conversation!

One thought on “When it comes to discussion, consider equity of opportunity rather than airtime | Liza Garonzik | 5 Min Read

  1. Liza, I really enjoyed your article. As an English teacher, I completely agree with your shifting the focus from “airtime” to more important aspects of discussion (the culture of the classroom—“equity of opportunity,” feeling respected, heard, and welcomed, etc.) I also appreciated your implication that perhaps attaching discussion to “pure moments of feedback” instead of to grades might be more productive.

    I would like to suggest one other thought. Some students, despite “differentiated” strategies to help pull them into discussions, just aren’t comfortable speaking in the moment–and, heresies of heresies, will never be comfortable. One of my purposes for class discussion, more important to me than developing speaking and listening skills, is to increase engagement in literature and ideas in order to stimulate and develop thinking, reading, and interpretive skills. What I have found is that some (not a huge number) of students are so uncomfortable about speaking that their fear undermines these goals. For them, class discussion is a torment.

    When I met privately with these students to discuss the issue, I discovered that they were happy to engage in listening and thinking, not speaking, during discussions. So we worked out a different strategy for them to communicate their engagement to me. During discussions, they took notes on ideas that interested them and/or jotted down their own thoughts. After class, they wrote (informally, stream-of-consciousness-ly, not an organized essay) to pull together their thoughts and gave them to me.

    Yes, yes, I know that this strategy prevents the rest of the class from hearing some good ideas, that these students aren’t working on socialization or whatever the so-called “real” world may want from them. But I also believe that schooling’s desire to produce cookie-cutter graduates (all “masters” of six disciplines, all outgoing and socialized) is unrealistic and a lot of other adjectives. We seem to have a concept of “fairness” based on the same regimented expectations for everyone—regardless of the differences that exist is humanity. Anyway, this strategy worked for me and for those naturally shy but intellectually alive students. The classroom was no longer a source of dread for them.

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