Beauty Pageants & Discussions

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Barn Raising in Action | SOURCE: Wiki Commons

According to Don McCormick of the University of Redlands and Michael Kahn, of the California Institute of Integral Studies most classroom discussions or seminars fall in one of the following four categories:

  • Free-for-All: In this seminar there is a prize to be won, whether it’s the instructor’s approval or one’s self esteem. There is no other goal but to win….One wins not simply by looking smart, but by looking smarter. Thus, important as it is to look smart, it is equally important to make the others look dumb.

  • Beauty Contest: This is the seminar in which each idea is paraded in all its finery, seeking admiration. When it has been displayed, its sponsor withdraws to think up the next idea, paying little attention to the next contestant. Thus, each person’s ideas bear little or no relation to anyone else’s.

  • Distinguished House Tour: Similarly, the Distinguished House Tour seminar begins with one member advancing an idea. The other students spend some time exploring that idea as they might an interesting house. They ask questions and look for inconsistencies, trying hard to understand the conception. When they have a good grasp of it, someone offers another idea and the seminar members explore that….When one is trying to explore a new thought, the pressure of the group probing for problems or inconsistencies is at best like a trial and at worst like an inquisition. We began by observing that the young and the shy, far from feeling encouraged, quickly retreated in the face of this exploration, however friendly and polite it might have been.

  • Barn Raising: This seminar begins with a member telling the group ideas which might be newly formed and not yet thought out. Then the community gathers to build the barn, to put together that idea. As I hear you say the original idea, it may be something I “disagree” with or something I’ve never thought about before; but now it becomes my project, and I set about helping you build it, helping us build it. After you’ve offered the idea, you have no more responsibility for developing it, defending it, or explaining it than anybody else in the group. If I have a problem with that idea, the problem belongs to the whole seminar, not just to you.

The barn raising form of discussion is as superior to other formats as it is rare. Teachers often are satisfied if they can simply achieve the “distinguished house tour” form of discussion because it at least demonstrates students willingness to share and defend original ideas.

However, a discussion where participants are truly interdependent and their exchanges lead to new ways of thinking necessitates the barn raising form of discussion. Above all, every member of the group must genuinely feel responsibility for developing the ideas in the discussion.

To help students better understand what these different forms of discussion look like, McCormick and Kahn recommend the following kinesthetic exercises:

  1. “Divide up into pairs. Now, with your right hand, make the most beautiful hand sculpture you can, and with your left hand, screw up your partner’s.” (Let them continue for a minute or two or until it gets rowdy.) “OK. Now stop and quietly reflect on how that was for you. What feelings did it evoke?” [Free for All]

  2. “Now, with both hands, make the most beautiful hand sculpture you can, but don’t get caught peeking at your partner’s. You might though, sneak a peek to see if it is better.” (Allow this to continue for a minute or two, then ask them to reflect on it.) [Beauty Contest]

  3. “Now, one of you, with both hands, make the most beautiful hand sculpture you can. The other person should explore it and examine it.” (Let this continue for a minute and then have them reverse roles. When both have completed, have them reflect quietly.) [House Tour]

  4. “Finally, make the most beautiful four-hand sculpture you can.” (Let this continue for a couple of minutes, then ask them to reflect on how this is different.) [Barn Raising]

After, each exercise it would be beneficial to have students discuss what this look like in an analogous discussion format. Then, after students have a mental framework for what truly collaborative discussions look like, McCormick and Kahn recommend students prepare for the discussion by reading “ the material looking for a question about it which you can offer the seminar. Choose the question you would most like to ask a very wise person who had read this material. Choose the question that seems to you put the material in the widest possible perspective.”

One way to help students, especially those in K-12, develop meaningful questions is by using the following Bloom’s’ Taxonomy Sentence Stems:

I hope to help students become skilled at the “barn raising” form of discussion over the course of the next school year.

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