Classroom Dynamics & Diversity

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Every class, every group, has its own distinctive dynamics, determined by the individuals in it. How many of us have taught the same class to two different groups and had two entirely different experiences? Yet there are some constants among groups: all groups experience a period at the beginning in which people are trying to figure out how this group will work and what their position in it will be; all groups have quiet members and noisy members; all groups have a diverse membership which influences the quality of the interactions.

Groups can be productive or unproductive, based on their constituency, the topic, and their facilitation or leadership. Occasionally “hot moments” arise, in which the emotional temperature rises dramatically, either precluding learning or, when skillfully handled, leading to the most intense and lasting learning of the semester.

Classroom Contracts
Every classroom has contracts in place, some explicit, some implicit. The explicit contracts are usually found in the syllabus: what the course is about, what has to be read when, what and when papers or exams are due, what the grading scheme is. There are also many implicit contracts at work: who gets to speak, for how long, how do they get to speak, who sets the agenda, what kind of learning is expected, how is success measured.

Students coming into a class are all trying to figure out and understand both the explicit and the implicit contracts. How will this course work? What will be my position in it: will I have to talk; can I talk; how will I get to talk; will I be dominant, or not? How will I be judged? What is expected of me?

Teachers are typically quite open about the syllabus and quite silent about the implicit contract. If we have thought carefully about it in advance, we could be far more open about what we are looking for in classroom dynamics and expectations, make the implicit explicit.

Quiet Students, Noisy Students
Almost every classroom has a few students who are quiet, a few students who talk a lot, and a big bunch in the middle who talk from time to time. This has to do with individual personalities, issues of diversity, the topic, and the personality and biases of the instructor. It is important for the teacher to look for these imbalances in participation and to find ways to balance it.

Teaching to the wide range of diversities we find in our classrooms is one of the hardest and most important aspects of our job as instructors. Diversity comes in many forms: personality, race, gender, class, ethnic background, sexual orientation, religion, class, natural aptitude for and previous training in the subject matter, the range and types of previous experience are among them. Students come to our material with many perspectives; tapping into these can enrich everyone's understanding of the subject at hand and, as well, prepare students for a 21st century in which the ability to talk with people of other groups is requisite. Making learning possible for everyone is the goal, and is often a challenge. At the very least, it is our professional responsibility to make learning equally possible for all students.

Hot Moments
Everyone, at some point or other in their teaching career, faces a "hot moment" in the classroom – a moment when the conversation either stops or erupts because of the volatile nature of the subject matter, or because of conflicts among students. These moments happen in science courses as well as in the more predictable social science and humanities courses. The challenge for the teacher is to turn such a moment into a learning opportunity, rather than either ignoring or inflaming it. Accomplishing this means managing oneself, helping the students in the moment, figuring out what is actually occurring, and then imagining how to use the moment for learning.



Fisher, Roger and Ury, William, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Penguin Books, 1991). Available from Harvard Libraries, with a substantial preview at Google Books.

Heifetz, Ronald, and Linsky, Mary, Leadership on the Line (Harvard Business School Press, 2002). Available from Harvard Libraries or Google Books.

Heifetz, Ronald, Leadership Without Easy Answers(Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1994). Available in the Bok Center Library in Science Center 318, from Harvard Libraries or Google Books.

Krupnick, Catherine, "Women and Men in the Classroom: Inequality and Its Remedies", Reprint from On Teaching and Learning

Perry, William, "Different Worlds in the Same Classroom: Students' Evolution in Their Vision of Knowledge and Their Expectations of Teachers", Reprint from On Teaching and Learning

Stone, Douglas, Patton, Bruce, and Heen, Sheila, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Penguin, 1999). Available from Harvard Libraries, and (without indexing) at Google Books.