What is Student Authority?

Student authority in classrooms is the idea that a teacher gives control of classroom discussions over to the students instead of the traditional question-and-answer sessions. Here’s a scenario: a teacher is leading a lesson, and during the lesson, the teacher starts to ask questions to check for understanding from their students. The teacher will ask a question, students will raise their hands, they call on one student, and the student gives an answer. The teacher continues to teach and the same question-and-answer pattern emerges throughout the entirety of the lesson.

Using that model, the teacher only has a sample size of one out of possibly 30-35 students in a classroom. You do not need to be a math teacher to understand the best formula to use to determine whether a class of students understands concepts, although this is a model often used in classrooms on a regular basis. Instead, by designing lessons that put the onus of discussions on the whole class and using different types of classroom discussion, the teacher moves from a stand-and-deliver model to one of facilitation.

Why is Student Authority Important During Discussions?

Allow me to elaborate on the scenario given above. If a teacher only calls on volunteers in class, the students that do not volunteer know pretty quickly that they will not be held accountable for the discussion and can zone out if they so choose. Even when a teacher calls on different students for different discussion questions, they are still only getting a small percentage of the classroom to participate. Students that are shy or withdrawn may feel that they are put on the spot if they are the only ones that answer a question. This is in addition to the students that simply choose not to participate.

Increasing student authority in the classroom teaches students to speak publicly, but in a safer environment because everyone is part of the discussion. In addition, students learn from one another when they hear ideas that are different from their own. If students only hear information from the teacher and answers from one student, they never have to justify their answers or take other perspectives into consideration. When students are part of a whole class discussion, they see the value in their classroom community and are more likely to put real thought into their answers because they know everyone has to contribute.

Teachers benefit from classroom discussions as well. As students discuss, teachers can circulate the classroom to listen in order to get a more complete understanding of overall student learning. If a teacher hears multiple students give incorrect answers, they can then adjust their lesson to reteach a concept before moving on to the next part of the lesson.

Strategies for Fostering Student Authority During Classroom Discussions

Kagan Cooperative Learning

One strategy that I have seen yield valuable results is using Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures in the classroom. Think-Pair-Share is a popular tool used by teachers that have been trained in Kagan structures. A teacher introduces a question to the class that has multiple possible answers, then provides a defined amount of think-time. Then students, in pairs, take turns sharing their answers with one another. The teacher can then ask student pairs to share out with the class. Be sure not to instruct students to only turn and talk to their shoulder partner. Also, without giving specified time for each partner, one student could dominate the conversation.

Tie in Relatable Topics

To increase the amount of classroom discussion, tying in relatable topics to the lesson can be beneficial. For example, a health teacher could discuss the role of government in school nutrition: the teacher sets the scene by outlining the amount of student choice in school lunches and the restrictions the government puts on public school lunches, such as cafeterias being unable to use deep fryers or how cafeterias must monitor the amount of sodium used in school lunches. This topic will hit close to home because 40% of students in school choose to bring their own lunches. Student groups could come up with a list of pros and cons around the food offered to them on a daily basis.

Individual Whiteboards

The use of individual whiteboards in classrooms has gained popularity. For example, a history teacher asks students to reflect on the Gulf War. The teacher asks students to write down whether or not the United States had the authority or ethical right to interfere with the war between Iraq and Kuwait. The students write their answers on the whiteboards; the teacher calls time and the students hold up their boards. This is referred to as a silent discussion. This strategy is valuable because shy or withdrawn students can share their ideas without actually speaking in class. The teacher gets a solid idea of student understanding and this knowledge can help the teacher adjust the lesson appropriately if needed.

The Jigsaw Method

The Jigsaw Method teaching strategy is another effective way to increase student authority. The teacher puts students into groups and gives them an article to read, but each student is assigned a different portion of the article. After students in the groups have read their parts of the article (and annotated to identify key concepts), each student in the group shares. As the students share their key takeaways with one another, the teacher circulates the classroom listening to monitor whether or not the students have grasped the important information.