OI2 Professor Spotlight Series: Dr. Noah De Lissovoy

We recently got the opportunity to hear from Dr. Noah De Lissovoy about his use of deep discussion and dialogic instruction. Dr. De Lissovoy’s belief in the power of collaborative learning is palpable and hopefully serves as an important reminder of the importance of engaging students in active reflection and conversation throughout a given course and across its myriad topics.

Dr. De Lissovoy is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and his research investigates and extends traditions of critical pedagogy and philosophy. He has authored several books in his research area and teaches courses in social and cultural theory in education, curriculum theory, and philosophy of education. We hope you enjoy learning about how he uses deep discussion and how you can incorporate this practice into your teaching, too. 

Tell us about an element of your instruction that you’re proud of and/or feel makes the biggest difference.

Although it’s not a particular technique exactly, a key element of teaching that’s very central to my work is the use of deep discussion of a focused theme or question. Deep discussion can occur on anything that is a key topic within a unit of a class. For example, in my Curriculum Theory class, it could be standards, or race and curriculum, or the notion of empowerment. So, these are specific topics that are not necessarily micro, but they’re particular and the questions around them are particular, too.

Importantly, these deep discussions are focused and sustained, so they take a good chunk of time and need space to really stretch out. Deep discussion is critical for exploring different levels and dimensions of the question at hand and allows for participants to pay attention to relationships of power and marginalization both in the world and at the conceptual level and ideological level. When enough time and space are provided for conversation about weighty topics, light is shed on which understandings get centered and which get marginalized. As the discussions develop, students are pushed to draw from their own knowledge and experience as well as to interrogate their immediate responses. In short, we focus on a particular issue and are attentive to getting to the depths of the issue, but I am also open to these discussions moving in unanticipated directions.

How do you incorporate this practice into your course(s)?

Two key starting points come to mind for incorporating this practice. First, one way I incorporate deep discussion is to organize specific discussion exercises that start from the texts that we are reading. I will either select particular quotes, sections, or disparate moments across chapters in a text that relate to a theme. I then ask students to consider that theme or element of the text. Another starting point for deep discussion is student presentations in relation to what we’re reading or to themes that go beyond the text. In this case, students are invited to draw on their own experience and connect to what we’re reading, and we build discussion from there.

Preparation is a key element of implementing deep discussion. Specific planning is needed for how the discussion is going to be structured in terms of both a technical sense of who’s going to be talking to whom, is the conversation occurring in small or large groups, etc., and in terms of the sequencing or deepening of questions throughout the discussion. All of this must be planned out ahead of time. Less technically, but just as important, is consideration of the particular elements of the theme or question that I want to be sure we get to. This doesn’t mean there are necessarily answers I want to uncover, but rather that there are elements of the question that I want to be sure we discuss. For example, if we’re talking about curriculum standards, I want to be sure we discuss the relationships between standards and objectives or between standards and political interests and policy. So, there are aspects that I want to think about ahead of time and be sure we adequately engage in; this involves thoughtful presentation.

The facilitator should also know the texts well and be open to a diversity of responses from students. Even if I have read a text several times before, I will be sure to review it again ahead of these discussions so that I’m clear about the arguments, twists and turns, and levels of thinking. Regarding openness to student responses, this is really important to me. When I say openness to a diversity of responses, I don’t mean only intellectual responses but also experiential and identity-based responses. These latter responses tend to open a different side of the theme or question at hand that I couldn’t have necessarily anticipated, and this is important and interesting because this can multiply the meanings and levels of the exploration that take place in the discussion.

Finally, the instructor’s careful listening is crucial to effective and fruitful discussion. That is, you’re not just opening an empty space for discussion and then seeing what happens. Instead, you have the responsibility to listen very carefully to what people are saying to make sure that you understand, which typically involves a lot of dialogue and clarification. It’s important to listen across responses in order to juxtapose different perspectives, synthesize responses to show commonalities and tensions, and then open up a kind of secondary level of questioning that is related to these perspectives and relationships across responses. The instructor must also be sensitive to the energy and direction of the discussion and know when to fuel it, intervene, and/or redirect. A final comment about careful listening: I think it’s important for the instructor to bring their own concerns and interests in a thoughtful and humble way that is not suggesting that one has the answer, but rather that you are also a part of the conversation. The goal of deep discussion is not to achieve a definitive answer but rather to flesh out the question and point to directions or possibilities for how to think further about it. I want students to have the tools to pursue these issues further on their own, and the use of deep discussion helps me achieve this broader aim.

What resources, experiences, or sources of inspiration helped you create and implement this aspect of your course?

Some resources are models of dialogical teaching from professors I’ve had in my own education. Also, texts themselves serve as resources for deep discussion. Interacting with writing that is critical and dialogical and open is very conducive to deep discussion. The work of Paulo Freire has been influential to many people and to me in a very deep way as a kind of model for this kind of engagement, although there are also developments and differences that have occurred in the critical education landscape since his work was written that are important to me and my own practice. Another element that has helped me facilitate deep discussion is my own personal growth as a person. As I’ve become more confident as a teacher, I’m less worried about being the authority in the class or about conversations going off the rails. Deep discussion is not always comfortable or something that can be fully anticipated, so continued growth has helped me further refine my facilitation of this important practice. 

What impact have you noticed that this instructional practice has had on you and/or your students?

In my experience, these kinds of discussion are very powerful for students, so long as they occur in a useful and organized way. Deep discussion can lead to depths of understanding that are much greater than what is achieved through other ways of approaching topics, and which are more meaningful for students to the extent that they are encouraged to carefully engage aspects of their own thinking and selves. Deep discussion also leads to questions and interests that students previously hadn’t imagined or considered. Another impact of this work is that it builds community and collaboration, both of which are central to the whole instructional environment. The discussion and learning are not individual but rather inseparable from collaborative investigation. So, community and learning are really the same thing in a way, which points to the way that deep discussion is not just a cognitive process but also an emotional and spiritual process. When the discussion reaches these levels, it’s powerful, sustaining and transformative – both for the students and myself. These are the conversations I live for as a professor; this is where it all comes together. It’s amazing to be in conversation with others around topics that are important and are explored in a caring space in which people can grow and offer support and insight to each other.

What advice do you have for others considering implementing this practice in their own course or adopting a similar practice? 

As I mentioned earlier, it is critical that the facilitator knows the text extremely well and understands the complexities of the arguments and topics to be explored. You should be quite familiar with the content in order to help surface the levels and dimensions of the topic for students. It is also critical that you are carefully listening, which is arguably the most important piece of advice. Students must know they’re being heard and what they say is valued. Listening carefully is key, as this is also modeling for the students how to engage with each other. Additionally, the questions that guide the discussion do not necessarily need to be complex, but they do need to be clearly stated. Finally, because discussions can go in a variety of directions, it’s important to not necessarily control where the discussion goes, and also to be prepared for the discussion to involve personal sharing. There’s no learning that doesn’t involve who we are as persons, and we need to be okay with that. It’s also important to know why you’re opening the discussion and why it’s important to you, so students have a sense that it is worthwhile.

What do you think is the biggest takeaway of incorporating this practice into course design? Why does it work? Why should others consider it? What does it offer students? How does it shape the classroom culture and space?

For me, this is not really an optional technique, but rather a core element of teaching. It’s not the only element of my teaching, of course, but it is central. I know I’m not necessarily presenting something new here, but I am affirming a basic commitment in inquiry-based and critical education. I think the novel part of my practice is combining a clear focus and critical investigation of a particular topic with a deep flexibility. So, the takeaway here is a special sensitivity and art of responsiveness as the foundation for classroom dialogue.

In this first installment of OI2’s Professor Spotlight Series, we learn about Dr. Yan’s incorporation of an innovative instructional practice that supports students in navigating and mastering new information. For more background information on the benefits of pre-training, review our previously published series on Flipped Learning!

What is pre-training?

Everyone’s working memory is limited: we can only hold and make sense of so many pieces of information at once. Experts can appear to hold more information, not because they have larger working memories, but because they can more efficiently “chunk” things together.

As teachers, the concepts that we teach are highly familiar and the connections between ideas is more obvious. Hence, the material can feel fluent to us and chunked easily. But for students who are new to this material, they are dealing with getting to grips with each new concept and figuring out how they connect to each other. The cognitive load our students will experience is much higher. It’s easy as an expert to go too fast.

Pre-training involves giving students some familiarity with content before they need to fully engage with it. Pre-training helps reduce the cognitive load by exposing students to the material first in a relatively lower-demand manner.

Tell us about how you incorporate pre-training into your course.

I incorporate pre-training slightly differently in my undergraduate and graduate courses; the big difference is how important I consider the readings.

In my undergraduate course, the main source of learning comes from our class time (Tuesdays as an interactive lecture, Thursdays as application activities in groups). Hence, I use assigned readings as the “pretraining” to prepare for class time. These readings expose students to the ideas and concepts that will get taught on those Tuesday lectures. To make sure students do the readings, they answer a handful of multiple-choice questions; to guide students to think about the topic, they answer two open-ended questions that are graded only for thoughtfulness, not for accuracy.

In my graduate course, I want them to engage more deeply in the readings too. I assign 3-5 readings per week, which can be a lot. Without preparation, it’s often unclear to students how they should approach the readings, how they might be connected to each other, and which aspects are important to the course. In my three-hour graduate course, I spend the last hour giving them a preview lecture or introduction into the topic covered by the next set of readings. Sometimes, I give them orienting questions or things to look for when they do the readings. This helps prepare the students to go into the readings with some background knowledge so that they can more effectively engage with the readings. They each then write a discussion post about their readings and come to the next class prepared to engage in deeper discussion of the topic.

The incorporation of pretraining in these ways also means that students also space out their learning. They have to think about each topic multiple times across that first week of learning (and beyond). For the undergraduates, they have the reading, the Tuesday lecture, the Thursday application activities (and then also weekly cumulative quizzes, written projects, and cumulative final exam). For the graduates, they have the preview lecture, the readings, the class discussion (and then also projects/tests). This spaced practice and repeated return to topics is important because learning is not “one-and-done.”

What resources, experiences, or sources of inspiration helped you create and implement this aspect of your course?

I conduct research on and teach about principles underlying long-term learning, so it was important to me that my own teaching practices would be informed by these same principles. My teaching has changed over the past five years that I’ve been here at UT Austin, in response to student feedback and experiences. The graduate course preview lecture did not exist in my first iteration of the course, and it arose out of realizing that the graduate students struggled to understand how to approach reading articles. But the first preview lectures started off as a very brief overview. This semester is the first time that I have explicitly designed my syllabus to “straddle” topics across two classes. My teaching is always a work-in-progress.

What impact have you noticed that pre-training has had on you and/or your students?

The pre-training means that students are coming into class much better prepared to discuss the concepts, both with me as well as with their peers during group activities. In the interactive lectures in my undergraduate course, for example, students are not only able to better respond to questions that I pose to the class, but they often ask me deeper, better questions. These student-generated questions are invaluable: sometimes, they draw out potential misconceptions that I never would have realized; other times, they lead me to discussing finer nuances that would have been too much had it been their first exposure to the material. In both cases, they deepen learning for the whole class.

What advice do you have for others considering implementing pre-training in their own course or adopting a similar practice? 

With my undergraduate students, it was important that I emphasized that the pre-training was low-stakes. They should not spend hours and hours trying to understand the reading; they do not have to make copious notes and memorize everything in them. Those open-ended quiz questions are NOT graded for accuracy. The readings are only to prepare them for lecture and only content from class would ever appear on the high-stakes exams.

None of the readings I assigned were taken from undergraduate textbooks; they were mostly journal articles or handbook chapters. So, I also emphasized that it was okay if they found these types of readings difficult, and the beginning of each class included a PollEverywhere question where students rated the difficulty of the readings. That way, it was normative and public: that if you found the readings difficult this week, you’re not the only one.

What do you think is the biggest takeaway of incorporating pre-training into course design? Why does it work? Why should others consider it? What does it offer students? How does it shape the classroom culture and space?

It’s important to consider not only what you are delivering as the instructor, but also what the students are receiving. When our students aren’t understanding something or aren’t retaining something, it’s important to think about what we might be doing that might be leading to the issues, and what support we can offer to address them. And it really does help with student engagement (with me and with each other) during class time too, which just makes teaching a much more rewarding experience altogether.  

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