Wednesday, September 30, 2009

When the superstars shine too bright

Lazy, unprepared, intellectually overmatched and/or irresponsible students can disrupt the dynamic in the classroom. But Rob Weir reminds us that the hardworking, well prepared, capable students pose their own threat to the classroom dynamic. Here's how Rob handles this:

Your very brightest students can harm the group dynamic, usually without meaning to do so. Some kids just “get it” miles in advance of their peers. They make connections that are so astonishing in their depth and complexity that their classmates flinch from admiration and intimidation. Try calling on these students selectively and seek to recruit them as discussion aides. I generally take such students aside and ask them to play a particular role in discussion. (It’s amazing how many don’t realize how bright they are!) I generally solicit their input after discussion has unfurled a bit so it appears more as a collective thought than an individual one. In some cases I’ll even ask them if they will ask redirect questions of a peer response such as “Can you tell me more about what you mean?” I’ve had some success stories from this, including students who decided they wanted to become teachers. Caution: Students have the right to decline the aide role. If they do, you will simply need to limit how often you call on them.
I think we can all recognize that a very competent student can dominate a class negatively without even trying. I certainly agree with calling on such students "selectively." But I'm not so fond of Weir's suggestion that you enlist your superstars as "discussion aides." Part of intellectual maturity is to recognize when you need to stand back and let others have a larger role in the learning environment. Being put in a position of semi-authority reinforces the superstar student's sense of her 'specialness.' I'm wondering if there are better solutions here. Any ideas Wakers? Are there ways of turning the superstars from attention hogs into resources for other students without seeming to make the superstar into a co-teacher?


  1. First, I'd say I'd rather have the *problem* of the enthusiastic overachiever than the problem of the lazy and potentially resentful student. :)

    I think I agree with the author that the good students can be used as "aides" but not in the sense of drawing on their more accurate knowledge (or perhaps even just the fact that they did the reading) of the subject.

    Using them in this way, I agree, serves to make them into quasi-authorities or co-teachers in a way that will surely alienate or perhaps even annoy the other students.

    Instead, when I use these students as aides I try to get them involved in a way that makes use of and highlights their enthusiasm for learning, and for the subject matter. This doesn't make the other students feel stupid, it simply shows them that it's actually okay to like the subject as a person 18 - 22 years of age, and it promotes a good model of engagement. Of course, you can abuse this kind of "aide" too, so I'm talking about occasional use here, not overuse (a little pedagogical phronesis goes a long way).

    In my book, to be honest, I'd be in heaven if I had a class full of interested and enthusiastic students even if they didn't really *get* the subject in an accurate way. So for me, it's about using those students as motivational cheerleaders for philosophical thinking, not using them as knowledgeable co-peers for content instruction.

  2. Two things jump to mind as a way to turn superstars into resources. One is to engage occasionally in short Socratic dialogues with such students, as a model for the others to experience and perhaps learn from as they listen. Unfortunately, many might simply tune this out. This is where others could be brought into the dialogue, by being asked direct questions. I'm not very good at doing this--being more forceful about getting students to talk in class if they are not so inclined--but it seems like a good idea to me.
    A second possibility is to match the higher quality students with lower quality ones in small groups in the class, working on a case study, interpreting a passage, and so on. For this to work, I think the instructor needs to move around the room to encourage all group members to participate, so that the good students don't do all of the work.

  3. There's different kinds of overachiever students - I've had some that are just enthusiastic and willing to learn, and then there's overachiever students who know it all already, and are more cynical of the process of classroom discussion. The best thing for the cynical students is to harness that - get them to be the devil's advocate as much as possible, to take an opposing position to yours. This has the advantage of diluting your authority, and making them realise that they are allowed to think what they want, so long as it is logical.

    The enthusiastic ones didn't seem to need much managing - it's just a matter of as a teacher not forgetting the other students, and making sure that they're making all the links they should be. Gently/quietly letting the enthusiastic ones know that they'll get more out of the class if more students contribute can work too - if you're a student, having another student encourage you to say something can be less intimidating than a question from the authority.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!