How to Have an Equitable Class Discussion

Teachers can be intentional about calling on a diverse set of voices, ensuring multiple perspectives

November 27, 2017
Lecturer stands in front of a college seminar

This post is adapted from a pedagogical strategy showcased on Instructional Moves, a new initiative from the Teaching and Learning Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The project, which is dedicated to the notion that great teaching can be learned, features videos that show Harvard instructors using highly effective, evidence-backed teaching moves, which can be adapted and applied across a variety of educational settings. This piece has been augmented for Usable Knowledge.

A great class discussion doesn't just share distinct ideas; it also shares distinct voices. When teachers call on students in equitable ways — elevating historically marginalized voices, waiting for a usually quiet person to speak, and making sure everyone is heard — they augment students' learning, boost their confidence, and reinforce values like tolerance and humility.

Setting a Standard of Inclusion

Patterns in classroom discussions can take shape from the very start of the school year. Often, the same small group of students will be the first to want to participate. So when teachers simply call on the first raised hands they see, those select few students will be the only ones sharing their answers and perspectives, while everyone else remains silent.

Students who are called on over and over may come to view their perspectives as the right perspectives. At the same time, students who do not perceive their teachers to be fair in soliciting participation may become less and less apt to contribute.

These patterns can be self-perpetuating, and they can discourage learning. Students who are called on over and over may come to view their perspectives as the right perspectives. At the same time, students who are not called on often may begin to perceive their teachers as unfair — and become even less likely to contribute. Establishing inclusive, equitable norms of participation from the start is key.

"It's absolutely essential to figure out a way of managing who's speaking when, who's taking turns, in any kind of seminar discussion," says Harvard lecturer Timothy Patrick McCarthy, who teaches a course called Stories of Slavery and Freedom and who strives to make his class discussions equitable from day one. "You don't want one or two or three or a cohort of voices to dominate the discussion."

Valuing Diverse Voices

Students who are most willing to contribute to the discussion from the start are not only more confident and extroverted; they also tend to come from more privileged backgrounds — white, male, straight, or wealthy.

Because of this dynamic, McCarthy works to make sure that he's calling on a diverse range of students, purposefully seeking a mix of voices from among gender, race, or sexual orientation considerations. If the previous few student speakers have been male, for example, a teacher can purposely wait for a female student to raise her hand.

This practice helps elevate marginalized voices, and it also helps ensure that students will learn from classmates and peers of different backgrounds. When everyone has an equal chance to speak, students learn when it's time for them take a step back and listen to others.

Finally, says McCarthy, while these practices should be a part of every class, they are especially important in a class that is discussing race, gender, class, or oppression. Students can then begin to make connections between more "academic" conversations on power and privilige and how to use those lessons in their everyday lives. 

Watch a video that shows McCarthy's teaching move in action, and listen as students respond.

Tips for Equitable Participation
  • Establish the norm that all students wishing to participate should raise their hands; call on a range of raised hands (and don't always call on the first hand you see).
  • Consider the implications of your discussion strategies and how patterns of discussion correlate with the classroom’s demographic makeup.
  • Elevate historically marginalized voices.
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Diversity and Inclusion Learning and Teaching