Four Tips for Cultivating Classroom Conversation (With Some Help from G. K. Chesterton)

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“Neither in public nor in private life, indeed, is it at all true that the man who talks a great deal is necessarily an offensive person. It is an entire mistake, for instance, to imagine that the man who monopolizes conversation is a conceited fellow. The man who monopolizes conversation is almost always modest. The man who talks too much generally has a great deal of humility. Nay, even the man who talks other people down, who argues them down, who shouts them down, does not in the least necessarily think himself better than they are.

It may seem a contradiction, yet the truth and reason of it are really very obvious. The man who talks too much, talks too much because he is interested in his subject. He is not interested in himself: if he were he would behave better. If he were really an egoist he would think of what effect his ego was producing; and a very mild degree of mental perception would enable him to realize that the chief effect his ego was producing was a unanimous human aspiration to hurl him out of the window.

A man who fills a drawing-room for two or three hours (say) with a monologue on bulbs, is the very reverse of a selfish man. He is an unselfish hero, courting the scorn and contumely of men in the great cause of bulbs, objects which are hardly likely to offer him in return any active assistance or even any animated friendship. He is a Martyr, like Stephen or Joan of Arc: and we know that the blood of the martyrs is the seed (or bulb) of the Church.

No; the really selfish men are the silent men, those wicked and sinister fellows. They care more for their own manners (a base individualistic asset) than for conversation, which is social, which is impersonal, which is divine. The loud talker is humble. The very phrase you use about him proves this. If a man is rude, and bawls and blunders, the snub given to him would be ‘You forget yourself.’ It is the very ecstasy of altruism, an impersonal apotheosis. You say to the cad, ‘You forget yourself.’ What better, what higher, could you say to the saint than that ‘You forget yourself’?”

G. K. Chesterton, “On Long Speeches and Truth”

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Within the Christian classical education renewal, Socratic conversations, seminars, and colloquies are an essential element. At the very least, schools and homeschools all speak of the Socratic approach as a distinctive of the classical approach. Everyone is doing it, everyone is advertising that they do it, and everyone wants to be doing it well. Many of us, then, are in search of tips to make that sort of classroom conversation a bit more, say, conversational. It can be supposed, with reasonable certainty, then, that this is why you are reading this article. Alternatively, you might be reading it in order to find out what foolish things I might say, so that you can kindly correct me. In either case, welcome. 

Consider Chesterton’s comments quoted on the opposite page. The purpose of conversation, he claims, is humility. He is right: We do tend to think of the long-winded speaker as offensive and selfish. But this, he argues, is precisely why such a speaker is not actually selfish. The long-winded speaker knows he is being judged as such. Thus, when he speaks at length on a particular topic, it is because he believes that sharing truth is more important than his own reputation. On the contrary, whereas we identify and think of the quiet person as humble, that person is, perhaps, the selfish one because he is keeping the truth to himself, unwilling to put his reputation on the line for the truth he withholds. 

Conversation, done well, teaches humility because it invites the quiet person to risk his reputation for the sake of the Truth, and because it asks the outspoken person to make room for others to share and interact with his observations about Truth. 

But if we want both the long-winded student and the quiet student to participate in equal measure, then we need to create an environment in which their participation is possible, enjoyable, and useful. Here are four tips for doing that:  

Safety. The first thing the participants need is safety. The quiet person, per Chesterton, is fearful of damaging his reputation. He is concerned with saying something stupid, wrong, or off-topic. The teacher, tutor, or parent leading the conversation, then, must become a weaver. By this I mean that he must work to take the threads that each student offers and masterfully weave them into the existing tapestry of conversation. If the conversation has hitherto been considering the justice of Achilles withdrawing from the battle (Homer’s Iliad), and a quiet student, invited to comment, offers up that Achilles is being a crybaby, the weaver must not allow himself or the other students to mock the quiet student or his comment. Rather, a good teacher will weave that thought into the conversation.

Integration. In order to weave the comment into the conversation, the teacher must be listening well to the whole conversation and to the particular student’s comment. Having heard the comment, he must then ask a question that connects it to (that weaves or integrates it into) the larger conversation at hand. He might ask, “What does Achilles being a crybaby express about his reaction to Agamemnon’s threats?” Or “If we think of Achilles being a crybaby, how does that affect the way we assess his withdrawing from the battle?” That connects the comment back to the conversation, and allows other participants a means to entertain the idea without being critical of the student who offered it. Alternatively, the teacher could ask the student to help weave it into the conversation by asking, “Do you think Achilles withdrew because he is a crybaby, or did he become a crybaby by withdrawing?”

Honor. Sometimes, when a student offers a comment, he is seeking honor. He wants to be recognized and honored for the insight, the humor, or the bravery in the comment. When a soul craves honor, it is craving something it was created to crave. It is seeking the “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” that God promises us. That “well done” can be received from the teacher when he praises the insight, laughs at the joke, or acknowledges the courage. Counterintuitively, by receiving praise, the student’s need for honor is satisfied, not exacerbated. In other words, students seeking honor will feel the need to seek honor less frequently the more they are honored, rather than feeling the need to seek it more after having gotten it. When we refuse to honor the student, we create an environment in which he will only seek honor more aggressively. For example, when I roll my eyes at a student who cracks a joke, that is more likely to make him crack jokes incessantly (in a desperate attempt to get a laugh) than my laughing at it will.

Intellectual Affirmation. Other times, when a student offers a comment, he is seeking intellectual affirmation. He needs confirmation that he is on the right track, that he has understood what is being expressed by others, including the teacher; or he lacks understanding and needs clarification of what he is misunderstanding. The teacher encourages the participation of this student by offering affirmation or clarification. If the student is excessively needy in this area, then offering an outlet for that affirmation or clarification at another time might be best. Suggesting to students (especially those who contribute too much) that they write down their comments and save them for the last 5-10 minutes of class or for the next class period, often allows them to refrain from speaking because they know they will have the opportunity to be heard at some point. Coincidentally, students who write down 10-12 observations during a discussion often only need to share 2-3 of them (after having waited) because many of them become unnecessary or are affirmed/clarified later in the conversation. 

Truth is greater than man’s reputation, and that means we and our students ought to be willing to sacrifice our reputations for the truth. It also means we need to be willing to hold back so that others might share the truth. As Chesterton argues, there’s no compliment higher than to be able to say, “He forgets himself in the hunt for the truth.” 

Thus, as teachers, it is our job to cultivate an environment in which our students can become martyrs for the truth, that someday they might be willing and ready to become martyrs for the Truth.