2 Leadership Interventions

Familiarity with group dynamics is not sufficient without the exercise of skills in group leadership. Knowing what to do, when and how, are of cardinal importance in establishing and maintaining a positive group climate.

2.1. Encouraging interaction

'People ask questions and this stimulates the group. I feel we don't mind if a friend asks a question, but if a lecturer asks you, you dry up. A member of staff will always have the answer at this fingertips. I've always resented making an idiot of myself.' Students who are remarkably talkative outside classes are often reluctant to contribute to group discussion when a tutor is present, and a tutor leaving the room is likely to stimulate a resurgence in conversation among the group, even on academic topics. What can you as a tutor do while present which might lead to a similar kind of open discussion among students without abdicating your leadership role? The skills or behaviours necessary for this purpose are not difficult to acquire (though we may not always find it easy to produce them when most wanted). They are nonetheless worth having in your repertoire even if you do need to perform them self-consciously in the first instance.

Glancing Round the Group

It is generally considered rude not to look at somebody when they are talking to you. Yet to do so as a group leader will quickly create the sort of communication pattern illustrated in Fig 3(a). It is not easy to pick up the habit of scanning the group both when we are talking and when students are contributing. Though we will want to catch the eye of a student as he talks from time to time we can, by looking around, encourage him to follow suit and so cause the whole group to give him more attention, thus discouraging the common tendency for discussion to drift into a series of one-to-one duologues.

Looking for Signals

If, when one student is talking, you glance round the group, you may well find yourself picking up cues from others who are puzzled, or anxious to check something. As the particular contribution ends, you will thus be in a better position to draw in some of the less vocal students.

Often the cues are no more than an indrawn breath, a snort of frustration, a shifting of position, or a puzzled frown. To have noted them and to be seen to have done so, usually helps in deciding what to do or what not to do at the next stage in the proceedings. You will also be better apprised of the group climate. In fact you may even be giving the group a better sense of its own identity through the very act of glancing round the group.

Using Non-Verbal Communication

Sometimes when it may be difficult to interrupt a discussion without sounding critical or punitive, a non-verbal intervention can work wonders. On some occasions, this might consist of catching a student's eye and giving him an encouraging smile or inviting him to speak by raising your eyebrows. On others, the connection may be through gestures - an extended palm to suggest 'Would you like to come in now?': - or using two hands to indicate 'What does everyone else think?'. These non-verbal signals are the natural partners to verbal invitations but are generally less intrusive and just as productive. Two non-verbal gestures which are not often used but seem to work effectively are the 'traffic cop' signals designed to bring students into a discussion and to block them out. (See Fig 3) Figure 3

Bringing in and Shutting Out

These gestures highlight two complementary purposes. In order to encourage students to talk, you may need to invite individual members of the group into the discussion, either verbally or non-verbally. You may also pick up significant non-verbal signals for example when a student silently smiles or frowns. On such occasions you might say: 'What are you thinking, Jo?' or 'You smiled, Jo'. On the other hand you may want to restrain someone who constantly talks or interrupts before frustration grows and disturbs the equilibrium of the group. Provided we can do it supportively and straightforwardly: 'Could you just hold it there Brian - it would be interesting to know how the others respond to that.' or 'Let's put that on ice for the moment, Gill, while we hear what everyone else has to say,' then the student should not feel unduly put out.

Reflecting and deflecting questions

When students ask questions like ' Can you tell us what you know about....?' or 'What should the answer be?' you may be tempted to fall in with their wish to set you up as an expert. A simple way out of this trap is to turn the question back with: 'Well, what do you think?' on the grounds that the student probably has an inkling of the answer anyway or would not have asked the question and it is usually better to get students to formulate their own ideas in the first instance. But there are occasions when you may be the only person present who could possibly know the answer to a particular question, or where a refusal to answer could slow down proceedings. A very useful and more comfortable variant of 'turning questions back' is to redirect or deflect them. For instance the question from a student: 'I don't understand what the author is trying to say. What does it all mean?' could be met with 'Well, what does anybody else think?' or 'Does everyone else have the same problem?' or 'Do you have any ideas about what it means?'

Supporting and Valuing

It is easy to overlook an important ingredient of effective group discussion: the creation of a feeling of security and belonging; an atmosphere of trust and openness where people are valued for what they are so that they have no need to fear making a fool of themselves. This is easily said, but not so easily done in the thick of a hectic term's work where teaching and assessing become an almost undifferentiated continuum. The temptation to correct discussion contributions in the same way as one might write comments to an essay is great. Perry (1970) describes how tutors typically view the discussion as 'an opportunity to develop initiative and scope in their own thinking', at least initially.

'No sooner do the students get started, however, and some error or inexactness is voiced, than the older form of responsibilities imposes on the tutor the imperative of 'correcting'. In the time where this tendency gets in motion, three to five corrections of this kind appear sufficient to defeat the students' initiative for search and flow of their exploration. The initiative for conversation then falls back on the instructor who then finds himself in a monologue or lecture, with the sensation of being somehow trapped, compelled, by powerful forces, in himself and the students, to do what he had never intended to do.'

This is not to say that the correction of 'errors' is an unacceptable sin. The question is not one of 'whether' but rather of 'when' and 'how'. To reject or correct the first contribution a student makes would generally be counterproductive. Apart from inhibiting free expression, as in the above quotation, it is likely to lock students into a belief that there are right and wrong answers to every question and that you are the arbiter of correctness. So, when you feel that a student is "off the beam" try using one of the following: 'Is that really so?' 'Could you think about that again?' 'Let's just look at that more carefully.' 'How does that tally with what you said before?' 'Would anyone else like to comment on what George just said?' 'Uh-huh!' Students may thus pick up that they have said something irrelevant or inconsistent but be encouraged to discover their own way out.

Checking and Building

Students (not to speak of tutors) are not always as lucid as they would wish to be when formulating ideas for the first time. Some of the most imaginative contributors to a discussion may find it difficult to express their half-formed ideas clearly at first. Lest the whole group continue in a state of confusion the tutor can quickly check for understanding by simply asking: 'Let me check that I understand you - are you saying ...?' and the student is often grateful for the clarification. What the student does say may well relate to a line of argument pursued earlier in discussion or contradict something he has said earlier. In each case, the tutor can help to make links with comments such as: 'That ties in with what you were saying before - it sounds as though you have a coherent view of it.' 'Does that contradict what you said a few minutes ago?' or 'So it would be fair to say that whilst you disagree with the functionalist view, you have not yet...' Ideally, it would be preferable if the students were left to make the interpretation for themselves: 'How does that connect with what you said before?' 'Is Julie being consistent there?' Sometimes you may choose to go further by putting several emerging themes together and formulating a new coherent picture of the topic under discussion. But how much better it would be to allow the students to do so for themselves!

Re-directing

Sometimes you may wish, either because of you have a schedule to keep to, or the discussion is getting bogged down, to change direction. You may not find it easy to decide whether students would be glad of a change or would prefer to go their own way. Yet sometimes it is necessary to take command and say: 'Hang on to that but let's switch our attention to another aspect...' or 'I think we've reached the point where we could turn our attention to ...' More often than not, it is difficult to be sure of the climate and also of one's own motives. A safer way of approaching the problem may once again be to test the group: 'Are you ready now to...?' 'Do you think we've worked on that one for long enough now?' It may be even more valuable to check the process as well as content: 'Could we stop at this point and check whether we're going about this the right way?' This intervention is almost identical with the basketball term 'time out' in which teams take a break from the game to review progress and discuss tactics. There is nothing unusual about all these leadership interventions. They are practised quite frequently in everyday life but are somehow forgotten in the culture of a discussion group. We must however use them with discretion, not in pursuit of our own needs, but in response to what our growing awareness of the group process tells us.

< <1.13 Climate | 2.2 Asking questions >>