Characteristics of a Participatory Seminar

Note: This essay was written for the Welcome Module of the MILT OOPS! – the Multicultural Inclusive Learning and Teaching Open Online Seminar focusing on higher education.

Now that we’re launching our open online participatory seminar, some ideas on those last couple of words:

In high school I spoke during class discussions only in Doc Hanneman’s geometry and calculus courses, and in history/civics courses that Lynn Pierce, William Schimmel, Roger Stouffer, and Marty Wiltgen designed around scenarios and simulations requiring role plays supported by research, discussion, and reflective writing about learning. As a college student, I began speaking in class only during year five when I switched to a political science major because the faculty welcomed dissent as part of learning.

The principles I learned from those teachers inform this seminar design:

  1. Learning requires participation and change.
  2. Learning is an activity in which participants work to create climates of safety where risks of saying, hearing, creating, and testing ideas are supported.
  3. Learning builds on the principles of improvisation.
  4. Learning takes place whether we’re ready for it or not.

Constructivist Learning

…proposes that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. When we encounter something new, we have to reconcile it with our previous ideas and experience, maybe changing what we believe, or maybe discarding the new information as irrelevant. In any case, we are active creators of our own knowledge. To do this, we must ask questions, explore, and assess what we know.

Constructivism acknowledges learning as a process that involves multiple actors, with learners as active agents in reflecting on and creating new knowledge. Elements of learning include:

* content       * participation    

* context       * interdependence

* social negotiation of meaning

Climate of Safety

Support, trust, respect, individual dignity, respectful confrontation, an absence of judgment, power with each other rather than over each other, and minimization of the effects of hierarchy were all expressed as essential to creating a culture of safety.

Alicia Châvez reports, “People need to be able to feel safe enough to take risks, to share their ideas, and learn from each other.” This requires that facilitators propose discussion guidelines, “nurture the healing process when those guidelines are crossed over,” and model ways of respectfully challenging ideas (by extending questions and examples; acknowledging complex stories and readings; and forthrightly addressing misconceptions and misinformation)” as participants take “increasing responsibility for their own safety and for the safety of others.”

CarolynA classroom characterized as persons connected in a net of relationships with people who care about each other’s learning as well as their own is very different from classroom that is comprised of teacher and students. Carolyn Shrewsbury (pictured above, 1986)

yes andEver notice how “Yes, but…” will stop a conversation? Yes, but that’s not: What happened to my friend. What matches my experience. What I read in a book, or argue in a paper, or heard from an expert.

A “yes, and…” approach to discussion calls us into talking that’s based on expanding or extending ideas, posing 2nd or 3rd – often 4th – possibilities; holding multiple, contradictory, and overlapping ideas in mind; and practicing the “growth mindset” in learning.

To learn more about the links between “yes, and…”as a style of improvisation (where actors build the scenes rather than act from received scripts), we’ve stored 2 short videos in the seminar’s YouTube Welcome Playlist.

Also, we use the seminar syllabus to invoke Stephen Brookfield’s sense of discussion as blending dialogue & mutuality with readings & reflection to engage in focused exploration of identified topics with no end point determined in advance. We’ll add more on this to Modules 1 & 4 of the seminar.

Start before you’re ready…

Robert Boice’s advice for “Quick Starting Faculty” extends equally to the work writing and teaching. The basic research-based rules are:

  • Wait actively.
  • Begin before feeling ready.
  • Prepare and present in brief, regular sessions.
  • Stop.
  • Moderate over-attachment and over-reaction.
  • Moderate negative thinking & strong emotion.
  • Let others do some of the work.
  • Moderate classroom incivilities.

The same principles can be linked to seminar participation and discussion:

  • Wait by listening. Call others into conversation.
  • Use “yes, and…” in short exchanges to extend/expand thinking rather than hold forth in long, referenced statements of ideas.
  • Stop in the moment to reflect on how and what you’re learning because of the words before you.
  • Be open to new insights and to glimpsing others’ perspectives, which works to move us all beyond acting from a single story observer perspective.
  • Apply a growth mindset to learning/thinking about teaching, advising, and mentoring.
  • Address misconceptions and misinformation – as you and/or others express these – forthrightly.

Discussion is a call and response exchange: Ask a question to enrich responses. Point to what resonates as a new insight. Share a clarifying resource. Share why and when ideas shift.

Finally, from two recent publication, these key ideas:

  • Participants interactions are motivated by via short, regular writing in topically-focused forums.
  • Participants who engage in meta-cognitive reflection in discussion retain longterm learning.
  • Participants who feel recognized as a presence within a learning community contribute regularly.

Vanessa Paz Dennen

Three simple patterns emerge across the characteristics typical of the highest-performing groups:

  • A large number of ideas: many very short contributions rather than a few long ones.
  • Dense interactions: a continuous, overlapping cycling between making contributions and very short responsive comments that serve to validate or invalidate the ideas and build consensus.
  • Diversity of ideas: everyone within a group contributing ideas and reactions, with similar levels of turn taking among the participants.

Alex Pentland

And, now to our open online discussions addressing philosophical and practical dimensions of creating discussion within this OOPS! we’re engaging:


“Yes, and…” image:

Dennen, Vanessa Paz. “Looking for evidence of learning: Assessment and analysis methods for online discourse.” Computers in Human Behavior 24.2 (2008): 205-219.

Pentland, Alex (2014-01-30). Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread-The Lessons from a New Science (p. 90). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

PDF version of this Meta-Essay prepared for participants in the “Multicultural Inclusive Learning and Teaching” open online participatory seminar (OOPS!), sponsored by the Preparing Future Faculty Program at the University of Minnesota: Final Version Participatory Meta-Essay.


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