The Subtle Pressure To Go Along With The Group

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In the discussions here on the Brilliant Blog, Diana Senechal has been making some very insightful and thought-provoking contributions. Diana teaches philosophy and Russian at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City and is the author of a wonderful book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

In response to a recent post about managing discussion in the classroom, Diana had this to say:

“The proper approach [to managing discussion] does vary from subject to subject and from topic to topic. The demands of an introductory course are different from those of a literature lecture and discussion course. In the one case, the emphasis is on solving problems and understanding their underlying principles; in the other, on interpretation of text and relation of one text to another.

Keeping those differences in mind, I would like to suggest a distinction between socialized and public discussion. In a socialized discussion, the social group influences the individual; in many cases, the individual views end up merging into one. (This is the case, I find, in much small-group activity.) In public discussion–which whole-class discussion and lecture-discussion more closely resemble–individual voices and views contrast openly with each other, and the individual has a much greater impact on the whole (even when not all get to talk).

There is much to be said for settings where one has room to think–not because some students are uncomfortable speaking up on the fly, but because all students can enjoy freedom from the social group. There is plenty of time outside of class to talk with groups of peers or individual peers; in class, it is both refreshing and inspiring to listen to those who have something to say, and to contribute when I feel I have something to contribute–to the whole discussion, and not just to some little group.

In my teaching, I have observed that both girls and boys have this preference (or not, as the case may be). But this is not just a question of preference; it is a kind of intellectual exchange that gets lost if the course places too much emphasis on small-group work and ‘turn-and-talk’ activities. Those things have their place–I use them too–but if they are used in every lesson, something important gets lost.”

I really like Diana’s distinction between “socialized” and “public” discussion. It reminds me of what Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has written about the dangers of “groupthink.” We are social creatures, and in those small groups especially there is subtle pressure to hew to a group consensus—whereas, on the big stage of a public discussion, differences can be freely aired.

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One Response to “The Subtle Pressure To Go Along With The Group”

  1. Wellington says:

    Greetings from an international brazilian (worked all over).

    By “subtle” you mean ENORMOUS, COERCIVE, like “either one of us or one of them”, “IN OR OUT”, “Look at your career here” subtle?

    Like “let’s talk in the cafeteria about your options here” subtle?

    “Do the right thing” subtle?

    Because it mounts pretty fast to that.

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