Addressing Hot Moments in the Classroom through Democratic Participation Strategies


Critical thinking and discussion are important parts of the higher education classroom, let alone important skills for a thriving democracy. Adult education theorist John Dewey (2011) describes the necessity for challenging discussion as a democratic imperative. Discussion is a fundamental strategy for developing a critical consciousness and promoting an educated citizenry that is capable of making effective decisions in a democratic society.

Steven Brookfield (2013) details the way discussion should reflect democratic values in the higher education classroom. He defines a democratic classroom in three specific ways: (1) It is a space where multiple voices and perspectives are always included, and participation occurs in ways that do not always privilege euro-centric ideals, such as speech. (2) Learners are directly involved in the decision-making processes, which allows them a certain level of power and control over their own learning process. (3) Unfamiliar perspectives that often challenge dominant perspectives are constantly incorporated into the discussion.

Enacting democratic principles is a rigorous learning process that is always a “partially functioning ideal,” and discussion is a vital way that this process thrives (Brookfield, 2014, p. 123).


However, for many reasons, discussions can lead to more problems than to enlightenment. For instance, most people may lack skills that allow them to communicate effectively, to resolve conflict, or to view the subtle nuances of social situations in order to address those situations in ways that acknowledge the needs of others who are different from them.

Additionally, given the highly polarized political environment in the country in the last 4-5 years, students, particularly those with privileged identities, are more resistant to discussions that include diverse perspectives (Cabrera et al.). Specifically, this is referring to white students, as the scholarship documents many white students’ assumptions that America is a post-racial society, and success is a result of hard work and merit (Delano-Orarian & Parks, 2015). These assumptions can make an instructor want to avoid challenging topics altogether to avoid uncomfortable situations.

Also, there is the ongoing conundrum of reconciling notions of “freedom” and “democracy.” In other words, as Brookfield describes, living in a society with other citizens requires that we “acknowledge their presence and adjust our lives accordingly” (2014, p. 125). For many, it is a challenge to promote individual rights and “freedom” (however this is freely defined), all within a context that should seek the welfare and benefit of the larger group.


Finally, as instructors, Brookfield details how we often make the following assumptions…

  • “Discussions are Free & Open Conversations”
    • We often assume that classroom conversation is “open” and “free,” a “safe space” to express one’s feelings and experiences. In contrast, the classroom is the very place where structures of power and privilege manifest. As Tatum et al. (2013) state, the classroom is merely the microcosm of the larger society, and therefore, it is riddled with social hierarchies that allow some voices to dominate, while others are silenced. This silencing is not always explicit, but expressed through subtle methods, for instance, through microaggressions. Additionally, because discussion is often directly connected to one’s participation grade in the class, it can become a highly competitive atmosphere that can focus less on genuine inquiry, and more on a battle for the students to demonstrate how smart they are, or what Brookfield refers to as “intellectual besting.”
  • “Discussion Is a Democratic Process in Which Diverse Voices Are Included”
    • The field of Adult Education is ever changing, yet higher education still shares a foundation with ideologies rooted in imperialism, colonization, and white supremacy (Cabrera et al., 2016; Museus et al., 2015). With this in mind, it is misinformed to think that hierarchies of privilege and power contextualized within notions of identity, particularly race, do not continue to manifest in the classroom, affecting the ways, for instance, that students of color feel comfortable or encouraged to participate (or do not). For instance, studies have shown that African-American students tend to enter college with the idea that they do not belong in the academic atmosphere and feel like outsiders among other students who are more likely to assimilate (Dancy, 2014; Ford & Moore, 2013).
  • “All Students Are Equipped to Participate”
    • Not all students are equipped to (or want to) participate in the competitive “one-upmanship” that discussions can represent. Also, not all learners possess the cultural capital to participate in ways that allow them to feel confident or compete with other dominating voices that do. Brookfield defines cultural capital as having abilities, such as a varied vocabulary, confidence and ease in public speaking situations, and an assumption that one’s commentary belongs in that context, is valued, and will be listened to. This cultural capital, or lack thereof, is emphasized as significant for determining the academic success of certain groups of students, such as black males (Brooms, 2018; Brooms et al., 2015).
  • “The Instructor is Part of the Respectful, Democratic Process”
    • In assuming that an instructor has the best intentions to tease out important concepts and perspectives in a discussion, Brookfield reminds us that the situation is still a panoptical illusion, referring to Foucault’s (1977) point that the “judges of normality are everywhere,” or more specifically, as they are established by the instructor. As the facilitator of the discussion, we set the tone and establish norms within that speaking context, and students are often looking for verbal or non-verbal cues that their participation is in alignment with those expectations. Seeking to “please” the instructor in this way can encourage a more competitive atmosphere of who has the most cultural capital to compete, and it can also distract from genuine and critical inquiry.
    • One last point with this assumption is that often as a facilitator, instructors ask questions to ignite good discussion without giving student sufficient time to think about a response. Students who are able may respond quickly so as not to appear stupid, which can prevent deeper thinking and critical reflection. As Brookfield emphasizes, “good questions needs time for a response” (2013, p. 67).


So, how can we facilitate discussions that accomplish the following tenets of democracy and appropriately handle classrooms that might normally generate “hot moments” or conflict? Brookfield outlines important aspects of democratic conversations along with specific criteria that might produce more fruitful conversations:

Students must have opportunities:

  • For structured silence to reflect and think deeply, aside from typical Eurocentric patterns of communication, such as speech.
  • To have power and control over their own learning process, including content and materials
  • To be heard – by participating in multiple ways
  • To hear the varied voices of others in order to develop empathy for others’ experiences that are different from their own and recognize that they live within systems of power and privilege to which they both contribute and relate.
  • To learn about and challenge dominant ideologies that they contribute to and/or are affected by, such as white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, classism, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, eurocentrism, etc.
  • To contribute, consider, and value the voices and experiences of others and take these voices and experiences into account during important decision-making processes.


  1. What kind of misguided assumptions might you make about discussions in the classroom?
  2. Considering the list of criteria above these questions, how might you incorporate 1-2 of them in your in-class discussions?


Brookfield, S. D. (2013). Powerful techniques for teaching adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

Brooms, D. R. (2018). Exploring Black male initiative programs: Potential and possibilities for supporting Black male success in college. Journal of Negro Education87(1), 59–72.

Brooms, D. R., Goodman, J., & Clark, J. (2015). “We need more of this”: Engaging Black men on college campuses. College Student Affairs Journal33(1), 106–123.

Cabrera, N. L., Franklin, J. D., & Watson, J. S. (2016). Whiteness in higher education: The invisible missing link in diversity and racial analyses. ASHE Higher Education Report42(6), 7–125.

Dancy, T. E. (2014). (Un)Doing hegemony in education: Disrupting school-to-prison pipelines for Black males. Equity & Excellence in Education, 47(4), 476-493.

Delano-Oriaran, O. O., & Parks, M. W. (2015). One black, one white. Multicultural Education, 22(3/4), 15-19. 

Dewey, J. (2011). Democracy and education. Publishing.

Ford, D. Y., & Moore, J. L. (2013). Understanding and reversing underachievement, low achievement, and achievement gaps among high-ability African American males in urban school contexts. The Urban Review, 45(4), 399-415

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.) New York, NY: Vintage. (Original work published in 1975).

Museus, S. D., Ledesma, M. C., & Parker, T. L. (2015). Introduction. ASHE Higher Education Report, 42(1), 1–112.

Active Learning: Let’s DO This

Students from Prof. Rosales’s English 50 class engaging in a “text-mapping” activity

[Lecturing] is tradition. It was part of my training, and seems like what I should be doing. I feel somehow guilty when I am not lecturing

– One professor’s response when asked why he lectures (qtd. in Bonwell and Eison 7).

I’ll be the first to admit that when I first started teaching, this quotation above could have been from me. I spent years in classes and seminars with professors in their sharp-looking corduroy coats with patches on the elbows, who spent hours talking at us as we furiously scribbled down every third word. So, naturally, when I started teaching, I assumed I should do the same. Sure, I peppered in some group work and discussions, but mainly it was a “Here’s what I know, now listen and learn” type of class. 

FORTUNATELY, a few years into teaching, one of my colleagues staged a “lecture intervention” on me and introduced me to a variety of active learning techniques: some from reading apprenticeship workshops, and some from acceleration workshops, all of which were very exciting, but also a bit overwhelming at the time. These new strategies and techniques forced me to reassess how I thought about learning and what it should look like. Over time, and after much trial and error, these once unfamiliar and overwhelming techniques became the norm in my classes, and I found myself automatically planning for what students would DO in the classroom rather than just what they would learn.

The test of a good teacher…is, ‘Do you regard “learning” as a noun or a verb?’

qtd. in Bonwell and Eison 10

I think we can all agree that learning cannot be defined as a passive activity. Therefore, we cannot teach our classes using what Paulo Freire describes as the “banking” method of education: students are receptacles waiting for us to open up their brains and deposit knowledge. To illustrate this idea of passive learning to my students, I’ll often compare it to a scene in The Matrix. The classroom exchange usually goes something like this:

So, my friends, we are not passive learners. We cannot learn how to write in the same way Neo learns how to do kung fu in The Matrix. 

After noticing a large number of blank stares, I’ll realize that many of them were born after the release of this film, and I’ll further elaborate on this example (all while trying to hide my utter shock and disappointment). 

Well, what happens is a wire gets shoved into the back of Neo’s brain, information is uploaded and, voila! Neo awakens and confidently claims: “I know kung fu.” Nice. 

Unfortunately, our brains do not work that way. We cannot learn through osmosis and Apple has yet to release “iBrain” technology that uploads knowledge directly into our brains; I mean, we’re at least 5 years away from that…

So in the meantime, in order to help our students learn what we want them to learn in our classrooms, we must engage them in an active process that not only provides them with knowledge and skills, but allows them to practice this in relevant ways. Freire argues that it is not enough to just gain knowledge. We must also be able to collaborate with others to think critically about our world and how we can act upon it — essentially, how we can DO something with what we have learned. 

Thus, an active learning environment encourages this collaboration while also inviting a diversity of ideas through activities like small and full class discussions, presentations, and Socratic seminars. Cathy Davidson mentions that “structuring a way where everyone in the room has a voice and has an opportunity to register an idea, is by far the most effective way to avoid ‘group think.’” 

There are a variety of ways to create an active learning environment that I think will fit any number of learning and teaching styles, room limitations, class sizes, or other variables. I hope that throughout this month in this blog and later at our meeting on September 27, we will be able to share some of the strategies we are using to engage our students in the learning process. I also hope we can address any questions or concerns you may have about using active learning techniques in your classes. As you brainstorm some ideas and evaluate what you already do to create an active learning environment, keep in mind some general characteristics of an active learning classroom outlined by Bonwell and Eison:

  • Students are involved in more than listening
  • Less emphasis is placed on transmitting information and more on developing students’ skills.
  • Students are involved in higher-order thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation)
  • Students are engaged in activities (e.g. reading, discussing, writing)
  • Greater emphasis is placed on students’ exploration of their own attitudes and values
  • Anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing. (2)

If you haven’t read Cathy Davidson’s “Active Learning” blog post, check that out as soon as you can. It’s a quick read and will give you a general overview of what active learning is and how it can look in the classroom. If you’d like some additional resources, I also recommend the following texts:

Let’s start the discussion here! If you could, take a few moments to leave a comment (after the jump!) responding to any of the questions below. Feel free to add information and links to any resources, activities, and assignments you are currently using. 

  1. Can you share a story of a student’s success (or multiple student successes) after using active learning strategies? What was the strategy? Why do you think it worked so well?
  2. What is one of your own “go-to” active learning strategies you use in your classes? Why is this your “go-to”?
  3. What questions or concerns do you have about using active learning strategies in the classroom? 

Thanks so much to everyone who was able to come to our meeting last Friday! Below are the wonderful posters you all created. I’ve also linked the “Active Learning Strategies” handout I distributed that day and the Google slides for anyone who wasn’t able to make it.