Microlab for Exploring Tough Issues

Well-structured small-group discussion can help students discuss issues of the day that concern them.

One way to support young people (4th grade and older) in dealing with emotionally laden and controversial issues is to start with a small group experience called a "microlab." In a microlab, people gain understanding through speaking and listening. It is not a time for discussion or dialogue; rather each person has a short time (one to three minutes depending on students' age) to speak in response to a question. When a person is speaking, the others in the group - usually only two or three others - should listen only and not interrupt.

Here's how to do a microlab in the classroom.

1. Divide the class into groups of three or four using puzzle pieces, number cards, or by counting off.

Ask participants to arrange themselves in their small groups so that each person can easily see and hear everyone else in the group.

2. Before you begin, explain the guidelines for a microlab:

  • It's okay to pass if you need more time to think or would rather not respond.
  • This is a timed activity. I will let you know when it is time to move on to the next speaker. You will each have one [or two or three] minutes to speak.
  • Speak from your own point of view.
  • Be your own barometer - share as much as you feel comfortable sharing.
  • Confidentiality is important, especially when we come back together as a large group. We need to agree that what we share among ourselves in the small group will stay private.

3. Introduce your first microlab question.

(Use the questions below or create your own.) In introducing each question, it's usually helpful to say the question, then give some specifics about the question or model answering the question yourself, and then repeat the question again. This gives participants some time to think about what they would like to say. In between microlab questions, you may want to remind people to try not to interrupt or engage in dialogue.

Possible microlab questions:

1. What do you want to say about [the issue]? What's on your mind?

2. How are you feeling?

3. What would you like to do for our community or the world to address [the issue or problem]?

(Note that the initial questions allow for expression of feelings and concerns, but that the last question focuses on the positive.)

4. Reconvene the full group.

Ask students how the microlab was for them. Then ask for volunteers to share something they said or felt in their microlab. Remind participants of the need for confidentiality - each person should only speak from his or her experience.

This sharing may lead to a wider classroom discussion. If the issue is a volatile one, discussions can sometimes get heated. If you decide to open up the topic, it would be a good idea to establish some guidelines for discussion or "community practices" ahead of time.

You may want to end the session by having the students brainstorm about questions they have on the issue that would lead to gathering information and further study.