Speaking of Discussion

by Harmony Button

If you tend to slip into the same old discussion strategies every day, check out the following ways to shake up your classroom dynamics:

The Thinking: 

We know that students are creatures of habit — just like we are.  It shouldn’t be surprising to us that if a classroom establishes a certain participation dynamic (say, the same three or four people do most of the talking), then it can be difficult to change that dynamic without also changing the conditions under which the habit was set (which is often your go-to teaching practice).  It can be shocking to see how quickly these dynamics of participation can be established — and how quickly others feel expected to norm to them. The good news is that you can re-align the participation dynamics of your classrooms through reflection and awareness (asking students to track and measure their levels of participation) or by upsetting the current norms with a variety of alternative discussion techniques.

But what if there are students who aren’t verbal contributors? How is it more fair to force them to speak? Not all students are naturally extroverted — should we force all students to speak up in the same ways?

Absolutely not. But unless we vary our discussion practices, we’re teaching our students that there is only one “good” way to participate: by verbalizing your thoughts, on the spot, in front of a big group.  And while we want all our students to feel safe and confident enough to participate in this way, there are many other very valid ways to be dynamically engaged and interactive inside a discussion setting.

The Application: 

Frequently, a teacher’s default for “discussion” is to gather a whole class’ attention (eyes on you), ask a question, and then call on raised hands for answers, shaping and guiding the discussion with your own comments as you go.  The teacher-centered discussion is by far the most common form of discussion I see happening around our school. And it can be a very effective form of teaching. But it’s not the only form of discussion, by a long shot. Check out some of these ideas for alternative discussion formats.

Socrative: a free online teaching tool that provides a specific amount of time for students to respond to a question that you write.  This is an excellent way to hear from everybody in the classroom, not just those who raise hands. You can also choose whether you want your responses to be anonymous, or have names attached.

Chalk Talk: a silent, low-tech version of discussion that allows students to respond to others’ comments on a white board or other communal text.

Socratic Seminars or other student-run discussion formats: these types of discussions teach students to analyze the architecture of a conversation, and will help students to learn to self-validate, instead of immediately looking to the teacher for cues (a great growth-mindset building technique!).

Collaborize Classroom: online free platform to host inquiry-based discussions. You can create your own or browse the options already created.

And of course, you can punctuate your traditional discussion strategies with various activities that ask students to engage and express themselves in different ways: the pair-share, the minute-paper, a jigsaw project, a round of QFT, a thought experiment, or a metacognitive moment (my favorite is the “why are we doing this?” question).

The Habit:

The goal of a discussion is not to iron out air time to the point where everyone must speak the same amounts, nor is the goal to motivate students through fear by always cold-calling or pulling names from a randomizing source (a deck, popsicle sticks, what-have-you).  Not that pulling names or cold-calling are bad practices — but if your verbal participation in the classroom is imbalanced, you might want to think about ways that you can moderate the air-time without silencing anyone or demanding attention with the threat of being put on the spot.

The best advice I seem to find out there (and that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in classrooms in at Waterford) is just to make variety part of your practice: try new things, reflect on how they went, and include your students in the meta-conversations about habits of participation, distribution of air-time, and how various forms of discussion play to different people’s strengths and preferences.

Do you have any other discussion practices or protocols that you use? How do you shake up classroom dynamics and invite various forms of participation?

Happy teaching,

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