By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
I’ve always been amazed by good discussion leaders.
You know, the sorts of people who can ask just the right questions at just the right times to just the right people in order to evoke participation from an entire room.
Maybe it’s just because I don’t have much time to practice leading discussions. Despite what you might imagine, we don’t have much time for discussion in my English classes – we’ve got too much writing to do! It might be a different story if I taught literature, but my classes are pretty much focused on research and composition.
Now, my faculty development classes generally offer more room for discussion. Though, since I’ve never seen myself as much of a discussion leader, I tend to shy away from them in favor of other instructional strategies.
Recently, though, I decided it was about time to start thinking about working towards getting better at leading discussions, so I did what any bookish introvert would do: I started reading.
Now, this post isn’t going to provide an in-depth literature review of my research on classroom discussions. Instead, I’m going to give you a quick overview of two of the sources I have perused and then share a guide that I created for myself as a tool for leading better classroom discussions.
Source #1: Strategically Organic: One U.S. History Teacher’s Experience with Class Discussion
This article by Sullivan, Schewe, Juckett, and Stevens was published in the Summer 2015 issue of Social Studies Research and Practice (volume 10, no. 2). The authors offer a look at one case study involving U.S. History teacher Ms. Reynolds (a pseudonym) and her success with implementing discussions in her 11th grade classroom. Ms. Reynolds was identified in a previous quantitative study as an instructor who elicits “substantive conversation” from students, and so she was chosen for this case study in order to identify the strategies she employs in order to get the results she does.
From reading the observations of the researchers and the testimony of Ms. Reynolds herself, the biggest thing I learned from this article is that effective discussions are strategically planned without being rigidly structured. This is emphasized in the way that Ms. Reynolds describes her planning process:
I am going to give them this information. Then I would like them to discuss X, Y, and Z, and I want to help them get there and I want to make sure I call on particular students in particular ways.
Another important factor highlighted by the case study was building a classroom environment conducive to discussion. From early on in the school year, the instructor established ground rules, built relationships with students, and balanced lesson time with a good share of student- and teacher-centered learning. When students are comfortable talking about anything with the instructor, they’ll be more comfortable participating in a classroom discussion.
Source #2: Conversational Moves
In this article from Educational Leadership, authors Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey explore the “moves” that are necessary to good discussion – from both the teacher and the students. They focus their analysis on a 3-minute video clip of 4th grade teacher Melissa Noble leading a discussion about a close reading of a text. Taking note of how deliberately the students in the video use various conversational structures, the authors note that “such discussions don’t just happen; they are the product of intentional teaching and practice”. One particularly helpful piece of advice from the authors is to give students a chance to practice discussion on a non-academic topic that they are easily able to contribute to.
I found it very helpful to think of discussion skills as “moves”. Moves can be practiced. They can be improved. The term used by the authors reminded me of standard plays in baseball. Every players learns how to react to a fly ball, defend against a steal, hit a sacrifice bunt, and so on. Most of these plays are pretty obvious once you know them, but if you’re never introduced to them and given time to practice, you might find yourself paralyzed once your on the field.
Conversational moves are the same way. It’s obvious how beneficial it is to summarize someone’s point before you explain why you disagree. Of course you should provide evidence to support your opinions and ask clarifying questions when you don’t understand. But if you’ve never been introduced to these moves, or given time to work on them, then when you get into an actual discussion in a room full of other people, it’s really easy to fade into the background.
My Discussion Planner
Based on my reading of these two articles, I’ve created this planning document to help me take the first steps towards better discussion. The first page is meant to aid the instructor in planning a meaningful discussion with clear objectives and a vision of how the discussion will unfold. The second page is a handout for students (with two copies per page). It lists the most common discussion moves they will need to use and some prompts to help make using them easier.
As suggested by Fisher and Frey, I would give students the handout at sometime early in the semester and practice a brief discussion based on a non-academic topic that they can relate to. Maybe something like “Should college education be free?” During this practice discussion, I’d make a point to constantly refer students back to their moves in order to ensure a conversation rather than a free-for-all.
Feel free to share your own sources related to classroom discussions in the comments. And if you happen to give my Discussion Planner a try, leave a comment to let us know how it worked out.