Frequently Asked Questions About Holding Class Discussions

Socratic seminars. Fishbowl discussions. Harkness method. Jigsaw. There are many wonderful structures and strategies for facilitating classroom discussions which deepen student learning about a text or topic, while also developing vital communications abilities: a true life skill. 

However, I know that when I was a new teacher, I found class discussions challenging at best, and painfully awkward at worst. So, here are some questions many teachers struggle with, along with some answers I have come to through lots of trial and error, and plenty of practice.

Any time! Whether studying literature or analyzing persuasive language, having students engage with each other in small groups to share and deepen their knowledge, while also developing critical communication skills, is just solid practice. Moreover, especially when working with teenagers, student-led discussions encourage them to take responsibility for their own learning, and help them to learn how to work well with others. Personally, I step back and have students run discussions almost every 2 or 3 classes. The more they do it, the better they will become.

There is no one-way to do this; it will completely depend on your class size, dynamics, objective, and more. It could be the whole class sitting in a circleand all discussing. It could also be a fishbowl discussion, with an inner circle having the discussion while the outer circle observes (read more about Fishbowl discussions here). It could be multiple smaller groups each having their own discussions at the same time. You want to vary your types of discussions to keep students engaged, and on their toes. You know teenagers: do any one thing too often and they get bored! 

However, two key things I have learnt through practice: 
  1. Stay out of the discussion as much as possible to really let students muddle through on their own; while I may interject occasionally, I really try to do so as little as possible to force students to take responsibility for their own discussions. 
  2. Discourage students from raising their hands; while this can be a challenge at first, it does break away from teacher-led formats, and it teaches them to be assertive, mindful of others, and collaborative.

Preparation is key. While it is great to have informal, on-the-spot discussions, this really favors the engage, confident, assertive students; it can be highly challenging for the quieter, more reluctant members of the class. If you want students to engage and lead the discussions, you must let them prepare thoroughly first. 

  • Let them pick the topic themselves. I often put students into small groups and have them decide what might be an interesting question for discussion around a text. The mere process of deciding is valuable as they explore the text/topic being studied, and assess the validity of essential questions. To scaffold this process, you can give them a list of possible questions to select from. 
  • Have students write questions. Before the class discussion, I will assign homework for students to work together to come up with a list of about 10 essential questions they will discuss. This also teaches them how to write good open-ended questions, and I stipulate that I want a range of types: clarification, analysis, comparison, opinion-based, etc. This works beautifully in Google Docs, as students work together on the same document to write, critique, refine, and agree upon their set of questions. It also allows me to see if they all truly participated! 

Teenagers are awkward. We get that. If you are going to hold formal discussions in the classroom, you may well encounter everything from students feeling self-conscious and barely speaking, to students dominating and oversharing. That’s ok. It is all part of the learning process. However, you need to be prepared to sit back, outside of the discussion, and let them battle through: embrace the silence. The more that they practice, the more natural and easy it becomes. *In terms of balancing out participation, see my recommendation below, for the app Equity Maps. 

Check out these DISCUSSION GOAL CARDS to help give students tangible goals to focus on during the discussion! 

Just last week I put students into groups to prepare a discussion on Shakespeare’s Othello. While I busied myself in the background, they chatted about what topic they would like to pick. My teacher heart was overflowing with pride: critical thinking was on full display as they tossed around ideas, assessed the validity of topics, listened attentively to each other, backed up their opinions with textual evidence, and thoughtfully included even the quietest of members. I was thrilled, and really excited for the ‘real thing.’ 

The next day, I sat back, eagerly anticipating more of their rich dialogue and collaborative sharing. Yet, that’s not what I got. Instead, I was greeted with stilted conversation, forced interest, self-conscious interjections, and little evidence of the depth of which I knew they were capable. The difference? Grading. 

The quickest way to make a discussion inauthentic, static, and forced, is to grade students. I am not advocating that we don’t do it - it is an important process - but we need do so many ungraded discussions formatively, that it takes away the performance anxiety and fear around the ‘formal’ discussion. I only have a graded discussion perhaps twice a term, yet we hold student-led discussions almost every week. 

Often for the quieter students it is not a case of not having something valuable to say, but it is often a case of not being able to find space, feeling too shy, or not knowing how to jump in. For this, I have a couple of tips: 
  • Give all students incentives: I have students sit with 5 chocolates in front of them (my favorite: Cadbury’s Mini-Eggs) and encourage them that each time they contribute, they get to eat a treat. This not only incentives participation, but it also gives them a clear goal, and a great way to monitor their interactions. 
  • Have students write alist of possible questions beforehand, and have this in front of them. This way, even if they struggle to think on their feet, or struggle to voice their opinions, they still have something with which they can enter in. 
  • Half way through the discussion, get up and “press pause” on the discussion. For a couple of minutes let students collect their thoughts and jot down some notes, then for the following few minutes let only those who have not had a chance to speak yet, do so.
  • Use these FREE opinion signs to have students engage visibly. This way, they are forced into coming up with an opinion, indicate it to the whole group, and then other students can ask them why they agree or disagree. 
  • Remind students of all the possible ways to engage. Participation should not just be through giving opinions: it could be through asking for clarification, validating a peer’s contribution, signalling agreement or disagreement, asking for evidence to deepen someone else’s thinking etc. 
For more tips on how to encourage participation, check out Room 213’s great blog post on the topic. She has a wealth of experience with class discussions, and some simple, easy-to-implement ideas! 

Having students reflect on their growth and learning is a vital part of any educational experience (read more here). The same is true for discussions: after any class discussion, encourage students to self-reflect, and assess their own participation. Simple bell-ringers work well here. Nothing fancy: I just pick an appropriate one, write it on the board, and have students write down an answer in the last few minutes of class: 
  • In what way are you proud of your participation? 
  • Which area do you need to grow? 
  • How can you improve next time? 
  • What is one think you will focus on next time? 
  • Who do you think displayed good facilitation skills in today’s discussion, and how?

As mentioned earlier, I rely heavily on Google Docs for students' collaboration and preparation. However, another app which I use regularly is Equity Maps: with this app, you can record the whole discussion, visually map the conversation, and collect all kinds of data: seeing the gender dynamics; timing students’ contributions; and seeing how balanced the discussion is. There is a feature which even assesses the group on how even the participation was (green for highly balanced and fair, blue for high levels of equality, yellow for medium etc.); my students now see this almost as a goal or game to aim for, and they are so proud of themselves when they reach Green status! 

If you have anymore questions about facilitating meaningful discussions in the classroom, feel free to post them below. In the meantime, check out these incredible blog posts and resources: 

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