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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Effective Classroom Discussions Don’t Happen ‘Magically’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 04, 2017 25 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new question of the week is:

What are the best ways to organize and lead classroom discussions?

Handling classroom discussions can always be tricky. How do we ensure that they are not limited to the student who want to talk a lot? How can we best encourage everyone to participate? How can we avoid getting the conversation side-tracked?

This series will be exploring what a teacher can do to increase the odds of a classroom discussion being a learning experience for everyone.

Today’s post features responses from Rita Platt, Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD, Jackie Walsh, Doug Lemov, and Valentina Gonzalez. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Rita, Adeyemi, and Jackie on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Effective classroom discussions don’t happen magically. I’ve found the key to having a successful one is student preparation—including pre-reading and annotating texts, guiding reflection, providing sentence-starters, and beginning with small group conversation.

I’ve collected many specific related resources at The Best Resources Sharing The Best Practices For Fruitful Classroom Discussions.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a Nationally Board Certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate student. She currently is a Library Media Specialist for the St. Croix Falls School District in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, consults with local school districts, and writes for We Teach We Learn:

Students love to talk. Teachers, we can learn to harness this social drive and use it for English language arts and content learning. How? Through whole-class discussions. Below is the method that works for me.

Step 1:

Decide on a theme to discuss and develop an essential question to go with it. It is probably best to start with either slightly controversial topics or broad themes that appeal to the age group you teach. For example, when I taught 7th grade, I used the theme of justice because my students were much keyed into concepts of what they perceived to be “fair.” The essential question was, “What does it mean to be fair?” With a 4th grade group, I used the topic of animal rights. This was a topic of keen interest to my students. The essential questions were, “Do animals have rights?” and “Should those rights different than those enjoyed by human beings?”

Step 2:

Choose the texts that students will read (or watch) to learn about the topic and explore differing perspectives. In the best-case scenario, students will read a variety of texts in a number of formats all surrounding an essential question.

Step 3:

Once students have finished their reading, allow them a class period or two to prepare for the whole-class discussion. To scaffold students, I give them a list of questions related to the essential question to answer in writing. Students use all of the texts they had read to ponder the questions and write answers to them, including textual evidence.

Step 4:

Prepare for the discussion by doing three things.

  1. Set up a video recorder with audio, you will show the video to students later.
  2. Structure the room in such a way that all students can see each other, a circle of desks is best.
  3. Ask students to put their texts on their desks along with the answers to the questions they wrote.

Start the discussion by asking the essential question.

Here is where it can get tough for a teacher: DON’T TALK!

Let the students talk. The point is for them to develop independent discussion skills, right? The teacher’s role is to guide that learning.

As students talk, chart participation. This can be as simple as tallying the number of times each students speaks or as complex as mapping who speaks to whom. There may be some uncomfortable silences. There may be some interruptions. There may be some students who talk too much or who never talk at all. The conversation might flee from the topic.

That’s okay. Here’s why...

Step 5:

Have students watch the video recording of their discussion. As they watch, ask them to fill in two “T” charts. One labeled, “My Discussion Strengths/Needs” and one labeled, “The Class’ Discussion Strengths/Needs.”

Ask students to share their findings and use them to make a rubric or a checklist of what a good whole class discussion looks and sounds like. Sample rubrics/checklists are seen here, here, and here.

Have students write personal goals for their participation in the next discussion.

Some goals my students wrote were:

“I will talk at least three times.”

“I will try hard to include someone who isn’t talking.”

“I use refer to the page of the text I am talking about.”

“I will try not to interrupt.”

Step 6:

Repeat! Have students repeat the same discussion, video tape it again, and have students process their performance and the performance of the class as a whole using the “T” chart above and/or the class-created rubric.

For more information, read my post, Let’s Talk About it! Facilitating Whole-Class Discussions on We Teach We Learn.

Response From Adeyemi Stembridge

Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD, provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. Follow him on Twitter at @DrYemiS:

The capacity for organizing and leading discussions is a critically important teaching skillset—especially when it comes to designing learning experiences that are likely to engage our most vulnerable learners. The coordination of dynamic and engaging classroom discussions hinges on how well the teacher is able to garner momentum around “serve-and-return” exchanges that are evenly distributed amongst the students and not beholden to the input of the teacher in order to continue.

The best classroom discussions invite rigorous thinking in ways that don’t exclude students unfamiliar with the content and yet encourage them to want to learn more about the topics at hand. As teachers, our goal should be to facilitate discussion spaces in which students can draw on their lived experiences and identities in order to interpret, extend, and apply their emerging understandings of content.

Classroom discussions are especially engaging when they are developed as “thought-experiments.” A thought experiment is a teaching tool that employs the imagination in order to consider some hypothesis or theory relative to a concept(s) or principle(s) for the purpose of thinking through its consequences. The richest thought experiments require equal parts synthesis, analysis, and imagination. As students process the discussion topic in this way, they are simultaneously making sense of what they know and also expanding it further (even if only in hypothetical terms).

Great classroom discussions that build on the thought-experiment mental model are always a function of questions that students find especially interesting and relevant. A question frame can be as simple as “What would happen if...?” if it’s paired with some rich text (language-based, video or otherwise) that students can use as a starting point for their thinking. It’s often even better if the students themselves design the discussion questions. When students see and hear themselves in the questions, they are more likely to find connections that can inspire their affective and cognitive engagement.

After establishing a baseline premise(s) for the thought experiment, your goal is to facilitate your students’ extension of thinking to implications and reasonable future actions. You want to engineer momentum in the conversation through some variation of questions like:

  • What can we (or some character in the text) do next?
  • How would differing perspectives make sense of this?
  • What in this scenario do we think is true? Would that always be true?
  • What more do we need to know?
  • How is this connected to (some previously learned concept or a relevant circumstance from your students’ lived experiences)?

In order to re-energize or further guide the conversation into a certain direction, it is important to teach students the discipline of “transitions” which is critical for their serve-and-return capacity. I think of the ability to transition clearly and pointedly between ideas and arguments as an indication of rigor and cognitive engagement. I find it helpful, before the classroom discussion, to spend some planning time anticipating what ideas may be useful in transitioning from one part of the discussion to another. Having thought about the potential for the intersection of ideas, I find that I am better prepared during instruction to be responsive to my students’ thinking in more immediate and dynamic ways. It can be especially powerful for our most vulnerable students when a teacher helps to clarify a connection between their thinking and some significant concept or insight.

It’s also essential to incorporate think-time as part of the discussion. Orchestrate opportunities for students to quietly reflect during the discussion and have them compose an insight and an open-ended question. Use variations that allow for individual, paired, and small-group reasoning time. It’s vital to build in pauses and segments so that students can stay invested in the thinking. These can also include opportunities for students to research positions. Layer conversations so that they evolve as a series of listening and responding sessions, and develop protocols like sentence stems and note-catchers that compel students to build on the points made by their peers.

There are many models of course, that can be drawn from to support rich discussions including Socratic Seminars and Philosophical Chairs. You should experiment with different variations so that your students can become comfortable with the rules and procedures for each; but once a classroom discussion finds a rhythm, it gains potential to engage students in ways that are often difficult to predict. You’ll know you are successful when you can step back and allow the students full ownership of an inclusive and rigorous discussion. In these moments, the connection that students are experiencing within the learning community is invaluable.

Response From Jackie Walsh

Jackie A. Walsh, author and consultant based in Montgomery, Ala., focuses her work on questioning and discussion. With Beth Sattes, she has co-authored five books on questioning, including Quality Questioning, 2nd Edition (Corwin, 2017) and Questioning for Classroom Discussion (ASCD, 2016), which elaborates on the ideas presented in this blog. Follow Jackie @Question2Think:

Discussion: Preparation Pays Dividends

Productive classroom discussions don’t just happen. They result from teacher planning, and student and teacher preparation. A cycle of discussion, composed of five stages—Preparing, Opening, Sustaining, Closing, and Reflecting—serve as a framework teachers and students can use to plan and prepare for discussions that work.

As the five stages of the cycle suggest, discussion is a process and, as such, can be improved with practice and attention to associated skills and dispositions. Because both teachers and students are parties to a successful discussion, it is essential that teachers help students understand their roles and responsibilities and engage them in preparing for and reflecting on each discussion.

Preparing involves five key tasks. First, and of key importance, is the crafting of a focus question to drive the discussion—one that will activate deeper thinking about the content under study. A workable question for discussion is open-ended and invites students to commit to a point of view that emerges from the conflict, controversy, or cognitive dissonance embedded in the question. A discussion without such a question will fall flat, like a punctured balloon, lacking the fuel to keep afloat. Many teachers involve students in the generation of candidate questions for discussion. These teachers understand this practice not only promotes student ownership, but also provides them with valuable insights into the qualities of questions that engage. To gauge the quality of question, teachers can anticipate how students might respond. If there is but one response, chances are the discussion won’t go very far. If there are multiple positions, teachers can generate moves they might make to Sustain the discussion as it occurs.

Another critical task associated with productive discussion is identification of skills and dispositions important for the discussants—skills such as active listening, use of pauses for thinking, questioning to get behind one’s own and others’ assumptions, provision of evidence to support one’s position, and many others. When teachers are explicit about expectations related to speaking, listening, collaborating, thinking, and use of knowledge, student performance improves over time. Teachers who focus on skill development through discussion present these as learning targets during the Opening of a discussion and encourage students to self-assess and reflect on their own and classmates’ performance during the Reflection stage.

Because productive discussions engage students in thinking more deeply about content, it is essential that teachers carefully select a text, a topic for independent research, or another focused assignment for completion prior to the discussion. Without reliable information sources, students cannot engage in argumentative literacy. Absent a shared knowledge base, they cannot build on one another’s thinking or disagree in a respectful and well-reasoned manner. Discussions that are not grounded in knowledge quickly disintegrate into a sharing of ignorance. A common knowledge base enables students to Sustain their collaborative thinking with a minimum of teacher intervention.

Finally, preparation involves a teacher in deciding upon the structures for use in a given discussion. Will this be a teacher-guided whole class discussion? Or discussions occurring in small groups of 4-6 students who are using an appropriate protocol to ensure equitable participation and adherence to other guidelines? Or a student-guided fishbowl discussion during which some students discuss, while others actively listen to and observe to provide feedback? Or some other format? Discussion can occur in all of these forms. Crucial to successful discussion outcomes is teacher determination of the form that best meets students’ developmental level, requirements of the discipline, and the given instructional purpose.

Preparation optimizes chances that a discussion will yield the hoped-for outcomes—deeper understanding of content and increased skill in discussing. Research confirms that skillful discussions do increase student learning and achievement. Experience tells us that the process of skillful discussion is important not just to academic outcomes, but also to our students’ future success—in their careers, as family and community members, and as citizens in our democratic-republic. Time invested in preparation for skillful discussions is an investment in our nation’s future.

Response From Doug Lemov

Doug Lemov studies and writes about teachers. His books include Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College and Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Literacy Instruction. He’s a managing director at Uncommon Schools. You can find him on twitter at @Doug_Lemov:

For a long time I’ve had a strange reaction as I observe classrooms. I will be listening to what the teacher has described as a ‘discussion’ but I won’t recognize an activity that meets that definition in my eyes. It will sound to me more like a series of opinions expressed aloud in a series. Often the teacher will seem quite happy with the outcome; there will have been lots of participation and even strong feelings. That seems to be what a lot of teachers seek in discussion: lots of heartfelt talking, and I am often struck by how readily many teachers implicitly (or explicitly) equate ‘participation’ in a discussion with talking. Almost as often, they seem to give implicit bonus points for ardent opinions. Feel it strongly and say it out loud and you are contributing to a discussion. But there’s something missing in that model.

If speaking is the definition of participation in a discussion, it raises the important question of who is listening. Should we be content with a series of opinions spoken aloud into a room full of people silently rehearsing their own ardent opinions? “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand,” Stephen Covey wrote. “They listen with the intent to reply.” Isn’t the point of a discussion to hear ideas and consider them; perhaps to bring nuance or balance to your own perspective by considering the positions of others? Does that happen in most class discussions? Or are our kids out to ‘win’ the discussion by having been proven right all along? And does anyone else hear in the valorization of speaking far more than listening, a faint echo of our current political discourse in which polarized parties shout their sound bites at one another and rehearse their next point during the reply?

The Role of Writing

Discussions have some logistical challenges. The first as I have suggested is that talking, which is easy to measure and observe, does not imply listening, which is harder to gauge. Now wonder we implicitly prioritize the former over the latter. It’s easy to see so it becomes a form of de facto assessment: “You’ll be expected to participate at least five times throughout the marking period.”

I’d like to suggest that writing is a key to the solution here. In fact writing is the single most important tool for discussion—a statement that might sound counter intuitive. But writing is critical because it causes every person involved to answer a given question or wrestle with an idea. Just adding this piece allows me to give students another venue to share how they are engaging the discussion. They can write “Here’s what I was thinking...[while everyone else was talking].” Further, asking students to write also gives me another way to hold students accountable for engagement. The response you get that begins “Here’s what I was thinking...” might be quite good, which means that I don’t have to set up systems that encourage that student to speak just to prove they were involved. After all some kids probably need to speak up a little more in discussions. But some kids need to speak up a little less. Writing lets me manage the difference.

But the power of writing to shape discussion goes further. Because it is permanent, it can be a record of change over time. So imagine doing this: Pose a question for discussion. Ask every student to write an initial answer to the question. Now everyone is prepared. You can circulate and encourage some students to weigh in because what they wrote will further the discussion. That’s great for you and great to help them understand when their ideas are especially useful to share. But the real value comes after the discussion. Because I think the best post-discussion activity you can do is to say: “Now go back to your original response and revise it [or answer it again] based on the discussion we’ve just had.”

In doing that you’ve changed the purpose of discussion. Where once the implicit goal might have been to ‘win’ it—to be the person who was right all along, now your students’ goal is to find ideas they can use to develop and change their thinking. If the question was about evaluating Napoleon’s decision to attack at Waterloo perhaps they have additional information to cite. If the question was about social justice perhaps they can now use the perspective of someone else to revise their first thought. As they do so they create and make permanent for themselves and for you, the teacher, a record of that change.

In fact, if you wanted you could even double down on this post-discussion. You could say, “OK, before we wrap up I’d like to hear how some of you changed your opinions,” or “Which comments from your peers most influenced you?” This gives public praise to the comments that are most able to connect with and thereby influence the perspectives of others. I suspect it won’t usually be the shouters.

Your Writing Helps Too

Other problems posed by discussion can be addressed through writing. In this case your own writing. Consider the problem of remembering what others have said. Cognitive scientists often point out that we are all prisoners of short-term memory. We can keep precious little in our heads at any given time unless it’s committed to long-term memory which usually requires work that we can’t do during a discussion. So within a few seconds of engaging a thought we begin to forget it. Working to keep it in our working memory makes us unable to think and listen to other ideas. Even a great comment pointing out that, say, Napoleon was often as dismissive of his own officers and that to rely for information on people you scorn is a risky position for a leader, soon fades into the ether. First we forget who said it and their exact phrasing. Soon the idea itself has faded.

Unless you are charting, that is. Charting is writing down shorthand versions of key points on the board during discussion. This keeps them alive. I can glance at the board and recall the gist of what Chris or Christina said. Now I can refer back to it, build off of it, develop it. It may sound simplistic but one reason participants in a large discussion don’t build off of and refer to one another’s ideas is that they cannot remember them fully or retain it in short-term memory while thinking of their own idea. Charting helps overcome that and builds a strong incentive towards responding to and engaging the ideas of others in the room. Of course it’s great if students are charting too. Some of the best teachers I know at leading discussions always make sure students have place and time to take notes on what their peers have said.

Another useful tool for encouraging listening is Habits of Discussion, by the way, a technique I write about extensively in Teach Like a Champion 2.0 and so won’t go into in detail here. But it involves helping students to practice using phrases during discussion that help them build off one another, such as, “I’d like to develop Marcus’ point that...” or “I hear you Andrea, but I also think there’s another way to interpret that quote...” This is critical to giving them an alternative to seeing the world as my-way-or-the-highway. It’s a replacement behavior for arguing simplistically. If you read about Habits of Discussion you can also read about some very simple but important tools that encourage students to listen better during discussions: tracking the speaker and making sure their hands are down while others are speaking for example.

But here’s a final way that writing can help your discussions. Again, it’s simple but important. When you engage a discussion question, write the question on the board. This offers a constant and subtle reminder of the topic- our discussion is not just an opportunity to say any old thing we want to say about this chapter in “The Giver,” we are discussing whether Jonas’ father is morally culpable for his role in ‘releasing’ children. This allows us to stay on topic. If you get a comment that’s unproductively off topic you can simply point to the topic and say, “Thanks for that but let’s try to stay a bit more focused on this question.” Or you could steer the discussion in productive directions by saying something like: “remember the question hinges on the word ‘culpable,’” and perhaps then underline that word to help students focus on it for a sustained period of time. By keeping students focused on a focused collective purpose you send the message that we are working together to come to an understanding of an idea. We are not just all of us expressing ourselves. We are engaged in shared inquiry.

Response From Valentina Gonzalez

Valentina Gonzalez is a Professional Development Specialist for Elementary ESL. Her 20 years of teaching experience include teaching second, third, and fourth grades as well as serving K-5 as an ESL specialty teacher and district program facilitator. You can visit her blog at elementaryenglishlanguagelearners.weebly.com and connect with her on Twitter @ValentinaESL:

As teachers, sometimes we can feel that it’s our job to do the talking in class. The problem here is that those that verbalize are those that internalize. And don’t I want my students internalizing the information? Yes, of course! So they have to do the talking. But let’s face it. Releasing students to TALK in class is scary! Will they talk about the topic? Will they talk at all? Will it be too loud? In order for talk to be successful in the classroom, I find these FIVE tenets to be necessary.

Physical space is important. Arrange desks and chairs in a form that fosters conversation and community. If chairs and desks are all around willy-nilly, then conversation will follow suit. Think about the way we have dinner with family. We pass the bread and share in discussion. We sit AROUND a table, not here and there in a room. Now imagine a party where everyone is standing around in different areas of the room with their drinks and dinner plates in hand. The conversation is quite different. Small conversations are taking place between groups of people and some are left out completely. In a classroom setting, when we are all facing one another, a sense of community is created and everyone is equal. No one is at the back of the room hiding.

Model. Students of all ages need to see what we expect of them during class discussion. Our job is to set them up for success. Classroom discussion may look different in my room than in your room, so it’s important to model for the class exactly what the discussion will look like. I used to model with my co-teacher. She and I would pretend we were the students and do a mock discussion in front of the class. Another way to model is a “fish bowl”. By taking a few students and using them as examples, you can demonstrate what the discussion will look and sound like for the rest of the class. I have found that I have to tell students that one person will talk while the others listen, look at the speaker and nod their head to show understanding. It seems obvious, but to kids who may rarely have academic discussions, this is a learning experience and the explicit instructions are necessary.

Provide sentence stems and starters but don’t require them. Stems and starters are scaffolds for students who need them. Post and share them with all the students. Model how to use them. But when it’s time for conversation, don’t require the use of them. If students don’t need the stem or frame, then we have done our job...release the scaffold. Scaffolds are not meant to be used forever. We should celebrate when students no longer need the support.

Give ample wait time. Whether the classroom discussion is whole group or in smaller groups, I have to remember to give students wait time between questions. Sometimes it feels awkward but it always works. Wait time has been tested and proven to increase student responses. Waiting an extra 3-7 seconds helps students process their thinking and helps some become brave enough to answer. Other students may be translating language, processing and becoming brave enough to answer. That’s a lot of work and deserves extra wait time!

Let the students do the talking. Those who talk are the ones who learn. In the beginning stages of classroom discussion, you may find yourself guiding students. Setting up and modeling classroom discussion takes time. However, we want to release the talk and responsibility and allow students to lead the discussion. As teachers, we become facilitators. Our job is to become unnecessary. It’s a good idea to let students know that they will be talking to their group not you. In the beginning, you may notice that as they talk, they will look at you. Step aside, out of the circle of talk. Remind them to talk with their discussion group. Generally, they are looking for your approval.

Classroom discussions can be rich in thought, but they take practice so don’t give up. Like with any instructional strategy we try, there is an implementation dip. Work through the dip. You may feel like you aren’t making progress. Stick with it and when students begin creating the questions themselves that’s when you know they are really taking the learning to the next level and critically thinking.

Thanks to Rita, Adeyemi, Jackie, Doug and Valentina for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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Look for Part Two in a few days..

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