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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Strong Structures’ Are Needed for Effective Classroom Discussions

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 07, 2017 15 min read
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(This is the third post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question of the week is:

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

Part One featured 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.

In Part Two, Kara Pranikoff, Laura Robb, Sky Sweet, Tricia Ebarvia, and Patty O’Grady contributed their commentaries about facilitating classroom discussions.

This series will wrap-up today with suggestions from Tan Huynh, Kathy T. Glass, Sandi Novak, and Brett McLean.

Response From Tan Huynh

Tan Huynh is a Teach For America alumnus and the head of the English Language Acquisition Department at Vientiane International School, an International Baccalaureate World School. He shares his classroom-tested, research-supported strategies on his blog:

John Hattie’s seminal meta-analysis on practices that lead to achievement found that classroom discussion was one of the top ten instructional methods that lead to significant academic achievement (2009). But how can educators best lead a classroom discussion?

The answer: by not leading the discussion.

We need to engineer student interactions, not participate in them. We should provide the structure of a discussion, but let students talk the most to ensure that they’re doing most of the thinking.

The 3 pillars of a dynamic, student-led discussion are: a shared stimulus, student-generated questions and opinions, and talking routines.

Process a Shared Experience

A shared stimulus is any text, visual, or audio resource that students experience together. Traditionally, this meant reading a common text, but now it can also mean viewing the same video or image. Without a shared experience, students won’t be talking about the same topic, so the conversation will lack depth and connections.

For example, in my 10th grade English class unit on Heroes, we watched a video about a social enterprise (Thistle Farms) that helps women escape from trafficking, prostitution, violence, and drug addiction. As we watched the videos, I had students produce questions and make observations. Students asked,

  • “How did Becca Stevens [the founder of Thistle Farms] get the money to start the social enterprise?”
  • “What’s a ‘thistle’?” and
  • “Is trafficking the same as prostitution?”

Generate Questions

Students’ questions are explorations and invitations to collaborate. Teachers’ questions are mostly a check for understanding - a half-hearted attempt to arouse engagement. Student questions and opinions distinguish a student-lead discussion from a teacher-controlled one. We want students to produce their own questions because if they’re invested in finding an answer, they’ll be more attentive to responses and read the texts more closely.

Questions demonstrate the highest form of intelligence because in order to formulate a question, students first had to synthesize what they already knew and reflect on what they didn’t. They also had to be mindful of a gap in their understanding or a connection that’s missing. Unlike teachers, students will ask questions that they don’t already know the answer to.

Generate Opinions

Students’ opinions drive a discussion just like student-generated questions do. Strong opinions evoke fiery rebuttals, and students must work to defend a claim or gather sufficient research to launch a counter argument. This requires going back to the texts for further reading.

As students discussed the Thistle Farms video, one student said, “I think that it’s too late to help these women. If we want to help them, we have to start when they’re not trapped in the system.” His comment was followed by an angry protest from other students who tried to dismantle his opinion.

I have students write their questions and opinions on a sticky note or Padlet. When the excitement of one question fades, students return to the stock of sticky notes or Padlet entries to keep the conversation going.

The amount of questions that we go through isn’t important. The depth of their thinking and the strength of their connections are things we most value.

Incorporate A Talking Routine: Inner-Outer Circles

We want engaged, structured conversations, not ones full of personal attacks or rude interruptions. To ensure this, we have to establish talking routines such as Think-Pair-Share or Turn-and-Talk, but in this article. I’d like to share a routine called Harkness Discussion, which is often used in Ivy league institutions.

To accommodate for a large class of 30 students, I’ve modified the structure to be a Fishbowl Harkness. I have half face each other in an inner circle. They share their questions and opinions first. These participants are circled by the remaining students, each assigned to take notes on how one person in the inner circle contributes to the discussion. The inner circle talks while the outer circle observes so that everyone has a job during the discussion.

After a period of talking, students stop and invite the outer circle to share observations of their assigned person. They share how their assigned person formed connections between ideas, interrupted others, referenced to the text, or asked questions. This is a crucial step in the process because students learn how to participate in an engaged discussion without being rude or losing their temper. I allow the process to teach these life lessons.

After the discussion, students switch roles. They are assigned to the same person as before, but their roles have switched.

A Place at the Table

This process for student-led discussions was inspired by Phillips Exeter’s famous Harkness Discussion method, which Business Insider says makes learning at Exeter different than at any other private school. Indeed, another name for the Inner-Outer Circle Talking Routine is a Fishbowl Harkness Discussion.

But teachers don’t have to work at a highly selective, Ivy League-feeder school to have student-led discussions. All we need is to form a foundation that structures student talk around a shared experience driven by students’ questions and opinions.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Response From Kathy T. Glass

Kathy T. Glass, a former teacher, is a national consultant for K-12 audiences and an author of several books related to curriculum and instruction, unit and lesson design, differentiated instruction, literacy, and more. She is invested in increasing educators’ capacity to hone their craft so they translate what she teaches to effective classroom practice. Check out her website: www.kathyglassconsulting.com for a list of book titles and information about professional development:

Students participate in discussion for many purposes, such as to share key insights, respond to questions, brainstorm together, or get peer input. There are myriad ways to engage students in pairs, small groups, or the whole class formally and informally in discourse.

For a more formal and structured approach as a precursor to students autonomously leading their own fruitful discussions, teachers can lead an orchestrated reciprocal teaching sequence. In doing so, students are primed to delve into print or nonprint complex text to deepen their understanding. This strategy applies to content students read or from video excerpts, audio, or lectures. It can also be applied to nontraditional text, such as analyzing and discussing artwork, graphs, charts, or word problems as well as a woodshop project, baking product, demonstration of a sport maneuver, or musical score.

See the Reciprocal Teaching Student Sheet for Pairs or Small Groups that students can use as they lead their own discussion. Teachers should first model how to use the sheet with sample content so students are clear about the expectations. For a teacher-led session involving the whole class or a larger group, refer to the Reciprocal Teaching Resource Sheet for Teachers. (All figures are included in the same provided hyperlink.) Both situations require significant interaction among students and opportunities for them to take active listening and speaking roles in their quest toward meaning-making. These figures indicate printed text, so teachers can adapt them if nonprint material is the focus for an activity.

While this strategy fosters discussion, teachers may ask students to record highlights of their conversations by writing a reflection in their journals, submitting an exit card around key insights, or completing the Reciprocal Teaching Graphic Organizer.

Informally, teachers can conduct numerous activities any of which can be a springboard for a more thorough discussion. For example, students turn-and-talk with a partner or participate in a think-pair-share activity (or any variation of it). Another strategy is called snowball that begins when teachers pose a question or prompt. Students write their responses on a piece of paper including their names; they then toss them in the air and enjoy a “snowball” fight. When the teacher calls time, students pick up the nearest snowball. On it, they can write a comment, ask a clarifying question, add an idea, or make a revision. They can toss it again and repeat the exercise. Then students retrieve their original paper and partner with someone or form a trio to discuss the collective comments. To arrive at a more formal assessment, students then individually revise their original response to submit to the teacher.

Another strategy is called Give One, Get One. Teachers can share these directions to lead and manage this activity.

  1. Stand up and find a partner from across the room.
  2. When I say “give,” share with your partner ________ or a response to _____. (Teachers insert a prompt or question.)
  3. When I say “get,” your partner will share an idea with you.
  4. When I say “switch,” find another partner and share the same or a new idea.

Before beginning, teachers tell students that the one who is wearing the most red (or whose birthday is closest to New Years or has the shorter hair) will be the person who “gives.” The exercise can be repeated such that students find one or two more partners. Students can then discuss their insights as a whole class, such as: After you heard ideas from others, did your initial idea change, expand, or get clearer?

There are seemingly endless possibilities for engendering productive talk. These are just a handful of the many strategies teachers can incorporate into their lesson planning.

Response From Sandi Novak

Sandi Novak, an education consultant, has served as an assistant superintendent, principal, curriculum & professional development director, and teacher. She has authored three books: Deep Discourse: A Framework for Cultivating Student-Led Discussions (Solution Tree, 2016), Literacy Unleashed (ASCD, 2016), and Student-Led Discussions (ASCD, 2014). She also authored the On-line ASCD PD Course, Building a Schoolwide Independent Reading Culture:

When we think of ways to organize and lead classroom discussions, we should consider implementing a strong structure where students develop the skills to lead their own small group discussions. What does that structure entail? It means we must establish a classroom culture where student voice matters. We need to provide whole group, mini lessons that include content and communication learning targets, develop look for criteria that aligns with learning targets, ensure students read from a variety of text and allow time regularly for students to discuss in small groups comprised of four to six members.

Content and Communication Learning Targets

We want students to engage in deep academic discourse using rich content vocabulary and grade level language, rather than just talk; therefore, it is important to teach them how and provide many opportunities for them to practice. During a whole group, mini lesson, we introduce the strategy, skill or technique; model it; guide student practice; and talk about how to apply the strategy within their discussions.

It’s important that a mini lesson remains short and is focused on just one piece of content and one communication learning target. For example, the reading learning target in Ms. Yetzer’s first grade classroom was “I can list the similarities and differences of characters’ adventures in stories.” Then she also had a communication learning target of having students share their comparisons with a partner.

Text Matters

If we want all students to contribute during discussion, they need to bring information to the table. Sometimes students don’t read and share because they think someone else will talk and probably do it better. When students are given structured choice in reading different texts and have unique purposes for reading, they often take their responsibility seriously and contribute more than they otherwise would.

In Mr. Washington’s high school social studies class, students learn about food production. Students are motivated to read and talk with their peers because they are given choice in topics to research and share. Groups are formed based upon interest in the topics of: the history of food production, demands and challenges of agriculture worldwide, food and agriculture technologies, the impact of natural resource management, or the impact of climate and energy upon food production.

Schedule Time Regularly

Class periods in K-12 classrooms may range from thirty to ninety minutes. Allotting students time to apply the learning targets from the mini lesson is critical and requires adhering to a lesson structure with a mini lesson, discussion and closure. For students to improve their communication skills and become more self-directed with their discussions they need regularly scheduled opportunities to practice. One and done doesn’t work; and once a semester will lead to frustration rather than success. Students need bite-sized skills to work on during each discussion. Communication and collaboration are important skills that require lots of practice and students like it more when they can talk about content within small groups.

Students want to talk about important content with their peers. Let’s give them the opportunity to do so by providing support through explicit instruction and practice with student-led discussion in small groups.

Response From Brett McLean

Brett McLean was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. He attended Penn State University and graduated from Boston Teacher Residency program in 2013. He has been teaching 11th grade English in Boston Public Schools for the past 5 years:

Dr. Travis Bristol and I co-taught Foundation of Education to a group of novice teachers at Boston University School of Education. One aim of the second half of this year-long course was to support preservice teachers to develop tools that orchestrate whole group discussion.

During the course, Dr. Bristol and I met to plan intentional discussion strategies. Using intentional “Talk Moves” such as “Turn and Talk” and “Stop and Jot,” we modeled for students discussion strategies that they could use in their classroom. We explained our rationale behind each planned talk move. Transparency about when and why we used talk moves to benefit their learning as students and their participation was central to our instruction. An unplanned “Turn and Talk” takes place when there is a question that is organically generated and prompts an immediate classroom response from many students. It also allows students the opportunity to voice their ideas with an active audience and receive more immediate critical thinking feedback. However, planned talk moves are centered around student engagement in situations where the teacher has identified an area in the content for which student participation is integral, thus allowing students to take an active role in the education. The different talk moves and strategies we used have been found to benefit a variety of learners and engage students in different forms of participation.

Student assessments for the course included a five-minute video clip of students in the classroom implementing talk moves to facilitate discussions. Their written reflections required them to focus on their adjustments to practice, how they structure and craft their lesson, and what changes they would make if they were to do the lesson again. One sample response was, “I told the class that it would be a popcorn activity and that they would call on the next classmate to talk. This was good because we got to hear various student voices, and even some that we don’t typically hear. This also limited my voice as the authority in the classroom and gave power to each student’s voice.”

Through their own use of talk moves and discussion strategies at their residency schools, the BU grad students had the opportunity to experience how purposeful implementation of talk moves and discussion strategies allow their students to take ownership of the content and their learning.

Thanks to Tan, Kathy, Sandi and Brett for their contributions!

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