discussion-based classroom

Time and time again, my students tell me that our class discussions are the best part of class. That makes sense. I know that discussions with friends, family, students, colleagues, and strangers teach me more than most other learning opportunities. After all, usually the person talking is the person learning. But, to be purposeful, rather than tangential, discussion must use tested strategies.

Discussion usually focuses on issues related to what needs to be learned (was using the atom bomb a good decision?) or readings you've given the class.

Start with the individual.

Because giving students time to collect their thoughts creates fertile soil for discussion, give students an opportunity to first reflect on the topic on their own. I provide 7 minutes of journaling. My standard prompts include the following.

What quote from the text was most significant to you and why?

Which person in the text do you most admire (or despise) and why?

What personal connection can you make to the text?

Do you agree or disagree with the author's claim?

Move to the small group.

Let the students test and work through their ideas in a setting of 2-4 students before taking the leap of sharing with the entire class. A veteran teacher once told me that if you can get a student to speak once, that student will be more likely to speak again.

Begin discussion as a whole class community.

How you do this is dependent on the eavesdropping you did during their small group discussions. If you heard lots of talking full of passion and excitement, open up the discussion to anyone. Most often, though, I ask each small group to decide what they want to say to the whole group and who will say it. Everyone needs a chance to be heard, and multiple perspectives must be shared. As each group shares, the organic whole group discussion can grow from the seeds planted.

As Discussion Grows

1. Thank each student for sharing. Acknowledge the courage behind that act.

2. Ask for new or contrasting perspectives. Remind students that we must listen to all sides of an issue if we want to truly understand it.

3. Remind students of society's need for civil discourse and acknowledge their efforts with that. This does not mean we avoid conflict. We just do it civilly.

4.If a student needs to go deeper with his/her claim, say "because..." so that more must be said, or keep asking why.

5. Ask for evidence, whether than be textual or anecdotal.

6. Be flexible, but keep the ultimate objective in mind. Let the students go where they need to go in their learning, but always bring the conversation back to your objective by the end.

7. Provide closure. You can provide closing comments, students can share their five greatest takeaways, or students can write their thoughts.

Agreements

Everyone's job is not just to contribute but to draw contributions out of others.

Listen to diverse perspectives.

Provide evidence to support your claims.

One Student's Manifesto on Classroom Discussion

School is absolutely abysmal at teaching students how to think. In order to become a truly intelligent person, one must question everything. People must be critical of everything they hear, and they must be critical of their own thoughts. People must temper their ideas in the same way wrought iron is tempered into steel. Throw it into a furnace.

Students are not taught how to reason. They are not taught how to understand nuance. They are not taught how to debate. They are not taught how to be critical of themselves or others. In fact, schools DISCOURAGE intellectual conflict. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been in school, a debate started, and the teacher quickly put an end to it out of fear that people would get their feelings hurt because someone dared to question them.

Here’s what I’m saying. People generally are far too protective of their views. They are not taught how to have mature discussions, and they are not taught how to maturely criticize or how to take criticism. This has made classrooms full of defensive, uncritical people who are horrified to step on anyone’s toes for fear of verbal attack. This fear of discussion is the kiss of death for any civilization, and it must be changed. Schools should be places where debate can flourish. Instead they are places where disagreement is feared and quashed wherever it pops up.

Brian Hughes, Roosevelt High School 2019