I want to have a classroom discussion, but where do I start?


Any Google search about classroom discussion strategies will yield a wealth of resources. However, the core principles of facilitating a discussion are often overlooked: asking a really good question and setting useful discussion expectations for our students. No matter if we use Socratic seminar, the fishbowl, sticky notes, or a comments thread, if we ignore these two principles, we will almost always fall short of the expectations we set for our class.

So, how do I ask a really good question? That in itself is a great question! For the purpose of discussion, the best questions are the “gray area” questions. Gray area can be defined as “an ill-defined situation or field not readily conforming to a category or to an existing set of rules.” In short, there is no right answer; it is not black and white. Great discussions live in the gray areas. Great literature also lives in the gray areas. And History is most certainly filled with gray areas.

Prior to facilitating a discussion, compose a list of potential questions you want your students to explore. Then, ask yourself these two questions:

  • Is there a clear answer, supported by evidence, to my question? If the answer is no, then your students will have a variety of answers.
  • Could I argue multiple sides of the question? If the answer is yes, then so can your students!

When you have your gray area questions, you can feel confident that your students will have something to say and something to say to each other.

Now that you have great questions, it is essential to establish expectations for discussion. The first expectation is that a student should respond to the previous speaker. Students tend to talk to the teacher during discussion, which establishes the teacher as the gatekeeper of ideas. By requiring students to respond to each other, the teacher can effectively take a back seat and only interject when needed. The second expectation is that discussion comments should be supported with evidence. Discussions can easily get sidetracked or turn sour when everything is an opinion. Think of talking politics at the dinner table. By expecting students to cite evidence to support their opinion, they remain engaged with the text and avoid making comments too personal.

These two expectations encourage students to develop the two hardest skills when engaging in a conversation centered on a debatable, gray area question. The expectations hone students speaking skills, critical thinking skills, and their ability to cite evidence from the text to support arguments. Just like any classroom procedure or rule, these expectations will take practice, time, and a lot of patience. In the beginning of the year, we spend a lot of time practicing and reinforcing procedures to ensure a well-run, streamlined classroom for the rest of the year. Discussion expectations and procedures are no different.

Click on the link below for discussion resources and let’s start talking!

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