“It’s all in the wrist,” golfers say. Or is it pitchers? Maybe I’m thinking of ping pong. At any rate, there comes a point when working out how to improve discussion in your classroom means fine-tuning some intricate details.
Since there’s a bit of personal preference involved, maybe a better analogy is when you go to the eye doctor and have to look through all of the different lenses. Which looks better to you, one or two? One, or two? Okay, now which looks better to you, two or three? In the end, “good discussions” will look a little different from one group of students to the next, so the following questions are intended simply to open up different factors that may or may not be at work in your classroom.
- How are your students’ relationships with each other? With you?
Classroom chemistry was always, to me, one of the most important and difficult things to try to manage. I always felt that if there was a general spirit of good will within the classroom, we could accomplish nearly anything. This starts with the teacher. Not all of us have the perpetually sunny disposition of that other teacher down the hall (how does she do that?), but our students need to feel that we like and respect them.
They also need to feel that they can rely on you to help maintain classroom norms of respect and fair treatment. If you have a student who regularly tries to needle his or her classmates, or who crosses boundaries, insults others, or otherwise makes people really uncomfortable, students need to feel that you are united with them against that kind of behavior, and whatever management strategy you use in your class, it needs to work more often than not.
This can be extremely difficult, and many times the needs can be so specific that reaching out to someone in your building for help in coming up with ideas may be the best approach. That said, if you are using our work and want to bounce some ideas off of us, we welcome the opportunity!
- Are you taking over the discussion for them?
Some classes naturally gravitate toward discussion and would be happy to run every class themselves as long as they are given a good topic. Other classes, though, are perfectly content to watch you stand up at the front of the room like Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off calling out “Anyone? Anyone?” and filling in the blanks.
Stop filling in the blanks.
Silence is uncomfortable and that is okay. You can even tell your students to expect periods of quiet and that you will let them fill those silences when they are ready. If we are serious about “No fake work,” then we have to be serious about not having fake discussions, where we slowly offer tidbit after tidbit to the class and basically ask students to confirm what we have said.
Here are some alternatives that allow you to keep the conversation open-ended and student-centered:
- Direct students back to the notes they have taken on the text or from their group discussions. “Take a moment to look over your notes and anything you might have marked in the reading. Is there anything that hasn’t been brought up yet?”
- Invite students to push back on some of the ideas that have already been brought up. “We’ve had a lot of conversation about X so far. Is there another explanation for it? Is it possible to think of it in a different way?”
- Outside of discussion, have your students set goals for themselves based on their personal tendencies. Does the conversation dominator need to practice inviting other people into the discussion? Does the quiet kid need to try to make at least one contribution? Does the contrarian need to help build on someone else’s idea in a positive way before offering his or her own? At Inquiry By Design, we often like to use The Seven Norms of Collaboration as goal-setting tools.
- If students are at an absolute loss of what to do or how to respond, have them take a moment to talk it over in pairs or threes. I have seen a class that had been sitting in silence for three solid minutes (an eternity!) erupt into productive, text-based conversation the moment this was offered. When the social stakes were lowered, they felt they could try out their ideas one more time before bringing them back to the whole group.
- Does the discussion actually matter, or do students feel like it’s a waste of time?This may be the hardest one for me to pin down, because it’s connected to every other bit of work a teacher does in the classroom. Do students see the connection between the quality of their discussions and the quality of the work they produce afterward? Do they have opportunities to reflect on this? Are they getting the full “closing meeting” experience that helps clarify and solidify the takeaways? Are they taking notes on what has been discussed so they can use them later?Some teachers create discussion grading systems for the one or two main interpretive circles in a unit; others never feel the need to grade the discussion and only grade the final products. Personally, I have seen both work successfully, as long as the students ultimately make the connection between talking and thinking and learning.
At the end of the day, students get better at discussing things by continuing to discuss things. Like everything else in education, students need many opportunities to try, to fail, to reflect, and to try again. Be mindful of the many facets involved in classroom discussions, but ultimately, be full of grace for yourself and your students. If you try to work on every aspect at once, you will exhaust yourself and never start another discussion again. Trust that your students will “get there” over time, and keep pressing toward the goal.