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The Teacher’s Role in Classroom Discussions: Fostering Student Talk and Classroom Dialogue – Part 5

By June 16, 2015 January 29th, 2018 No Comments

If we want students to speak and listen to one another effectively, we must, to put it diplomatically, stop filling the airwaves with teacher talk.

Thus, the most important part of a teacher’s role in fostering successful dialogue between students is to stay out of the discussion—or rather to work our way out of it as quickly and completely as possible.

Students will only start speaking and listening to each other when the teacher successfully breaks the typical “discussion” pattern of initiation-response-evaluation where the teacher asks a question, one student is chosen to respond, the teacher evaluates the response (right, good, not quite, that’s one idea…), then either asks for a different response or asks a new question. Nowhere in this pattern are students required to listen to, or interact with, one another—and yet this pattern dominates the interactions in most secondary classrooms and even passes for “discussion” in many educators’ minds.

Not contributing, not controlling, and not being the focus of class discussions might feel weird to some teachers. After all, isn’t it our role to interpret, guide, and inform?

Stepping out might seem like a lack of involvement or lack of leadership. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In addition to feeling weird, it’s also scary because we may not even want to think about the mayhem that could ensue if students are set free in this way. The key is to build the structures that can contain, guide, and self-support the process.

At Inquiry By Design, we’ve collected some simple DOs and DON’Ts to help you shift from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side in classroom discussions.


  • Carefully select the text and question for discussion. (Sometimes discussions fall flat because we have chosen a text that doesn’t invite much exploration or have asked a limited question.)
  • Make the magic circle. There is truly something magical about students in a circle (or two concentric circles) for discussion. They are all facing one another, out from behind their desks and there is no one standing at the “front.” This makes it easy for you to slip into the background. It can be a logistical challenge at first but quickly becomes a routine when practiced regularly.
  • Set discussion norms. Whether you use Inquiry By Design’s criteria for a good discussion, sentence stems, or create your own norms, post them and revisit them prior to each discussion. Use them to debrief and allow students to self evaluate and set goals based on the norms. For example: “One of our norms is to build ideas rather than pop-corning around. How did we do with that today? Based on our discussion today, which norm would we like to set as a goal/focus for our next discussion?”
  • Turn over control. Make it clear to students that this is their time to talk with each other and you will not be participating. They are responsible for the ideas and learning that will take place.
  • Remove yourself by assuming a different task or role. Track the discussion in one of the following ways:
    • Who has participated?
    • What ideas have surfaced?
    • Monitoring and noting observations based on the decided goal/focus.
  • Alert students when they have 3-5 minutes left.
  • Invite students who have not yet participated to join the discussion.


  • Answer the discussion question yourself! Whatever you say will become the “right” answer in students’ minds and then, poof, the discussion is over.
  • Praise students’ answers or do anything to guide them toward a specific response.
  • Control or contribute responses other than the occasional reminders to refer to the text or remind students to agree, disagree, or add to the ideas expressed.
  • Throw them straight into the deep end. Discussions should be preceded by several rounds of comprehension work, writing to think, small-group discussions, and revisits to the text. Students then come to group discussions primed with much to say.
  • Rescue students during periods of silence. Work hard to get comfortable and make it clear to students that it is their job to propel the discussion.



Research Matters: Classroom Discussions of Literature by Rick VanDeWeghe.

Talking Points: Discussion Activities in the Primary Classroom by Lyn Dawes.

Classroom Discussions by Dixie Lee Spiegel. (Access a free, online four-session study guide for teachers and teams.)

Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School by Matt Copeland.


Fostering Student Talk and Classroom Dialogue – Part 1

What Can We Do About Those Cliches?: Fostering Student Talk and Classroom Dialogue – Part 2

Talk Moves Create a Culture of Talk: Fostering Student Talk and Classroom Dialogue – Part 3

Enhancing Discussion Through Technology: Fostering Student Talk and Classroom Dialogue – Part 4

The Teacher’s Role in Classroom Discussions: Fostering Student Talk and Classroom Dialogue – Part 5