Managing classroom discussions can prove a tricky business. Ensuring that a group of young people can co-exist in relative harmony long enough to address the issue posed by the teacher, stay on topic, and do so with a high rate of engagement proves no small task. Because of the variety among students, subjects, and management skills, a teacher should fill his toolkit with a variety of techniques to successfully lead such discussions. The suggestions presented below represent a small sampling of available techniques, but have proved of great use to the author.
The most common difficulties in leading class discussions are the low rate of engagement and participation. Some of the techniques were specifically designed to address these issues.
Typical group discussions involve the teacher posing a question and calling on students to respond. In some cases, teachers will call upon students who do not volunteer. In either scenario, the greatest limitation to this method is that there is only one active participant at a time; others have little reason to pay attention.
Think-pair-share gives students time to ponder an answer before turning to a partner and sharing their thoughts. After a few moments, the teacher reconvenes the group and partners can contribute to a large group discussion.
Small Group Discussions
Small group discussions work along the lines of think-pair-share, but involve small groups debating a given topic. The instructor poses a question and groups of 3 or more students work collaboratively towards a response. The teacher may ask groups to share their thoughts. A variation on small group discussions is to assign roles. For example, each student in a group discussing the American Civil War may be asked to respond to a question from the perspective of either a slave owner, a slave, an abolitionist, or a religious figure.
A major difficulty presented by traditional class discussions is that only one person talks at a time. The use of hand signals encourages greater involvement by allowing students to respond silently to the speaker. For example, students may give a “thumbs up” to indicate they agree, cross their forearms to indicate they disagree, turn their “thumbs up” sideways to show uncertainty, or point an index finger up to show they have something to add. The teacher can encourage further discussion based upon signals, e.g., “John, I see you disagree with Marcia’s description. Can you share why?”
Cold calling uses a random system to determine which students answer questions posed by the teacher. A common example of this is seen in younger grades. The name of each student is written onto a popsicle stick and placed into a cup. After asking the class a question, the teacher randomly pulls a stick from the cup; the student named on the stick is expected to answer. Cold calling plays upon students’ fears of not having the right answer when called on; since contributors are chosen at random, students are far more likely to be attentive and engaged.
Reciprocal teaching is one of the most highly structured discussion techniques. During reciprocal teaching, students are divided into pairs. Teachers teach chunks of information, then the partners take turns teaching one another. The teacher circulates among pairs to monitor and assist understanding. This is most commonly used in teaching processes, such as those used in math and science, but has utility in teaching other subjects as well. An example would be an instructor teaching how to find a topic sentence in a paragraph, then having pairs of students take turns teaching one another how to find topic sentences in similar paragraphs.
Silent Discussions attempt to involve all students through written responses to teacher prompts. These written responses are shared with other students, who may respond, but only in writing. In some cases, teachers also respond to what students write – usually after class.
Showdown is a structured cooperative learning technique. Students are divided into small groups and given whiteboards and dry erase markers. Students are given a few moments to silently compose their answer in response to a teacher question. When the teacher says “Showdown!” students show the members of their group what they have written. They then have the opportunity to discuss their answers and correct misconceptions among groups members.
The preceding list of group discussion techniques is far from exhaustive. The list does, however, offer several alternatives to traditional teacher led discussions that typically involve few students. With a bit of experimentation and perhaps minor modification, a teacher should find a few successful group discussion techniques from the list above. The methods that prove most successful will depend greatly upon the individual who uses them, their preferences, and discussion objectives.