Ask Reading Kingdom: What are some teaching strategies to help increase discussions in the classroom?

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This a wonderful topic which does not receive the attention it merits. It is also not a simple question since its answer requires major changes in the current model of classroom talk.

Amazing as it may seem, classroom discussions have not changed much since mass education began. When compulsory education started, supplies were minimal. Often there was only one book to a class. So teachers, in order to assess whether students were retaining the material, would ask questions about its contents that basically required memory (e.g., “how was apple spelled?”)  As the example illustrates, although words and sentences are used, this is not really a discussion. Rather it is a memory-based set of test questions. Unfortunately, this pattern has continued till now. This is not surprising. Once a system is in place, it tends to perpetuate itself-even when it is no longer appropriate or useful.

The questions will vary across content areas so that in math it might be “how much is 2 +2?,” in reading it might be, “what is the silent e rule?” and in history, it might be “who was the first president of the United States?” But all are questions requiring memory and therefore they are essentially tests of what the children already know. For children who do know, they are happy to answer and receive praise from the teacher; for children who do not know, they are miserable and try to sink under their seats, while praying that the teacher will not call on them. For all, it is anything but a productive discussion.

Changing this pattern is an essential first step in moving towards effective discussions. For any topic, at the outset, students need to be offered the information they need before beginning the discussion. One cannot have a discussion without a core of knowledge on which to base one’s comments. With modern hi-tech devices, this can be done in a variety of ways. For example, prior to a discussion on the Civil War, segments of videos related to the war (e.g. the states that were involved, the armies that fought, the medical treatment offered to wounded soldiers, etc.) can be shown. That way, all students start out with a shared knowledge base.

Then instead of asking question after question, teachers should be trained in learning how to run a group discussion so that students can feel free to raise ideas without having to be “called on.” Children can easily become adept at the self-controlled turn taking that discussions entail. It does require that some ground rules for civility be set up, but when done well, it sets the stage for exciting discussions.

One teacher described the following exercise that took place in a computer science class. First, the students were given time to write instructions that an imaginary robot could understand to draw a recognizable picture, like a corporate logo, without telling students what will happen later.  Then each student was assigned to a randomly-chosen classmate, with the classmate pretending to be the robot, attempting to follow the instructions and draw the same logo.

After a few minutes, one of the students was called upon to share their results with the class then ask their partner to share the initial instructions.  This gave students a chance to communicate freely with each other (e.g., including saying things like That’s not what I meant!). The atmosphere lent itself to a discussion filled with camaraderie that simultaneously taught valuable concepts about the difficulty and importance of writing clear instructions.  

Techniques in this area of discourse are well-developed but generally not used in classrooms. In this new set-up, it would be important for teachers to know how to guide the discussion and summarize key points. They also must be willing and able to critique, in a non-judgmental manner, the ideas being raised. That is far from the pattern that currently exists.

In general, teachers are trained to not tell a student that he or she is “wrong” on the well-intentioned grounds that this will damage a student’s self-esteem. On the other hand, they feel they cannot leave the incorrect information on the table. In contrast to the computer discussion above, they will often “delegate” other students to handle the issue For example, if John says that Benjamin Franklin was the first president, a teacher may turn to another student and ask “Susan, was Ben Franklin the first president?” There is no need for this unproductive pattern. If a discussion is well-designed and the atmosphere is supportive, correction can be easily introduced by the teacher and/or other students with positive results.

These are just a few of the issues that need to be addressed in altering group discussions so that they benefit the students. As I said at the outset, the answer to creating productive discussions is not simple. Rather, it is one that requires major changes in the current model of classroom talk. The good news is that we have the information required to transform the existing patterns.  But the issue needs greater recognition and both time and effort must be made available to achieve the desired transformations.

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