10 Ways to Make Sure Whole Class Discussions Will Fail

I’m stoked to write the second post in my classroom discussion series.  With school starting, it has been awhile since my last post where I talked big picture about classroom discussion goals and ways to create discussion magic.  In this post, I’m going to focus on whole-class discussions.  Let me begin by saying that I have a love-hate relationship with whole-class discussions.  Sometimes, with the right topic and a group of talkative students, it’s great.  Other times, it’s a flop.  Yes, I said it…a flop.

Here are ten ways to ensure that a whole-class discussion will flop:

  1. Set no clear purpose for the discussion other than participating in class or “the grade”
  2. Set no ground rules or protocols for the conversation
  3. Don’t allow students to lead the conversation
  4. As a teacher, make your voice heard loudly and often
  5. Give students a topic that is too narrow or too one-dimensional
  6. Give students little time to prepare
  7. Use the discussion as a “caught ya” for students who did not read the text or complete their homework
  8. Allow a handful of talkative students to dominate the conversation
  9. Encourage “right answers” vs. inquiry
  10. Abruptly end the discussion without opportunity for student reflection, wrap-up, and extension

When I was a new teacher, discussion meant asking students questions about their reading.  Why?  To help students understand the text, of course?  How?  I would throw out an open-ended question, hoping a student would “bite” by responding (usually the same three students raising a hand), and then ask another question…rinse and repeat.  Wow!  No wonder I felt awful when a discussion flopped.  I had put the burden of discussion entirely on myself and took the role of director, knowledge-bearer, judge, you name it.  Students were looking at me, not at each other.  I didn’t take the time to frame the discussion to activate prior knowledge and student interest.  And I could go on and on.  Le sigh.

As time went on, I learned that discussion can be powerful, and I learned to take myself out of that spotlight and shine it on students.  What if they were the ones coming up with the questions?  Cool!  What if I varied the type of instructional strategies I used for discussion-based lessons. Wait… there was more than one way to do this discussion thing?  What if the talkative students didn’t have to dominate?  Happy dance!  Most of all, I realized that discussion didn’t have to be stuffy and boring because that was what I had always experienced in my educational life. Don’t let preconceived ideas keep you from being your best teacher self!

Whole-class discussions are awesome if you want to:

  • Come to a common understanding
  • Explore different perspectives
  • Build classroom community
  • Encourage critical thinking
  • Involve everyone

As a quick side note, it’s helpful to keep track of student participation during a whole class discussion.  This helps you to avoid seeing the class with rose-colored glasses and thinking that the discussion is going better than it actually is.  For more on “Fisheye Syndrome,” be sure to check out this post from Cult of Pedagogy – it was an eye-opener for me, and one of the reasons I started systematizing my whole class discussions.

Quick wins for tracking student participation:

  • Print a copy of the seating chart and visually map the flow of discussion, drawing lines from student-to-student.  During the discussion, are you finding yourself linking to the same students over and over?  Red flag!
  • Use discussion sticks with student names, drawing at random.
  • Give students a certain number of discussion chips to use (or a certain number of candy pieces) to ensure equity.
  • Have students track their own participation and reflect/goal-set.

In the next post, I’ll be talking about some basic strategies that work in my classroom for whole-class discussions. As for now, hit me up with your thoughts.  Whole class discussions – love or hate…and why?

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