With school starting, it has been awhile since my last post where I talked big picture about class dicsussions, 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.
10 Ways to Fail at Whole Class Discussions
- Set no clear purpose for the discussion other than participating in class or “the grade”
- Set no ground rules or protocols for the conversation
- Don’t allow students to lead the conversation
- As a teacher, make your voice heard loudly and often
- Give students a topic that is too narrow or too one-dimensional
- Give students little time to prepare
- Use the discussion as a “caught ya” for students who did not read the text or complete their homework
- Allow a handful of talkative students to dominate the conversation
- Encourage “right answers” vs. inquiry
- Abruptly end the discussion without opportunity for student reflection, wrap-up, and extension
Ideas for Class Discussions
When I was a new teacher, discussion meant asking students questions about their reading.
To help students understand the text, of course?
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!
Benefits of Whole-Class Discussions
Whole class discussions aren’t to be thrown out entirely. They’re useful! Really useful, if you want students 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.
Tracking 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 Discussion 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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