Wednesday, March 2, 2016

3 Tips for Strong Class Discussions

If you've been teaching awhile, you've probably been the victim of a class discussion gone awry. You thought you had a great topic tied to your learning goals, but then students don't seem to want to talk or the conversation seems to dull after only a few comments that just barely scratched the depth you were hoping to explore.  I've been so fortunate to be in many classrooms and see lots of class discussions.  Here are 3 SIMPLE tips that I see teachers artfully master that foster incredible student discussions.

1. THINK TIME: This is the #1 factor that I see being the difference in classrooms where a discussion takes off and one that fizzles quickly.  When we carve out time for students to think about what they can contribute to the discussion before beginning the conversation, it makes a significant difference.  This can be done quickly by encouraging students to write some ideas on a sticky note or it can be more structured and lengthy done over several days in advance of a discussion. One of our Health teachers is trying a Socratic Seminar discussion next week and we collaborated to create these thinking notes that students will do in advance of the discussion.

2. OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS: It all begins with a rich question that will elicit multiple viewpoints.  Often when I reflect back on discussions that didn't quite go the distance, I realize my opening questions weren't strong enough. While the goal isn't to start an argument among students, a strong discussion opener will interest our students, be aligned with the goals of the lesson/unit, and have multiple answers that are not necessarily right or wrong.

3. SUPPORTING EVIDENCE: I love those magical moments in a class discussion when a student suddenly understands a new perspective or acknowledges a differing viewpoint. Challenging students to keep their thoughts grounded in evidence yields these moments and unlocks curricular understanding.  Preface discussions with study of text, images, video, audio, lab experiences, or any format that will scaffold student thinking.

While there are certainly other factors that lead to strong class discussions, these are an essential three.  Now go talk about it!

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