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Fostering Productive Discussion

Instruction

Ask any teacher if they have trouble getting students to stop talking during class, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a resounding “Yes!” Children are meant to make noise, to chat, to laugh, to make animals sounds and tell silly jokes. But how do you get students to use their love of talking for good?

When met with the challenge of a new group of students each week at IslandWood, a 4-day overnight outdoor environmental education program for 4th-6th graders, instructors don’t have much time to establish a classroom culture; by embracing students’ desire to talk rather than pushing against it, one can create a productive and engaging learning environment for all students. By presenting discussion as a means to build off one another’s ideas and find the right answer as a group, students are given some accountability for how they choose to discuss a topic. Allowing students to talk with their peers about the subject at hand can benefit students and teachers alike, as long as it is approached in a structured manner.

Discussion can come in many forms, but I’ll focus here on two: think-pair-share and student-led discussions. In a think-pair-share activity, students are provided with a question or idea from the instructor which they will consider in three ways. First, students are given time to quietly think to themselves about an answer; after around 30 seconds of wait time, students pair up with a peer next to them to discuss their thoughts. Lastly, students will share the ideas that came up in their paired discussions with the large group. With this last sharing piece, instructors can choose to have students share what their partner said rather than their own ideas to check for engagement and attentiveness, as well as to provide a space where students feel more comfortable discussing perspectives other than their own.

The second form of discussion, student-led, involved instructors removing themselves from a discussion in order to act as an observer. After giving students a prompt and directing them to call on one another to continue the conversation, instructors can step back and observe group dynamics, record student ideas, and redirect the discussion when necessary. As a teacher, it’s important to know what your students know about a subject before getting into a lesson, and observing possible misconceptions within their discussion can also be a great assessment tool.

Removing yourself from discussion takes the spotlight off of the instructor, and onto the students themselves; it gives them more autonomy towards their own learning, and allows them to connect more genuinely with the material. Students are used to talking to each other, so give them something new to talk about! Over time I’ve noticed that by taking myself out of the equation, discussion becomes much more energetic and more students are willing to participate; it seems, understandably so, that students tend to be far more comfortable sharing ideas with their peers and friends than with a fairly new adult in their lives. They worry less about being right or wrong about a topic, and spend more time debating with one another; it begins to feel less forced and more like a natural conversation among friends. Student responses change from a few students regurgitating what they think you want to hear to nearly all students sharing their own opinions, likely in terms/language with which they are familiar.

This all sounds well and good, until you remember that students have little desire to talk about something they didn’t come up with on their own. How do you keep it from feeling forced? How do you stay on task? What if disagreement turns ugly?

Getting students engaged with the topic at hand is a challenge that should be approached before discussions become a part of a lesson; how are you going to hook your group into the topic? By adding a little “wow” factor to the beginning of your lesson, student engagement throughout becomes more attainable. Successful hooks often involve small experiments, mysteries students need to solve, or finding ways to show students a new side of something they thought they already knew. Finding ways to surprise your students and getting them to think about your topic from a new perspective before discussion can lead to very engaging and productive conversation!

All discussions reach a point over time where they are no longer productive, but there are some strategies instructors can use to keep students on task for as long as possible. Quick taps on the shoulder, a few redirecting words, or a brief pause in the discussion to recall why we’re talking about a subject can be helpful when discussions go off task. Presenting students with related prompts or questions as the first question begins to lose steam can help continue a conversation, and can also be an easy way to steer students towards the answers you’re looking for.

When it comes to student disagreement, this is something that should not be automatically shut down! Students need to learn how to defend their opinions, understand those of others, and build on each other’s ideas. This cannot be done fully if students never disagree or share alternate ideas and perspectives. It is, however, also very important to discuss what respectful disagreement looks like. I make sure to preempt group discussions with a quick talk about how we can show each other respect during the discussion: what will you do if someone disagrees with you? How do you expect the people in this group to treat each other? What does it mean to be a good listener? Why is it okay to disagree? What do scientists do when they disagree? I like to mention that one of the key components to science is that scientists must collaborate with their peers and discuss issues with one another in order to get accurate information; if they all have the same ideas, progress cannot be made. All of these questions, addressed directly before discussion, can help students keep these ideas fresh in their minds when disagreement comes about.

Student discussions can be incorporated into a variety of lessons and activities, and ideally is a part of nearly all of them. In my experience, starting and ending a lesson with discussion has proven to be very valuable. Discussions at the beginning of a lesson allow students to familiarize themselves with a topic in a comfortable and fairly casual way, and debriefing lessons with discussion is a great way for students to come together to share what they have learned, recognize the challenges they faced during an activity, and discuss how they can improve or change their actions in the future. Discussion can also be a great way to incorporate the notion that sharing ideas and understanding other perspectives is a huge part of life, and that by sharing our own ideas and building off of those of others, we can grow not only as individuals but as a community.

I encourage you to change your perspective on students chatting incessantly from something that takes away from class time to something that can create deeper understanding of a topic for your students, and create a stronger sense of community within the classroom!

Ask any teacher if they have trouble getting students to stop talking during class, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a resounding “Yes!” Children are meant to make noise, to chat, to laugh, to make animals sounds and tell silly jokes. But how do you get students to use their love of talking for good?

When met with the challenge of a new group of students each week at IslandWood, a 4-day overnight outdoor environmental education program for 4th-6th graders, instructors don’t have much time to establish a classroom culture; by embracing students’ desire to talk rather than pushing against it, one can create a productive and engaging learning environment for all students. By presenting discussion as a means to build off one another’s ideas and find the right answer as a group, students are given some accountability for how they choose to discuss a topic. Allowing students to talk with their peers about the subject at hand can benefit students and teachers alike, as long as it is approached in a structured manner.

Discussion can come in many forms, but I’ll focus here on two: think-pair-share and student-led discussions. In a think-pair-share activity, students are provided with a question or idea from the instructor which they will consider in three ways. First, students are given time to quietly think to themselves about an answer; after around 30 seconds of wait time, students pair up with a peer next to them to discuss their thoughts. Lastly, students will share the ideas that came up in their paired discussions with the large group. With this last sharing piece, instructors can choose to have students share what their partner said rather than their own ideas to check for engagement and attentiveness, as well as to provide a space where students feel more comfortable discussing perspectives other than their own.

The second form of discussion, student-led, involved instructors removing themselves from a discussion in order to act as an observer. After giving students a prompt and directing them to call on one another to continue the conversation, instructors can step back and observe group dynamics, record student ideas, and redirect the discussion when necessary. As a teacher, it’s important to know what your students know about a subject before getting into a lesson, and observing possible misconceptions within their discussion can also be a great assessment tool.

Removing yourself from discussion takes the spotlight off of the instructor, and onto the students themselves; it gives them more autonomy towards their own learning, and allows them to connect more genuinely with the material. Students are used to talking to each other, so give them something new to talk about! Over time I’ve noticed that by taking myself out of the equation, discussion becomes much more energetic and more students are willing to participate; it seems, understandably so, that students tend to be far more comfortable sharing ideas with their peers and friends than with a fairly new adult in their lives. They worry less about being right or wrong about a topic, and spend more time debating with one another; it begins to feel less forced and more like a natural conversation among friends. Student responses change from a few students regurgitating what they think you want to hear to nearly all students sharing their own opinions, likely in terms/language with which they are familiar.

This all sounds well and good, until you remember that students have little desire to talk about something they didn’t come up with on their own. How do you keep it from feeling forced? How do you stay on task? What if disagreement turns ugly?

Getting students engaged with the topic at hand is a challenge that should be approached before discussions become a part of a lesson; how are you going to hook your group into the topic? By adding a little “wow” factor to the beginning of your lesson, student engagement throughout becomes more attainable. Successful hooks often involve small experiments, mysteries students need to solve, or finding ways to show students a new side of something they thought they already knew. Finding ways to surprise your students and getting them to think about your topic from a new perspective before discussion can lead to very engaging and productive conversation!

All discussions reach a point over time where they are no longer productive, but there are some strategies instructors can use to keep students on task for as long as possible. Quick taps on the shoulder, a few redirecting words, or a brief pause in the discussion to recall why we’re talking about a subject can be helpful when discussions go off task. Presenting students with related prompts or questions as the first question begins to lose steam can help continue a conversation, and can also be an easy way to steer students towards the answers you’re looking for.

When it comes to student disagreement, this is something that should not be automatically shut down! Students need to learn how to defend their opinions, understand those of others, and build on each other’s ideas. This cannot be done fully if students never disagree or share alternate ideas and perspectives. It is, however, also very important to discuss what respectful disagreement looks like. I make sure to preempt group discussions with a quick talk about how we can show each other respect during the discussion: what will you do if someone disagrees with you? How do you expect the people in this group to treat each other? What does it mean to be a good listener? Why is it okay to disagree? What do scientists do when they disagree? I like to mention that one of the key components to science is that scientists must collaborate with their peers and discuss issues with one another in order to get accurate information; if they all have the same ideas, progress cannot be made. All of these questions, addressed directly before discussion, can help students keep these ideas fresh in their minds when disagreement comes about.

Student discussions can be incorporated into a variety of lessons and activities, and ideally is a part of nearly all of them. In my experience, starting and ending a lesson with discussion has proven to be very valuable. Discussions at the beginning of a lesson allow students to familiarize themselves with a topic in a comfortable and fairly casual way, and debriefing lessons with discussion is a great way for students to come together to share what they have learned, recognize the challenges they faced during an activity, and discuss how they can improve or change their actions in the future. Discussion can also be a great way to incorporate the notion that sharing ideas and understanding other perspectives is a huge part of life, and that by sharing our own ideas and building off of those of others, we can grow not only as individuals but as a community.

I encourage you to change your perspective on students chatting incessantly from something that takes away from class time to something that can create deeper understanding of a topic for your students, and create a stronger sense of community within the classroom!

About the Author
Jessie Ryan
Author: Jessie Ryan

Jessie is a graduate student at the University of Washington, working towards her Masters in Education. She received her Bachelor in Science in Fish & Wildlife Conservation, and has since taught children of all ages how to learn and have fun outdoors. She particularly enjoyed living on an island wildlife refuge in Connecticut as a community liason for US Fish & Wildlife, and kayaking and snorkeling in Florida with students, exploring all of the amazing ocean life the Gulf of Mexico has to offer. After spending an unforgettable year teaching 4th-6th graders in the woods at IslandWood, she hopes to continue teaching environmental education to children ages 4-6, specifically with intertidal and beach ecosystems in mind!