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Setting Up Successful Discussions in the Outdoor Classroom

Instruction

While teaching at IslandWood, an environmental learning center in Bainbridge Island, Washington, I became particularly interested in having meaningful discussions with my students. Having come from a classroom teaching background, I felt like no stranger to facilitating discussions with elementary students. However, one of my goals in my teaching was to enhance my discussion facilitation skills and become adept at handling the unique variables of the outdoor classroom. Through action research with my biweekly field groups, I’ve learned that there is much more to a successful outdoor discussion than meets the eye. In this article, I have compiled some of the most important elements of setting up successful discussions that I have learned as an instructor.

Location

When planning a student discussion, one of the first considerations should be the location. I try to select a space that has a comfortable spot for our group to discuss and also has a limited number of external distractions. Is there a major trail or popular destination nearby where others may be walking by loudly? Will students be able to see or hear nearby groups doing other activities? It’s also wise to scope out the location before your discussion. I particularly like to check for mosquitoes and areas of shade. Both being pestered by flying insects and overheating have been particular distractions that I see really derail discussions – if students’ bodies are distracting them, they won’t be able to devote much attention to anything else. An ideal location is secluded, quiet, and comfortable, with minimal distractions. As you become more experienced with discussion facilitation, it can be interesting to also consider the ambiance of a given location and how it could enhance your discussions. For instance, I have found that shady spots in the woods and fire circles contribute particularly well to reflective discussions.

Orientation

Once the location has been selected and you have arrived, think about how you will orient the students. Circles are best, so that every student can see the others faces and hear their voices. If the ground is wet or uncomfortable for students, provide sit pads or encourage students to sit on their jackets so they are more comfortable and able to fully participate. Some students prefer to stand than sit, so be sure that your circle is more spread out if you have kids with that preference. If it is a sunny day and your spot doesn’t provide a lot of shade, be sure that you are facing the sun so that none of your students need to look directly into it. Ensuring that your students are oriented in a way that will set them up for success in your discussion is key. Let go of your indoor expectations — students have a lot more stimuli in the outdoor environment, and it’s impossible to eradicate them and have a group of students focused on nothing but the discussion at hand. Students will want to move their bodies, play with something in their hands like grass or sticks, and look around. This is totally fine! As long as they are engaged and involved, accept what attention looks like for each student, and that this does not look the same for everyone.

Discussion Norms

Before beginning your first discussion with a group, it is important to establish discussion norms. I have my students generate these ideas so they have ownership over their group’s discussions. I ensure that they address respectful listening, vocal equity, and signals. I typically start off this conversation by asking students, “What does a good discussion look/sound/feel like?” From their responses, I can ask open-ended questions that may help to lead students towards areas I’d like them to focus on. For vocal equity, I have found several ways to encourage all student voices to participate. One of the easiest to implement is a talking piece, an object small enough to fit in a student’s hands that can easily be passed from person to person as they share ideas. The talking piece is a visual indicator to students of who should be speaking, and a reminder to keep their attention on the speaker and their voices off. For students who are ready for a more complex way to track vocal equity, consider providing what I call a “contribution counter”. For this modification, place a container in the middle of the circle and provide each student with a limited number of beans, buttons, rocks, or another small item. Each time a student speaks, they drop one of their items into the container. To entice quieter students, you can set a goal for each student to put a certain number of items into the receptacle – that added action can make students more interested in participating. For students who tend to be more talkative and may dominate a discussion, they have a visual on how much they are speaking and can self-regulate their voice. Once they have spent all of their items, they have to wait to participate until others have had an opportunity. This is a great method to scaffold self-regulation of contribution in a discussion. When generating our discussion norms, I also ask students about vocal equity, and they frequently end up incorporating the idea of checking on peers whose voices haven’t been heard yet to see if they have contributions to make. Sometimes I make this a more concrete “rule”, with students who have already spoken being required to check in with a student who has not before saying their next idea. It helps students who are more hesitant to speak up if they know your expectations in advance – do you expect to hear from everyone on this question? Will you provide alternative ways to contribute, like writing or a one-on-one conversation? Will you go around in a circle, or will they have to volunteer? Once students are aware of your expectations, they are more able to prepare and be successful in a discussion. In addition to setting norms about contribution and respectful listening, we incorporate hand signals in to make our communication more efficient and effective. Students can use hand signals to show that they agree or disagree with an idea, which can help prevent a cascade of students all repeating the same idea. I also utilize hand signs to differentiate between new ideas and add-on ideas in a discussion. For example, my students use two fingers to show an add-on or connected idea, and a raised hand to show a new one. When the student who is speaking calls on the next speaker, they know to select an add-on before a new idea, which helps keep the discussion flowing smoothly.

Enhancing Student Contributions

Frequently in discussions, we have students respond with short, evidence-less answers, or “I don’t know” or “pass”. It’s important to set up the expectation that those are not satisfactory answers. If a student says they don’t know, let them know you will come back to them and they have a bit more time to think, but that you will hear an answer from them. This prevents students from opting out of the discussion, and helps to provide more vocal equity. If a student’s answer is heading on the right track, but isn’t quite there yet, don’t fill in the blanks for them. Ask follow-up questions — I like “Can you say more about that?” or just a simple “Why?” — to get students to fill in the blanks on their own and fully develop their ideas when they contribute. This will allow your discussions to be more effective assessments, as you can fully probe student thinking and help them critically think about a topic.

I have found that discussion can be one of the most successful educational tools when encouraging students to be critical thinkers. While there are extra variables to take into account with facilitating one in the outdoor classroom, the outcomes are well worth it. Using these techniques and ideas, discussions can take outside learning to the next level.

 

While teaching at IslandWood, an environmental learning center in Bainbridge Island, Washington, I became particularly interested in having meaningful discussions with my students. Having come from a classroom teaching background, I felt like no stranger to facilitating discussions with elementary students. However, one of my goals in my teaching was to enhance my discussion facilitation skills and become adept at handling the unique variables of the outdoor classroom. Through action research with my biweekly field groups, I’ve learned that there is much more to a successful outdoor discussion than meets the eye. In this article, I have compiled some of the most important elements of setting up successful discussions that I have learned as an instructor.

Location

When planning a student discussion, one of the first considerations should be the location. I try to select a space that has a comfortable spot for our group to discuss and also has a limited number of external distractions. Is there a major trail or popular destination nearby where others may be walking by loudly? Will students be able to see or hear nearby groups doing other activities? It’s also wise to scope out the location before your discussion. I particularly like to check for mosquitoes and areas of shade. Both being pestered by flying insects and overheating have been particular distractions that I see really derail discussions – if students’ bodies are distracting them, they won’t be able to devote much attention to anything else. An ideal location is secluded, quiet, and comfortable, with minimal distractions. As you become more experienced with discussion facilitation, it can be interesting to also consider the ambiance of a given location and how it could enhance your discussions. For instance, I have found that shady spots in the woods and fire circles contribute particularly well to reflective discussions.

Orientation

Once the location has been selected and you have arrived, think about how you will orient the students. Circles are best, so that every student can see the others faces and hear their voices. If the ground is wet or uncomfortable for students, provide sit pads or encourage students to sit on their jackets so they are more comfortable and able to fully participate. Some students prefer to stand than sit, so be sure that your circle is more spread out if you have kids with that preference. If it is a sunny day and your spot doesn’t provide a lot of shade, be sure that you are facing the sun so that none of your students need to look directly into it. Ensuring that your students are oriented in a way that will set them up for success in your discussion is key. Let go of your indoor expectations — students have a lot more stimuli in the outdoor environment, and it’s impossible to eradicate them and have a group of students focused on nothing but the discussion at hand. Students will want to move their bodies, play with something in their hands like grass or sticks, and look around. This is totally fine! As long as they are engaged and involved, accept what attention looks like for each student, and that this does not look the same for everyone.

Discussion Norms

Before beginning your first discussion with a group, it is important to establish discussion norms. I have my students generate these ideas so they have ownership over their group’s discussions. I ensure that they address respectful listening, vocal equity, and signals. I typically start off this conversation by asking students, “What does a good discussion look/sound/feel like?” From their responses, I can ask open-ended questions that may help to lead students towards areas I’d like them to focus on. For vocal equity, I have found several ways to encourage all student voices to participate. One of the easiest to implement is a talking piece, an object small enough to fit in a student’s hands that can easily be passed from person to person as they share ideas. The talking piece is a visual indicator to students of who should be speaking, and a reminder to keep their attention on the speaker and their voices off. For students who are ready for a more complex way to track vocal equity, consider providing what I call a “contribution counter”. For this modification, place a container in the middle of the circle and provide each student with a limited number of beans, buttons, rocks, or another small item. Each time a student speaks, they drop one of their items into the container. To entice quieter students, you can set a goal for each student to put a certain number of items into the receptacle – that added action can make students more interested in participating. For students who tend to be more talkative and may dominate a discussion, they have a visual on how much they are speaking and can self-regulate their voice. Once they have spent all of their items, they have to wait to participate until others have had an opportunity. This is a great method to scaffold self-regulation of contribution in a discussion. When generating our discussion norms, I also ask students about vocal equity, and they frequently end up incorporating the idea of checking on peers whose voices haven’t been heard yet to see if they have contributions to make. Sometimes I make this a more concrete “rule”, with students who have already spoken being required to check in with a student who has not before saying their next idea. It helps students who are more hesitant to speak up if they know your expectations in advance – do you expect to hear from everyone on this question? Will you provide alternative ways to contribute, like writing or a one-on-one conversation? Will you go around in a circle, or will they have to volunteer? Once students are aware of your expectations, they are more able to prepare and be successful in a discussion. In addition to setting norms about contribution and respectful listening, we incorporate hand signals in to make our communication more efficient and effective. Students can use hand signals to show that they agree or disagree with an idea, which can help prevent a cascade of students all repeating the same idea. I also utilize hand signs to differentiate between new ideas and add-on ideas in a discussion. For example, my students use two fingers to show an add-on or connected idea, and a raised hand to show a new one. When the student who is speaking calls on the next speaker, they know to select an add-on before a new idea, which helps keep the discussion flowing smoothly.

Enhancing Student Contributions

Frequently in discussions, we have students respond with short, evidence-less answers, or “I don’t know” or “pass”. It’s important to set up the expectation that those are not satisfactory answers. If a student says they don’t know, let them know you will come back to them and they have a bit more time to think, but that you will hear an answer from them. This prevents students from opting out of the discussion, and helps to provide more vocal equity. If a student’s answer is heading on the right track, but isn’t quite there yet, don’t fill in the blanks for them. Ask follow-up questions — I like “Can you say more about that?” or just a simple “Why?” — to get students to fill in the blanks on their own and fully develop their ideas when they contribute. This will allow your discussions to be more effective assessments, as you can fully probe student thinking and help them critically think about a topic.

I have found that discussion can be one of the most successful educational tools when encouraging students to be critical thinkers. While there are extra variables to take into account with facilitating one in the outdoor classroom, the outcomes are well worth it. Using these techniques and ideas, discussions can take outside learning to the next level.

 

About the Author
Julia Tandy
Author: Julia Tandy

Julia is a graduate student and instructor in IslandWood’s Education for Environment and Community program through the University of Washington, where she is pursuing an M.Ed. Prior to graduate school she received a B.A. in Elementary Education from the University of Tulsa. Before moving to the Pacific Northwest, Julia taught at a public elementary school in Oklahoma.