Create a List

List Name

Rename this List
Save to
Back to the Top Teaching Blog
May 13, 2016 Strengthening Whole Class Discussions By John DePasquale
Grades 3–5, 6–8

    Whole class discussions are one of the most commonly used teaching strategies. This shouldn’t be surprising because, when they are thoughtfully and deliberately facilitated, whole class discussions have tremendous potential to build a communal understanding and knowledge base in a classroom while, at the same time, promoting student autonomy and voice. Despite this potential, whole class discussions can also be nerve-racking as a teacher because certain discussions simply fall flat. I certainly feel this anxiety and you might also share my concerns. I’m concerned about keeping a class discussion on topic without interjecting to redirect too often, balancing the voices and contributions of all participants, ensuring the discussion achieves a particular academic purpose, and maintaining a classroom culture of respect throughout the discussion. Addressing these concerns with proper planning helps to ease my anxiety. Here are some ideas you can use to bring out the potential of whole group discussions in your classroom. 

     

    Successful Class Discussions

    Successful class discussions include:

    • Preparation

    • Accountability

    • Practice

    Preparation: In my experience, it is difficult to achieve a rich and meaningful exploration of ideas through an impromptu class discussion. Preparation makes the process much easier for me.

    Selecting a text to stimulate ideas is the first step to prepare for a discussion. Fiction texts with strong and dynamitic characters work especially well to spark conversations. Additionally, nonfiction texts that focus on certain "hot button" issues always get my students talking. Choices magazine is a great resource for texts because it includes articles about relevant issues that usually trigger strong opinions from my students.These strong opinions are prime fodder for a class discussion!

    After selecting a text, I develop questions to prepare for a whole class discussion. I try not to overdo the number of questions I prepare because, oftentimes, a single well-constructed and debatable question is all I need to sustain a whole class discussion. A debate question is a question that can be answered in a number of different ways from multiple perspectives.  Responses to debatable questions depend on evidence and logical reasoning as support. As a result, debatable questions require students to synthesize and evaluate text-based evidence to support their ideas during a discussion. A debatable question that is broad in its scope also provides students with plenty of leeway during a discussion to expand their thinking and ideas and to include viewpoints from different perspectives.  

    There are many different ways to write these questions, but to quickly check if a question is debatable I usually start a question with should. My class recently discussed this debatable question: Should governments be required to limit emissions that contribute to climate change? This one question kept us talking for quite some time. 

    Now that the texts and questions are selected, the preparation work to get ready for a class discussion shifts to the students. I’m reminded, at this point, of the old adage, think before you speak. This is definitely true for class discussions. I provide my students with plenty of time to develop and prepare their ideas and thoughts before a class discussion. I usually share the discussion question with my students at least one day before a class discussion. This allows them time to develop a response and to have the text-based evidence that supports their reasoning selected and ready to go the moment the discussion begins.    

    These deliberate steps before a class discussion are worth it because it allows the conversation to delve deeper into a particular topic or concept.    

    Accountability: Whole class discussions work best when all students participate, and it’s important to hold everyone accountable for participating during a class discussion. However, every class has its talkers. These are the students in a class that unabashedly share whatever happens to be on their minds. Also, every class also has reluctant talkers who prefer not to share. As a result, full participation requires natural talkers to take a step back and more reluctant talkers to step forward.   

    I work to balance the voices and contributions of my students during a class discussion while also being mindful of anyone feeling forced to speak or silenced for any reason. To help reach this balance, I use different strategies and practicable speaking routines to encourage students to self-monitor their participation.   

    Students use an empty paper cup and a simple checklist during a discussion to self-monitor their participation and to make them more aware of the participation of their classmates. Before the discussion begins, each student places an empty cup on his or her desk. The students then place a tally mark on the checklist each time they participate during the discussion. Once a student contributes to the discussion two different times, the student’s cup is removed from the desk and placed on the floor. The student then waits until all of the cups are moved to the floor before they contribute again to the conversation. This strategy helps to prevent any one student from dominating the discussion. Also, placing an initial limit on the number of times a student can contribute to a discussion usually keeps the conversation on topic because students are more conscious of what they choose to contribute.      

    Using these predicable speaking routines during class discussions helps to alleviate some of the pressure students may feel about participating in the conversation.

    Practice:  Continual practice is the best way for students to develop the speaking and listening skills that are required for a successful class conversation.  I’ve made these discussions a weekly part of our schedule because I value the learning that occurs when I step back and listen to my students’ ideas in their own words. 

    Since it takes time and regular practice for the discussions to feel and sound natural, don’t be discouraged if they don't feel this way right from the start. Continue to practice whole class discussions with meaningful texts, thoughtful debatable questions, and practicable speaking routines.    

     

    Additional Ideas

    If you’re looking for additional ideas to improve your class discussions, consider these resources. 

    Professional Books

    Classroom Discussion Strategies for Engaging All Students, Building Higher-Level Thinking Skills, and Strengthening Reading and Writing Across the Curriculum by Dixie Lee Spiegel

    Building Literacy Through Classroom Discussion Research-Based Strategies for Developing Critical Readers and Thoughtful Writers in Middle School by Mary Adler and Eija Rougle 

    Blog Posts

    "Higher Order Comprehension: The Power of Socratic Seminar" by Angela Bunyi

    "Engagement Routines: Structured Academic Discussion" by Justin Lim

     

    Whole class discussions are one of the most commonly used teaching strategies. This shouldn’t be surprising because, when they are thoughtfully and deliberately facilitated, whole class discussions have tremendous potential to build a communal understanding and knowledge base in a classroom while, at the same time, promoting student autonomy and voice. Despite this potential, whole class discussions can also be nerve-racking as a teacher because certain discussions simply fall flat. I certainly feel this anxiety and you might also share my concerns. I’m concerned about keeping a class discussion on topic without interjecting to redirect too often, balancing the voices and contributions of all participants, ensuring the discussion achieves a particular academic purpose, and maintaining a classroom culture of respect throughout the discussion. Addressing these concerns with proper planning helps to ease my anxiety. Here are some ideas you can use to bring out the potential of whole group discussions in your classroom. 

     

    Successful Class Discussions

    Successful class discussions include:

    • Preparation

    • Accountability

    • Practice

    Preparation: In my experience, it is difficult to achieve a rich and meaningful exploration of ideas through an impromptu class discussion. Preparation makes the process much easier for me.

    Selecting a text to stimulate ideas is the first step to prepare for a discussion. Fiction texts with strong and dynamitic characters work especially well to spark conversations. Additionally, nonfiction texts that focus on certain "hot button" issues always get my students talking. Choices magazine is a great resource for texts because it includes articles about relevant issues that usually trigger strong opinions from my students.These strong opinions are prime fodder for a class discussion!

    After selecting a text, I develop questions to prepare for a whole class discussion. I try not to overdo the number of questions I prepare because, oftentimes, a single well-constructed and debatable question is all I need to sustain a whole class discussion. A debate question is a question that can be answered in a number of different ways from multiple perspectives.  Responses to debatable questions depend on evidence and logical reasoning as support. As a result, debatable questions require students to synthesize and evaluate text-based evidence to support their ideas during a discussion. A debatable question that is broad in its scope also provides students with plenty of leeway during a discussion to expand their thinking and ideas and to include viewpoints from different perspectives.  

    There are many different ways to write these questions, but to quickly check if a question is debatable I usually start a question with should. My class recently discussed this debatable question: Should governments be required to limit emissions that contribute to climate change? This one question kept us talking for quite some time. 

    Now that the texts and questions are selected, the preparation work to get ready for a class discussion shifts to the students. I’m reminded, at this point, of the old adage, think before you speak. This is definitely true for class discussions. I provide my students with plenty of time to develop and prepare their ideas and thoughts before a class discussion. I usually share the discussion question with my students at least one day before a class discussion. This allows them time to develop a response and to have the text-based evidence that supports their reasoning selected and ready to go the moment the discussion begins.    

    These deliberate steps before a class discussion are worth it because it allows the conversation to delve deeper into a particular topic or concept.    

    Accountability: Whole class discussions work best when all students participate, and it’s important to hold everyone accountable for participating during a class discussion. However, every class has its talkers. These are the students in a class that unabashedly share whatever happens to be on their minds. Also, every class also has reluctant talkers who prefer not to share. As a result, full participation requires natural talkers to take a step back and more reluctant talkers to step forward.   

    I work to balance the voices and contributions of my students during a class discussion while also being mindful of anyone feeling forced to speak or silenced for any reason. To help reach this balance, I use different strategies and practicable speaking routines to encourage students to self-monitor their participation.   

    Students use an empty paper cup and a simple checklist during a discussion to self-monitor their participation and to make them more aware of the participation of their classmates. Before the discussion begins, each student places an empty cup on his or her desk. The students then place a tally mark on the checklist each time they participate during the discussion. Once a student contributes to the discussion two different times, the student’s cup is removed from the desk and placed on the floor. The student then waits until all of the cups are moved to the floor before they contribute again to the conversation. This strategy helps to prevent any one student from dominating the discussion. Also, placing an initial limit on the number of times a student can contribute to a discussion usually keeps the conversation on topic because students are more conscious of what they choose to contribute.      

    Using these predicable speaking routines during class discussions helps to alleviate some of the pressure students may feel about participating in the conversation.

    Practice:  Continual practice is the best way for students to develop the speaking and listening skills that are required for a successful class conversation.  I’ve made these discussions a weekly part of our schedule because I value the learning that occurs when I step back and listen to my students’ ideas in their own words. 

    Since it takes time and regular practice for the discussions to feel and sound natural, don’t be discouraged if they don't feel this way right from the start. Continue to practice whole class discussions with meaningful texts, thoughtful debatable questions, and practicable speaking routines.    

     

    Additional Ideas

    If you’re looking for additional ideas to improve your class discussions, consider these resources. 

    Professional Books

    Classroom Discussion Strategies for Engaging All Students, Building Higher-Level Thinking Skills, and Strengthening Reading and Writing Across the Curriculum by Dixie Lee Spiegel

    Building Literacy Through Classroom Discussion Research-Based Strategies for Developing Critical Readers and Thoughtful Writers in Middle School by Mary Adler and Eija Rougle 

    Blog Posts

    "Higher Order Comprehension: The Power of Socratic Seminar" by Angela Bunyi

    "Engagement Routines: Structured Academic Discussion" by Justin Lim

     

Comments

Share your ideas about this article

My Scholastic

Susan Cheyney

GRADES: 1-2
About Us