class discussion

Getting Students to Participate in Class Discussion

class discussion Apr 12, 2022

When I first joined Twitter in 2010, each time I logged on was like sitting down in a virtual meeting room with dynamic educators spread across the globe. A teacher from Arizona would tweet about promoting creativity in schools, I’d respond from my couch in Michigan, and for the next hour, teachers from around the world would discuss why or why not schools needed more creativity.

People would tweet blog articles they wrote relating to the discussion, cite research, tell stories, sometimes argue, and at the end of these discussions I would log off Twitter with a swollen brain after engaging in a discussion that would directly impact the work I did in school the next day.

In 2010 Twitter was a breeding ground for rich discussion and conversations. 

Flash forward 12 years. This morning I saw on Twitter thousands of replies to a negative comment about Ariana Grande’s hairstyle, thousands of others agreeing or disagreeing with Will Smith slapping Chris Rock, a whole bunch of stuff about how people feel about the American president, and of course, endless inspirational tweets designed to get as many likes and retweets as possible. 

This is why I'm not on Twitter that much anymore. And honestly why I really try to limit how much I’m on social media. It feels so much like an echo chamber, where no one actually listens to each other, and it doesn't bring me a lot of joy anymore.

The Impact on Discussion Skills

I saw recently that ninety-five percent of people including teenagers have access to a smartphone, and forty-five percent of teens say they are connected to the internet on a near-constant basis. This tool that has a dominant tendency to weaken public discourse, almost like an antithesis to good discussion, is constantly at everyone’s fingertips, and as a result, public discourse seems to be eroding.

Before I get too doom-and-gloomy, I should state that there are still many fruitful connections happening all over Twitter and the internet. It’s not all political arguments where no one is listening to anyone, debates about pop-star hair-care products, and quotes that belong on bumper stickers. There’s still good stuff, and that’s what I try to put out into it,  but it isn’t difficult to notice the major trend in how people discuss online. 

One of the major ramifications of this is that how people talk to each other online has a direct impact on how they discuss, or don’t discuss, in real life. This has an impact on so many aspects of a person’s life, including their professional one. Jeff Weiner, who’s the CEO of LinkedIn, says “Communications is the number one skills gap” for employees. The ability to listen and respond to others is critical in the modern workforce. Whether working in a traditionally communicative job like sales or business leadership, or in a technical field, people have to be able to discuss. Communication is essential for healthy collaboration now more than ever, making the erosion of discussion skills so pertinent, it’s so important that we do something about it.

Teaching Students How to Discuss

So, that’s it for the doom-and-gloom, because now I’ve got great news: people can learn how to discuss! Discussion skills can be re-strengthened and taught. This is why discussion should be one of the key pillars in the classroom. Whether the discussion is academic or social, students need to develop the ability to communicate effectively, and teachers can be very intentional about making that happen. 

So let's dive into some ways to promote strong, healthy discussions in the classroom.

Class discussions need to be safe.

Students will not, and I mean kindergarten to PHD students, will not engage in class discussion if they feel they will be attacked for expressing their views. No matter what a student says aloud during a discussion, the teacher has to ensure the environment is safe for them to do so. 

This sounds easy enough, just don’t laugh at or shame a student and the environment will be safe, right? However, even minor incidents can be enough to send a message to students that the class is not safe to discuss in, and as a result class discussion will become a place where students are afraid to dive in and contribute beyond the surface level.

Get the free Collaboration Toolkit here.

One time my class was having a whole group discussion about a novel we were reading. One boy kept raising his hand to talk, and when I called on him for the fourth time, I blurted out, “Okay, we’ve heard enough from you on this! Let’s hear from someone else.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized they were the wrong ones.

Immediately that student put his hand down, feeling slightly shamed, and I could feel the energy drained from the room. No one else wanted to contribute to the discussion because they believed they could be called out next. I should have said something like, “I’m loving what you have to say, but I want to hear what everyone else thinks as well.” Unfortunately, that’s not what I said, and I had to rebuild some of the culture in the class to get students to discuss again.

Speaking up in class takes courage, especially when it is a new skill. We have to create an environment that doesn’t impede this skill. 

So along with monitoring yourself, this also means facilitating class discussion to ensure other students keep it safe as well. This is why I’ve always had discussion ground rules that are on display and reviewed before every discussion. These rules can be something that you develop with your class, asking them what guidelines should be followed during class discussion. An example could be something like:

Listen respectfully when someone else is talking

Be critical of ideas, not people

Allow everyone a chance to speak

Ask for clarification if you are confused

Always work toward a shared understanding

Collaborate, don’t compete

If you are offended by something, call it out immediately

The ground rules are non-negotiable, for yourself and students. Part of your role in facilitating discussion is ensuring they are followed, and that you follow them to keep the discussion environment safe.

Get the Discussion Ground Rules poster for free here. 

Class discussion needs to be purposeful.

Authenticity is at the heart of student engagement. When students engage in work that matters to them and they see its benefit, they will be much more likely to immerse themselves in the work. So to maximize discussions with your class, you have to find ways to make them authentic. This starts with ‘stating the why.” 

Try to make it apparent before any type of discussion why the class is having it. If your students just finished reading a passage and you are about to have them turn and talk about it, first say, “I want you to hear what the people around you thought about the reading to see if it compares or is different from what you thought, so turn and talk to your neighbor about it.”

This simple line is giving purpose to the discussion. They are not discussing with partners because that is just what you do in your class, they’re doing it for specific reason. 

The purpose also has to be relevant to students for it to be a motivating factor. Students value their school work more when that work is relevant to their own lives. This is why discussion in the classroom has to have purpose and that purpose should be apparent to students.

When creating a lesson plan that has a discussion in it, spend a few extra minutes thinking about the purpose of the discussion and devise how you will explain that purpose to students. Include why it’s important for the task at hand, which is understanding the content, but also explain the transcendent purpose of the discussion. Why does this matter to them? Why is the hard work of deep discussions worth having in class when it would be much easier to sit it out and not say anything?

Class discussion should be student-owned.

I once led a discussion with high school freshmen about gender inequality. I stood in the front of the room and students faced me as I called on raised hands to contribute to the discussion. Unfortunately, only a couple students dared to put their hands up for such a contentious topic. After the class heard the same two students give their opinions what seemed like ten times each, the discussion stalled, and I could hear nothing but crickets in my classroom. I decided to shelve the discussion until the next day.

The next day at the beginning of class, I had students write down all of the ways they saw gender inequality in their lives. I had them write questions about the topic that could not be answered with yes or no. After they finished writing, they sat in a circle and I asked them to have a discussion with everything they just wrote. At first there was silence as they waited for me to ask the first discussion question, and I just responded that I am going to sit this one out, and they can lead. Finally one brave girl said, “I don’t think it’s fair girls have dress code restrictions and boys don’t. What do you guys think?” 

All of a sudden, it seemed every student in the room tried to chime in at once with their opinion, many agreeing and disagreeing, and for the rest of class these students sat around and talked about gender inequality. The next day the students came into my room begging to have another discussion. That is not hyperbole, they were literally pleading to sit in a circle and discuss. For the rest of that school year, this class of students had a new culture built on having discussions. 

Part of their engagement was due to the relevancy of the discussions. They liked talking about things that mattered to them. However, the discussions were also rich when we talked about an act from Shakespeare or using tone in poetry. I discovered on the day we discussed gender inequality the value of student ownership in discussions.

The value of empowering students.

When students have control of their work and guide it in the direction they want to, they will be much more deeply invested than if the teacher is in complete control. Research published in the Journal of Educational Psychology shows that students are more engaged and even develop a deeper understanding of the material when they have ownership of it. 

This makes sense. Is there anything worse as a teacher than having to use scripted curriculum; being told what to teach, how to teach, and even when to teach it? We are more passionate and more empowered when we are trusted with our classrooms and to lead them as we see fit. Now, it’s still helpful to receive leadership and guidance to lead our class, but everyone wants to have ownership of their work and be trusted as professionals. 

The same is true for students. Student empowerment is one of the most powerful teaching tools. 

Student empowerment isn't always easy.

It’s also one of the most difficult ones to utilize. For one, the traditional model of education is extremely teacher-centered. The teacher plans. The teacher dictates. The teacher leads. This is how most of us knew school, and it is not easy to shift that paradigm. 

It’s also not easy to give away control. Student-led activities, especially discussion, can be messy work. Teachers can plan the activities leading up to discussion, but if it is truly student-led, will be full of unknowns as soon as it begins. This raises questions about how effective will the discussion be? Will it hit the benchmarks and targets that have to be met? Will the discussion stay on track or veer off as discussions often do?

These are realistic concerns and are often what prevents teachers from giving away control of discussions. It’s vital that teachers become facilitators rather than leaders of them for the sake of strong collaboration, student engagement, and deeper learning. 

Class discussions are crucial for the rest of your students' lives.

The ability to discuss is not a skill that is all-of-a-sudden needed in the twenty-first century. Informative, healthy, and rich conversations are a part of what it means to be human. They have always been and always will be needed for a thriving society. Whether someone is an introvert or extrovert, republican or democrat, accountant or graphic designer, people need to know the art of strong communication, and it’s needed to prevent Snapchat, Tik Tok, texting, and Twitter from killing the discussion.

I put together 12 of my favorite tools to help with classroom discussion and collaboration. You can get them here.

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