Group discussions are the foundation of meaningful classroom involvement. However, it can be particularly difficult to engage younger students who aren’t accustomed to the classroom discussion model. Whether talking out of turn or failing to participate entirely, there are many hiccups that can disrupt a positive and beneficial group conversation.
Learn how to facilitate fruitful discussions in the classroom that promote learning and equal participation.
Common Classroom Discussion Challenges
One of the main reasons students don’t participate in discussions is because they’re afraid of getting the answer wrong. To help students overcome this fear, try rephrasing questions so answers can’t be deemed right or wrong.
When asked for an opinion, students are more willing to speak up, says Mariappan Jawaharlal, professor of mechanical engineering at California State Polytechnic University. “By asking, “What do you think?”, you are elevating your students from mere observers to active participants in the discussion. This simple question can transform your relationship with all of your students and help you to become a better teacher.”
He advises against using any other words that would imply a right or wrong answer. It’s normal for a silence to occur after asking this kind of question; instead of filling the space with additional words, simply let it be. Give students the opportunity to think before they speak.
Another way to help students overcome the fear of being wrong is to celebrate wrong answers, says London-based secondary school teacher Katie at her blog Teachers Resource Force. Make it a game: Create a collection of questions (some that students get incorrectly often, others that spark discussion) and have students write their answers. Then collect the papers and sort them into correct and incorrect piles.
“Sift through the answers and make a new pile that you think has the best wrong answers, share them with the class and open a discussion on them!”
Asking students why someone may have come to this conclusion and why it’s a “great wrong answer” can foster community and discussion in a safe way that doesn’t make anyone feel wrong or bad for their answer.
Addressing and embracing mistakes and wrong answers may not be common in the United States, but other countries use this as a foundational teaching method. For example, educational psychologist Amy L. Eva, associate education director at The Greater Good Science Center, highlights a study which compared Japanese schools to American schools.
In the American schools, most teachers skimmed over wrong answers and only focused on the students who got things right. In Japanese schools, however, teachers were much more focused on bringing attention to wrong answers, discussing why those common errors occurred and discovering which pathways brought the students there.
Helping students understand that it’s okay to be wrong can help them overcome the fear of speaking in class, which can in turn result in stronger discussions.
Classroom Discussion Formats
Standing at the front of the classroom and asking a question is one way to start a discussion. For young learners, using more creative approaches to group talks may make it easier and more fun to discuss classroom material.
Specifically, creating a sense of community in the classroom is essential for engaging students and keeping them motivated to do their work, explains David Gooblar, Ph.D., lecturer at The University of Iowa. “Getting students to interact with one another, instead of responding individually to the instructor, might be the holy grail of small-class discussion.”
This shows that small group formats are an important aspect of classroom discussion, especially when it comes to overcoming fear of being wrong. Small groups may be more better for facilitating actual conversations, rather than having students simply direct their answers back to the teacher.
Teacher Kelly Malloy offers a number of creative tips for facilitating discussion among young learners. One of her favorites is an activity called the concentric circle, which she describes as follows:
“Students stand in two circles (an inner and an outer circle). Pose a question. The inner circle answers the question while their partner from the outer circle listens in. Repeat the question and have the outer circle answer. They must add something different than what their partner said.”
This exercise helps with both teaching and listening skills. After both partners have had a chance to go, have the students find new partners before repeating the exercise.
Teacher Ryan Tahmaseb offers another idea for discussion formats that spark interest. His strategies are based upon the assumption that students have read a shared text. One of these ideas begins with a question.
“At the beginning of class, share a single, open-ended question about the text. It should be an essential question—one that will elicit varied or even polarized responses.”
Then, he says to ask the students to consider the question from varying angles before agreeing on a conclusion. The discussion should be timed, as it helps students practice self-regulation and keeps them on task. Once it’s over, the teacher can ask how the discussion went, what worked well and what could be improved.
Regardless of the discussion format you pursue, keep in mind the importance of helping each student to speak up.
“Instructors prepare students to speak confidently in front of their peers. Public speaking is a skill that improves with more practice. So when an instructor promotes classroom discussions, they are preparing their students for real-world settings,” writes Lea Ibalio at GradeHub.
Helping students become more confident in sharing their ideas in front of others is important across academic, professional and social contexts.
Tips and Tools for Specific Subjects
Teachers can think more strategically about engaging students and getting them excited to share. For example, Karen Kane at We Are Teachers suggests having students ask each other questions to prompt book discussions.
You’ll have to provide prompts regarding character behavior and ideas in the book. The activity can facilitate healthy disagreement and show students how to politely challenge another person’s ideas while staying open to seeing something in a whole new way.
The junior program at the Great Books Foundation is a resource designed to foster meaningful book discussions in young readers. This K-5 program “combines high-quality literature, student-centered discussion, and activities that support reading comprehension, critical thinking, speaking and listening, and writing.”
For subjects like math, facilitating meaningful discussions may be even more difficult. Fortunately, We Are Teachers editorial director Hannah Hudson provides a few tips that may help. For one, she suggests focusing questions instead of funneling them.
Funneling questions are designed to lead to a specific conclusion; focusing questions, on the other hand, aim at investigating an answer in multiple ways. Probing, reflecting, gathering and justifying are all ways in which focused questioning can be practiced.
Elementary math consultant Jeannie Curtis agrees with the importance of conversations in math class. She emphasizes the use of discussion aids, such as math tools, language support and visual aids to guide questions and answers around certain problems. Language support is a particularly helpful element to incorporate for younger students, because it allows them to talk about what they understand, and where they’re confused and need help.
“Teachers are often surprised at how well their students can question and support each other in describing a problem-solving process with some help from these language aids,” she writes.
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