How to Facilitate a Successful Classroom Discussion?

How many times during a teaching day do you say to students: “Stop talking?” Are you tired of student chatter that distracts rather than encourages learning? Discussions in the classroom can be a powerful teaching technique that channels both the students’ need to talk with the desire of the teacher to stretch and challenge learning.

Facilitating a discussion in the classroom can be difficult, so establishing a comfortable environment:

  1. Make sure you are happy with the layout of your classroom: This might be different from the normal layout. The students should be able to see each other without having their backs to anyone (I know this is based on the luxury of space.) Also place yourself where you are comfortable – don’t sit behind a desk (this creates a barrier between you and the discussion.) 03089_5563.jpg
  2. Plan the time of day: Judge when your class are tired or not as responsive e.g. not Monday morning.
  3. Set ground rules before you start (even write them on the board): If someone is speaking you will not interrupt them. (This is significant to creating the right environment.) It is also very important at the beginning of a discussion to emphasize: all students have the opportunity to share views and opinions but must consider the other members of the class so not to offend or upset. (If a delicate discussion is coming up I give prior warning e.g. abortion/ euthanasia/ ethics of soldiers – allowing any student the opportunity to privately speak with you before the discussion takes place)

Once the scene is created it is important to carefully plan a series of questions and stimuli to encourage the first speaker. I recommend starting with:

  1. Discussion question, “Do you think there is life after death?”
  2. Devil’s Advocate, “Could you kill baby Hitler?”
  3. Quote, “I have to believe in freewill I have no choice.”
  4. Exam style question: “There is too much evil for God to exist.”
  5. Anything that may interest and grab a student’s attention. E.g. The rise in premarital sex can be linked to the rise of sexually transmitted diseases.

Give all students the opportunity to: think, reflect and write down their views prior to discussionthe start of the discussion. This could be on a post it note, worksheet, thought bubble etc. This allows each student time to think of a point and also gives them an opportunity to prepare themselves to speak. I have found that putting students on the spot will only produce short, quick responses. For developed, mature, insightful views give your students time to process first.

Avoid Tumbleweed (when no student says anything!): tumbleweed.jpg

  • Be ready to wait – be prepared for long silences. I have found students are silent for three reasons: firstly they do not have a clue what is going on, secondly they are gauging how long it will be before I give an answer or thirdly the students just can’t be bothered. This is why I have found it easier for the students to write down their views first. So the only reason for students not to speak is they are waiting for someone else to start – including you. So just wait.
  • Praise: thank you for your comments, very interesting, good point, clever idea, I didn’t see it like that.
  • If a student mentions a point that is significant for that part of the topic/ future learning – ask the class if they agree or disagree – take the discussion into the direction you wish.
  • Make sure you are aware who has spoken and who wants to speak, so no one is ignored.
  • Remember student’s comments (write them down- be a discussion scribe) and use them later on in your explanation/ summary. E.g. As Luke highlighted the significance of miracles is based on the individual…
  • As the teacher you must respect ALL opinions (even if wrong – use these to encourage further discussion)
  • Challenge student’s points – E.g. why do you think that, are you sure, what makes you come to that decision, expand, go on (good tool to stretch and challenge all students)
  • Between student to student not student to teacher – flow
  • Teacher facilitates through body movement e.g. extension of hand to signal who is going to speak

Issues and solutions:

  1. Loss of control: Set ground rules before discussion that are written on the board – visible in classroom. Keep drawing back to these if needed
  2. A student with extreme views or unexpected/inappropriate comments: Establish an open environment but where students must monitor and consider views as not to offend others. If students write down their views first e.g. on a post it note you can have a quick class scan to pick out any potential issues. I find a straightforward, firm response of: ‘Not appropriate’ or simply ‘no’ is effective as well.
  3. Dominant speakers will lead: This can be a big issue with discussions. As the discussion facilitator you can ask for different views or other responses. You can also ‘discussion flip’ so dominant speakers raise points for the opposing view to their own.
  4. Shy students will not feel confident to speak: By trying different activities to encourage views or allowing students to write views before and during discussions often helps to prompt responses.
  5. Do not have time in lessons as there is too much to cover in the syllabus: Discussions are memorable and an effective way of learning that will assess, evaluate and reinforce learning.
  6. Observed lesson marked down: Three things to ensure your discussion is recognised as outstanding practice in an observation: all students are engaged, all students contribute (this does not have to be verbal but can be seen in the written notes made during a discussion) and the findings are recorded – proof of progress.Arctic_Ice_2
  7. That no student speaks: If you give students time to think (on own, pairs, small groups) and also plenty of ‘wait time’ for responses – a student will break the ice.

Discussions in observed lessons:

The key theme for Ofsted, Educational Researchers and lesson observers is proof of student progress. This is more difficult to verify within a discussion. With a usual classroom task students show evidence of learning through Q/A, completion of worksheets or writing an assessment answer – with a discussion this takes on a whole new art form. How do you assess a unique piece of work to see if learning and progress has taken place? Yes you can set an essay after the discussion to assess learning but the beauty of that discussion has finished – those remarks and perceptive comments may now be lost.Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 16.09.57

The answer: Discussion Coverall: I designed a sheet that can be adapted to help with this. At the start of the discussion the students will write their initial thoughts/ views. During the discussion the students will write their internal thoughts and the external discussion points given by other students. At the end the students will reflect upon the discussion and their original views to see how the discussion has progressed their learning: i.e. has their view changed/ developed? This can then be used as a framework for an essay answer. (Click on the image for a free download from TES).

And what do my students say?:

  1. “A discussion allows us to evolve our own ideas using the points made by others and to apply them effectively.”
  2. “I think it is important to have an open environment, everyone should listen to each other and respect what people say.”
  3. “My teacher is unbiased and always asks you ‘why’ to make you really consider your answer.”
  4. “The lack of strict moderation with regard to who speaks and for how long (within moderation) allows a dynamic and in depth discussion.”
  5. “No one’s views are disregarded.”
  6. “Helps you to see other points of view and gain perspective. This helps to avoid bias in exam essays and understand the topics more.”
  7. “Improves concentration in lessons.”
  8. “I believe it is very important to let the discussion flow instead of having too much intervention.

For more discussion ideas and activities check out: Are you a discussion ‘Log or Hog’? and Welcome to the Boardroom: Discussion Activities

I hope this helps 🙂 Please let me know your discussion ideas and tips in the comments below.

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