Group Discussion In The Classroom
by Laura Hill Timpanaro (@candylandcaper)
The class is prepped and you are pumped. Today is the day your lessons have led up to. You have written out prompts and verbal cues, reflected on the material and studied the routes that a robust socratic discussion might take. You carefully formed your student groups pairing the bold with the reticent, the speakers with the thinkers. You come in excited but as you pose your first question a strange thing happens. Instead of eager students full of questions and raised hands all you see are starring eyes, and you wonder to yourself what went wrong?
Engaging students in small, structured group discussion is a complex task requiring thoughtful preparation. It fosters cooperative problem solving and 21st century skills that are needed by citizens in a global arena, a.k.a. your students. But most discussions fall flat either being manipulated by a small group of students or dominated by yes and no type answers that leave you feeling as if each response was like pulling teeth. So how do we engage students in robust discussions?
My philosophy is based on the idea that students need to be leaders in discussions in order to take ownership of the ideas generated. In other words, if you want students to think outside of the box and creatively solve problems, you have to let them lead. There are many reasons for this. First, students are affected by cultural and technological forces that we may not have experienced as a child that will color their perspective and their opinion. My older daughter was confronted with close minded professors in honors english where discussions based on finding deeper meaning within texts were confined to tried and true answers developed by educators. The problem was the perspective of the students created new associations based on their culture, experience and attitudes that may not have been relevant or prevalent when the text and question answers were created. Students living on a global stage in a world highly influenced by technology see the world in new and exciting ways that we as educators may not have dreamed of. And to our benefit, those with an open mind may be privileged to see the beginnings of ideas and attitudes that come to shape world views as students move out of the classroom and onto the world stage. If we can agree that small discussions should be student led I have some ideas to offer based on concepts that where recently introduced to me by NYC educators. The methodology includes five areas of concentration; the opening, sustaining, expression, closing and reflection.
The opening is the perfect question that will lead to a good discussion. Educators should ponder this opening question and the way it is worded so that it becomes a platform for ideas to spring from. Using the verbiage I wonder can set the stage for a robust discussion as it signals to the students that you are not looking for a specific answer rather suggesting that the answer you are looking for may not yet be known. Opening strategies that include a wonder statement, making a prediction, followed by reinforcement of the classroom guidelines for discussion will help cultivate thoughtful answers and minimized impulsivity. An opening may be “I wonder what would would happen if there was no more garbage?” As students ponder the answer and are encouraged to think deeper we move to the second area of good group discussion, which is sustaining.
Sustaining the discussion, simply put, is to manage the discussion, coaching with scaffolding by asking the students questions such as are you confident in this answer? Can you support this answer? Students should be encouraged to ask the questions and teachers should let students provide the answers. When a teacher allows students to steer the direction a guided discussion takes new ideas will emerge as peer to peer discussions take on a different perspective and tone than teacher led discussion. Letting students take the lead can feel risky but with management and clear classroom expectations that include a level playing field for each student’s voice, it can be very rewarding to both students and educators. Students are more likely to take risks as they talk out the problems and actively collaborate with other students to solve them, mimicking what they will do outside of school as they tackle both personal and global issues.
Expression. See,Think, Wonder is a methodology that helps students focus on noticing details, achieving a higher function of thinking. You may begin a discussion by asking students what they see in a problem, object or idea. Using our example of garbage students may see that garbage is unsightly, damages the ecology and is growing is abundance. Each student’s idea is validated as you ask students to explain why they came up with their answers. Why is garbage growing in abundance? How does it damage the ecology? What aspects about it are unsightly? By scaffolding with questions, background knowledge or observations students take the conversation to a new level of deeper thinking, contemplating the question why both individually and as a group. To take the conversation one step further we move into the arena of wonder, where students are challenged to formulate and respond to new questions about the topic. I wonder what would happen if there was no garbage? How would entities that base their economics on profits from conservation, recycling or buying garbage change? What would happen to the people in those fields? How can garbage be made useful? To close the discussion educators assist students consolidate their thinking based on their wonderings by identifying emerging or unanswered questions.
Reflection allows students to think about and evaluate the process that facilitated the discussion. Reflection can include thoughts on how the students worked together in a group and in the larger arena of the entire class. Inner-outer circle is a method that can be employed by dividing students into two main groups. During discussion group A leads the discussion as the inner circle. Upon conclusion group B, the outer circle, reflects on positive aspects of group A's discussion as well as aspects that could be improved. The roles are then reversed with group B becoming the inner circle and group A becoming the outer circle. Individual reflection could include students contemplating the tools and behaviors they used during discussion as well as considering how their knowledge and skills improved as a result of the discussion.
So what’s the point? When educators step back from their role as teachers and allow themselves to temporarily become monitors and coaches, students are able to take charge of discussions. This leadership forces students to take responsibility for their answers and the answers given by others. It promotes thinking outside of their comfort zones with support from their peers. For educators, stepping outside the fishbowl may seem awkward at first but when the reward is confident students who know how to think deeply and share their ideas with colleagues, what have you got to lose?