Chapter 3: Talk It Over

Civil Discourse in the Classroom
Chapter 3: Talk It Over

Discussion doesn’t just validate knowledge; it builds comprehension and community as students work together to come to new and innovative understandings of the subject matter. In addition, regular discussion helps students practice civil discourse and spirited debate in a safe and guided atmosphere. As Clark and Starr point out, “[d]iscussions are also useful as a medium for training students in communications skills and in building positive social attitudes and a sense of belongingness” (1991, p. 239). Done correctly, classroom discussion goes a long way toward establishing a cooperative learning environment that benefits all participants.

Unfortunately, many teachers struggle with having regular, productive discussions in their classrooms. As Danielle Wiese Leek notes, “we are not clear on what the role of discussion is in a classroom. Students feel like it's ‘free-time’ …  and there's no grade, so there's not a point in trying to do it better. It’s a problem on both ends, because we don't train teachers how to grade discussion skills effectively.”

One common mistake teachers make is simply counting the number of times a student talks, rather than also evaluating the quality of a student’s contribution. The student who talks repeatedly while adding little to a discussion should not receive the same grade as a student who speaks only once, but whose comments take into account the ideas of others while moving the discussion forward.

These “participation” measurements also can be unfair because some students are simply more verbal than others or less shy about expressing themselves in front of their peers. This is amplified when the language of instruction is not a student’s home language. Research shows that boys are more likely than girls to speak in a mixed-gender classroom and that boys are more likely to interrupt. Depending on the discussion topic, culture and class also may influence students’ willingness and ability to contribute to the discussion

All of this means that discussion, like any other educational practice, must be “scaffolded” so that students are able to participate meaningfully and to be evaluated fairly. Students must be given tools for discussion, such as ARE and Four-Step Refutation. Expectations for what constitutes effective participation must be clearly spelled out so that all students have a fair chance to succeed.


The Discussion-Friendly Classroom

Huddleston and Rowe (2003, p.122-123) outline seven guidelines for creating a classroom that supports good discussion. As they observe, the ability to participate in informed and democratic debate is not something that all students immediately possess. But following these guidelines can go a long way to building a better classroom discussion. This section reviews and comments on their guidelines.

1.     Choose limited, achievable goals.

Rather than simply building in classroom time for students to “discuss” an issue, it is helpful to set goals for discussion. For example, discussion could be organized to seek a consensus on a course of action, or to outline the major arguments for both sides of an issue.

 2.     Intersperse discussion with other activities.

Discussion is usually more productive, especially with young or beginning students, if they have time to prepare. You might give students a few days or more to prepare for a discussion, during which time they can research and outline ideas on the issues so that they will be better prepared to participate. If you prefer a more impromptu or extemporaneous approach, you might give students five or 10 minutes prior to discussion to outline their ideas with appropriate support.

 3.     Establish ground rules.

Students will be more comfortable in discussion if they know what is expected and what is not allowed. It is important to involve the students when discussing the ground rules for good discussion, as in the exercise here. Once ground rules are established, they should be publicly displayed (on a poster, for example) so that students can refer to them. Of course, having rules means that they must be fairly and consistently enforced – this is one reason that it is a good idea to involve the students with the construction of the rules in the first place, so that they will be more willing to comply, and more interested in policing each other (“But we all agreed not to make fun of each other!”).

 4.     Give everyone something to say.

Huddleston and Rowe suggest that teachers should try to structure discussion so that everyone is involved at different points, for example by having “rounds” in which everyone must make a contribution, or by dividing students up into groups of two or three before they join a big discussion. This is a way to avoid more verbal students dominating the discussion.

5.     Pay attention to classroom layout.

One of your goals as a teacher should be to encourage students to learn to respectfully and directly address each other with questions and comments, rather than addressing them to you at the front of the classroom. This will be easier when students can see and hear each other. For effective discussion, it is useful to have a classroom that can be rearranged into a horseshoe-type formation. Don’t opt out of the discussion – that is a mistake, especially when students are new and unsure of how to interact with each other – but try to minimize your physical presence. You might even consider having students take turns at moderating discussions and taking notes on the board.

 6.     Build in debriefing sessions.

There are many learning opportunities available when students are allowed to reflect on what went well and what did not succeed in their discussions. Students can reflect on their own or others’ performance as participants using a standardized rubric. They can also reflect on how well the discussion achieved its set goals and suggest ideas for improvement in future discussions. Remember that this kind of “meta talk” is very important for learning as well as developing cognitive skills. Encourage students to use cues like: “Next time, let’s try…”, “The most important/least important things we talked about were…” and “More people would be included if we…”.

 7.     Don’t just teach – train.

Huddleston and Rowe recommend that teachers build in explicit routines to their discussion practice so that students develop good habits. For example, you might always have five minutes of thinking before discussion starts and a reflection period at the end. Remember that we don’t just discuss for its own sake (although that is fun and important), but also as a pedagogical strategy with tremendous civic and political importance. Work on discussion skills the same way you work on writing or any other core academic skill – deliberately, repetitively and thoughtfully.