Civil Discourse in the Classroom
Chapter 3: Talk It Over
Moderating a Discussion
Effective leadership is often the difference between effective and ineffective discussion. Remember that one of the major goals of discussion is to teach students how to talk to each other. If their questions and comments are exclusively or mostly addressed to you (or to your designated moderator or discussion leader), they are not learning to talk to each other. As you plan for classroom discussions, take some time to think about your moderating role. You might also consider training a corps of student moderators so that students can develop the leadership skills associated with moderating discussions.
In general, discussion leaders should use the following broad guidelines, understanding that factors such as participant experience, nature of the topic and setting of the discussion may differ from one discussion to the next.
1. Begin the discussion effectively and fairly.
The discussion leader is responsible for introducing the topic of the discussion and reviewing the expectations for the discussion, including the ground rules and goals for the discussion. This should include informing the participants of the allotted time for discussion. To begin the discussion, it may be useful for the moderator to deliver a provocative opening statement or pose a series of questions. The moderator should have a list of questions and facts about the issue (or, if the discussion is about a specific text, a selection of quotes from the text) to prompt discussion if it stalls.
2. Keep the discussion moving.
Good discussion leaders try to encourage everyone to take part in the discussion. If there are participants who dominate the discussion to the exclusion of others, the moderator is responsible for trying to move the talk to other people, often by introducing new topics or points of view. Often discussions can meander into “rabbit holes” that distract from consideration of the major issue. Effective discussion leaders recognize when this happens and work to bring the discussion back around without alienating anyone.
3. Summarize and encourage reflection.
Discussion leaders should periodically summarize the path of the discussion to help participants get a sense of where they’ve been and what remains to be discussed. The discussion leader might ask participants questions that stimulate evaluation of their own progress, such as:
- “Are we focusing on all the parties involved in this issue?”
- “Do we need to backtrack to make sure we are really grounded in what is important?”
- Or, “What else do we need to consider to make a decision on this issue?”
4. Keep track of time.
The moderator is responsible for timing the discussion, including informing participants about remaining time. The moderator should try to help the group use its time effectively, including saving time for closing thoughts or votes, if those are planned parts of the discussion.
5. Summarize the discussion.
At the end of the discussion, it will help the group reflect on its progress if the moderator summarizes the course of the discussion, including major points, action items and resolutions. The moderator should pay particular attention to the lines of discussion that were wrapped up and the ones that remained open at the end of the discussion, as those latter lines will be fruitful topics for subsequent discussion.
6. Designate a recorder.
All of these tasks can be challenging for even the most seasoned moderator. It is useful to designate someone in the class to function as a recorder during the session so that there is a set of consistent notes to reflect on. The recorder’s job is to track the most important points and decisions that feature in the discussion; taking notes will help to clarify any confusion among participants on these points as well as help the moderator to summarize what has already been said. (The recorder’s notes do not remove the need for individual students to take their own notes; individual students’ notes will be used to produce reflections on the discussion as well as support ancillary assignments or classwork on the topic.)
Experimenting With Discussion
As you integrate discussion into your classroom, experiment with different lengths and goals. You may have a complex discussion as a culminating activity in a unit, but you might also have a simple discussion activity as a 10- to 15-minute activity where students practice agreeing and disagreeing with each other using cues such as “Yes, but…” and “Yes, and….” Like the best classroom activities, discussion is a complex undertaking that develops multiple skill sets for engaged students. It takes practice and planning, but it pays off in students’ academic and social outcomes.