What does a good discussion look like?

One of my favorite moments in the classroom is when students are thinking about some really interesting problem… perhaps they’ve even posed an extension of a problem in their textbook… and they are excitedly discussing it.  They build on one another’s ideas, they inevitably argue, there is a back-and-forth that continues until they’ve really gotten somewhere.  Occasionally I will step in to resolve a dispute or get the students to think more carefully about some misconception they’ve been running with, but for the most part it is the material itself that drives the discussion.

There is a tension, though, between letting the discussion flow naturally and between creating a balance of voices heard in the classroom.  When things get exciting, it is much harder, and perhaps not even the right thing, to let the students speak in turn.  Because there is often one person who has had the crucial idea, the other students’ comments tend to be directed at that person, who may then be speaking every other comment.  Because the discussion is heated and the people who’ve just spoken want to respond right away, there is also less “space” in the discussion for people who are not as in the thick of it to jump in.  I worry in these cases about quieter students, students who take a bit longer than others to formulate their ideas, more tentative students, and students who’ve simply missed some of the framing of the discussion and aren’t quite sure what we’re talking about.

Here are two strategies I’ve sometimes used to make these conversations more friendly to every student.  1) Go to a strict hand-raising system, in which the two or three most ardent students have to wait to bring their ideas forward while we hear from other people who have more tentative and perhaps less-formed opinions.  2) Go to group work for five minutes and let each group the chance to discuss the material, then report back, at which point multiple groups might have definitively solved the problem, or, if not, at least we can begin the discussion again with more students “on the same page.”

While I do sometimes use those strategies, #1 especially feels strange, as if I’m killing the momentum of the discussion.  At a private school we have the luxury of small classes, but there is still something that seems artificial about having a discussion with more than, say, three people at once.  What does it look like to have an open-ended discussion in which most students are involved, that at the same time builds on an idea and approaches a conclusion?


  1. Tony
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 12:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I have two random thoughts on your post:

    1) I find that at the beginning of a topic, the kind of open-ended discussion you are referring to is easier to have, because none of the students know exactly where the discussion is going or is “supposed” to go. I have the most trouble when a student has insight in to a particular problem, because then, as you point out, the comments from other students tend to focus back on that student.

    2) But I do think back to some of my best classes in high school and college, and often I got a lot out of hearing others have a discussion, even when I wasn’t involved directly. Of course I want to have discussions where most or all students are involved, but I do think students themselves see value in discussions where they are a spectator, as long as the discussions are interesting and provoke thought.

  2. Laliev Silverman
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink | Reply

    When I feel like a small group of students is running away with the discussion, sometimes it helps to jump in with the question, “Who agrees with person X and who agrees with person Y?” Then some more students may join the discussion by offering supporting arguments for either side. I’ve also asked, “Who isn’t sure?” Usually someone raises a hand and then I ask if anyone who hasn’t been speaking up can explain the two sides of the argument. Here’s one more idea that I’ve actually never tried myself: I could stop the discussion and tell everyone that they have 2 minutes to write down who they agree with and why. This could help the students who are tentative public speakers and who are slower in formulating their thoughts. Perhaps when we restart the discussion they will feel more prepared to join in.

  3. cukierm
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for posting, Laliev! I really like your idea of having students write what they are thinking “in the moment.” I’m going to try that in the coming year. Maybe I could collect the responses on an optional basis in order to get some idea of what the quieter students are thinking. I think I would have appreciated that at times in my own experience as a student.

    Re: your first suggestion, with hand raising… I had a professor in college who would routinely have the class vote on which of two possibilities they thought would correct. I always thought “voting” was a funny gimmick because of course the majority does not necessarily rule, but I loved this enough to steal the idea. Among other things, it forces every kid to actively think about the issue and commit to a side, even if in the end they are only guessing. And then everyone is invested in what the answer turns out to be. I like your idea of picking one of the “sidelines” kids who seems confident to do the explaining.

    Of course, as Tony said, it is still hard when one kid has an insight and no one else in the class quite sees it. (Especially if the student with the insight is having trouble articulating it.) You have to walk the line between validating that kid and keeping the class interesting for everyone else.

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