5 Ways to Lead Productive Classroom Discussions
A good classroom is similar to a good professional office: despite its well-established hierarchy, a key to its success is giving everyone a chance to contribute ideas and express opinions. If you’re a teacher wanting to ensure that everyone gets the most from classroom discussions—whether they’re focused on a chapter in a textbook or possible remedies to a social problem—here are a few tips to maximize participation and effectiveness.
1. Let the students do most of the talking.
Your role is to:
- Introduce the main topic
- Ask new starter questions if the discussion flags
- Encourage students to consider other options if a discussion seems too one-sided
- Let everyone know when it’s time to wrap up the discussion
Since you probably do the most total talking in the classroom as it is, you should refrain from doing more talking than strictly necessary during whole-class discussions.
2. Be very careful about passing judgment on anyone’s opinion.
Even if someone makes a bigoted or ignorant comment, a sharp reprimand will make that student and everyone else uneasy about further speaking their minds. Instead, gently encourage the “offender” to look at things from a different angle: “What have you seen that encourages you to believe that?” (Not, “Where did you get that idea?,” which is condescending.) “Can you think of any exceptions? How would you feel if you were this other person?”
3. Insist that participants respect each other.
Lay out the rules the first time you introduce class discussions: No belittling anyone else’s opinion. No loaded language. No interrupting. If you disagree with someone, say so only after restating their position as you heard it—and then pausing so they can clarify if needed.
“Discussion is an exchange of knowledge, an argument an exchange of ignorance.”
4. Encourage everyone to participate.
Often, a handful of vocal students wind up dominating a discussion, while the shyer ones simply sit and listen. Don’t let this happen in your classroom: often, the softest-spoken people have the best ideas. Watch for “I’m interested” or “I disagree” body-language signals, and when you see them, take the hint to ask, “And what do you think, Shawn?”
5. As class leader, be prepared to intervene if a discussion starts to get out of hand.
As mentioned under point 1, the teacher’s role in classroom discussions is normally limited to keeping things flowing and on schedule. However, there are times when it may prove necessary to interrupt:
- A discussion has reached the agree-to-disagree point, but people are still reiterating the same arguments over and over. What you can say: “I think we’ve covered that point thoroughly. Does anyone have any different ideas?”
- One person is talking on and on and not giving anyone else a chance to say anything. What you can say: “Thank you, Joan. What do the rest of you think?”
- Someone is starting to get visibly upset. What you can say: “Are you all right, Adrian?” If they don’t want to state the problem right there, steer the conversation in a different direction and make a point of asking them again later, in private.
Robert Quillen said, “Discussion is an exchange of knowledge, an argument an exchange of ignorance.” As teacher, it’s your job to give students every opportunity to embrace discussion and avoid argument.