Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Class Discussions That Work

Okay, I'll commit educational blasphemy. I'm not a fan of whole-class/large-group discussions. I don't care what you name them (one of the most common monikers is Socratic seminars), but get more than 10 people in a group and it becomes a license to zone out. Even if the teacher plays "Whack-a-Mole" and jots down marks whenever a student speaks and contributes, the focus of the teacher is then on scoring, not discussing. I don't care how well you multi-task, a teacher is not modeling good listening when she's busy putting check marks on a piece of paper so she can give kids a grade.

Instead of large, whole-class discussions, in my room I combine cooperative learning and discussion. I've discovered this process works much better, and allows for students to have more interpersonal interaction. I've also taken myself out of the role of leading the discussion; instead I take on the role of facilitating the organization of the discussion. In fact, I don't even have to be in the groups at all for the groups to function. Nor should I be. After all, I already know the material. I don't need to learn it again.

So here's how I do it, and I'll use Jonathan Edwards' sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" as a concrete example of how the process worked in my room.

As I'm a firm believer in the teacher as coach and the student as learner, it is up to me to set up the how the classroom lesson occurs. One of the first learning activities in my room was to teach how to do what is called a "Close Reading." I showed a video and then, using a handout, I modeled what I expected. Next, I had my students read "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" and do a close reading on their own. Let me tell you, they marked. They wrote notes. They wrote down questions. They were actively involved in reading the work. Once they were finished, I told them we would do discussion groups. In college, I told them, you'll create study groups. No teacher will be there to help. So this caught their interest as I was going to help them learn how to discuss. They are interested in college life; they were ready to learn.

I first divided them in groups of four. In my room this is easy, as they sit at tables that hold four people; they are already sitting with their first group, although I may move people around if the table isn't full. To facilitate discussion, I handed each group of four a question that I'd prewritten. Discussion jump starters included the following: 1) Compare modern religion to that portrayed by Edwards.  2) Discuss Edward's purpose in giving his speech/what need did he have? 3) Summarize the sermon's main ideas. 4) Why do you think this was the piece that started the Great Awakening. Was it worth it? 5) Evaluate the literary techniques used in the work as to their effectiveness, making sure to include tone.

The key to good discussions is that the questions must be open-ended and they must encourage discussion. I gave the groups five minutes to thoroughly discuss the question I'd provided, telling the groups that each person in the group would become an expert and need to take that information to another group.  I also had them ask each other the questions they'd written down during their close readings to see if a partner could help with anything they didn't understand. Trust me, they asked, for while they discussed, I walked around and eavesdropped on each group. At times I would inserted my own question if they needed help or had veered off track.

After the given amount of time (and you can adjust as necessary from your observations), I had each person number off from one to four. Then, all the ones went to one corner of the room, twos to the other and so forth. No group had more than seven or eight students. Each group member now came into the group with his own question and the sharing and discussion began. While this occurred, I again circled the room listening and poking my head in to ask more questions. I didn't provide information unless directly asked; I only gave them things to think about. Sometimes I didn't even stay for the answer to my question. This process took about another 10-15 minutes.

Finally, I had each of the four core groups discuss one master question (in this case, did Edwards reach his goal in presenting his sermon?), before returning to the original foursomes. Once back, the groups took five minutes to debrief and share their thoughts and have final questions. They actually stayed on task, not because I was there, but because each group had discussed things differently, even though they'd had the same seven-to-eight questions. The kids had learned much more than they would have had I lectured to them, and they'd each had a key role to play, meaning they focused on the learning.

When I did the process again using the poetry of Anne Bradstreet, I realized two additional things. One, I hadn't had them do a close reading where they actually marked on paper. This is essential as it gives them a security blanket headed into discussion and it also focuses them into interacting actively with the piece rather than just passively reading it. I also didn't have as good of questions as I did with "Sinners." So while the students were able to hold high end discussions, the discussions moved much faster than with "Sinners." Content was also key, as the poems were short. So, in essence, I learned not to expect all discussions to be 15 minutes. As a teacher, you'll need to monitor groups and adjust time accordingly.

Overall, my students gave positive feedback on the experience. As I have juniors, I didn't necessarily teach active listening skills, as in our school many of our freshman teachers do this. However, if your students don't know how to listen to each other, you might need to try some listening activities to teach them how. One is to get students into an inner circle and an outer circle — with people facing each other. One outside person must tell the inside person something (whatever you decide is fine; it can be curriculum-based or something like describe your favorite pet) and the inside person cannot speak. Then after a 30 seconds or a minute, have the inner circle rotate four people to the right. Then the person on the inner circle tells the outer person all about what he's just heard — and this time the outer person cannot speak. The exercise is hard, but fun, and kids quickly figure out what listening and body language mean.

While whole-class discussion may have a role, it's a technique I try to avoid as much as possible, focusing more on smaller groups in which learners must listen and cooperate. I've discovered these types of discussions work better, and the feedback from my students is that they like these more. After all, we need to train for real life, and in the real world, there's usually not a check sheet.


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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Look for an upcoming Christmas-themed book from St. Martin’s Press later in 2014. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday December 18th 2012, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Wendy K.
Thank you.
I needed this particular checklist - close reading, question for four, morph to new dynamic.
I'm grateful to you.
Tuesday January 1st 2013, 5:35 PM
Comment by: SmEbbers (CA)
Great tips, succinct and easy to implement!

I do like to nurture brief whole class discussion occasionally, to create a sense of togetherness and team -- the "shared experience" effect.

But as you said, whole class discussion "becomes a license to zone out" all too quickly. To enable the kind of deep processing and active engagement learners need, your method is ideal.

Thank you!

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