On Discussions in Classrooms

Socrates, so let’s say 23 centuries), discussion seems to be one of the least well-understood by today’s teachers. One challenge in using discussions well seems to be the confusion between the measurable outcomes that focus so much teaching and the less obvious (but more important) outcomes of discussion.

First, let’s be clear. If your goal is only to have students restate the answers you take to be correct, then there is little reason to include discussion in your teaching. You and your students will fare better if you incorporate spaced practice and interleaving.

If your goal is to have students:

  • integrate the curriculum into their existing knowledge (so they update how they solve problems);
  • understand the curriculum from different perspectives (including those you have not considered);
  • deal with ambiguity when answering questions;
  • ask questions;

(and this is an incomplete list), then discussions are appropriate for your classroom.

Once a teacher decides discussions are going to give students the experience they need, they must make some decisions about how to organize and structure them. Consider, for example:

  • smaller groups can increase participation;
  • protocols can reduce dominance by single speakers (e.g. talking sticks, no speaks a second time until everyone has spoken once, etc.);
  • the best questions require answer to be justified.