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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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5 Ways to Make Class Discussions More Exciting

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Classroom discussions have been a staple of teaching forever, beginning with Socrates. I have taught using discussions, been a student in discussions, and observed other teachers' discussions thousands of times -- at least. Some have been boring, stifling or tedious enough to put me to sleep. Others have been so stimulating that I was sad to see them end. The difference between the two is obviously how interesting the topic is, but equally important is the level of student participation.

It's not enough for students to simply pay attention -- they need to be active participants to generate one of those great discussions that end far too quickly for both the teacher and students. The worst types of discussions are serial one-on-one talk between a student and teacher, leaving the rest of the class out of the process. Many students stop listening, begin to fade or disengage during this flawed procedure.

The best discussions keep everyone active, either by sharing or thinking. Even those students who rarely, if ever, contribute can still participate in other ways. Here are five of my favorite ways to design discussions in a dynamic and exciting manner.

1. Lightning Rounds

Just the name "lightning round" suggests energy. Make it even more dramatic by playing up the concept of speed, fun and excitement. Have your discussion questions prepared in advance so that you can ask them faster. Short-answer questions obviously work best for this technique. Students have 30 seconds (or a more appropriate time for your particular class) to answer. They can either answer or pass -- and no negativity is associated with passing. Ask the questions rapidly while growing the anticipation for each next question by imitating quiz show lightning rounds: "Are you ready for the next question? Here it comes." Ask the question before calling on a student so that all students must be ready to answer. The lightning round should take no longer than ten minutes, the approximate time that the energy begins to diminish.

2. Throw the Ball

When you ask a discussion question, call on students by letting them catch a ball. With young children, you can use a beach ball and roll it to students in a circle. Older students can catch a beach ball or nerf football. This way of calling on students can either be a lot of fun and full of energy, or it can be a disaster. Be sure to keep the throwing distance short enough to prevent chaos. Make the rules clear and stop if they are broken:

  1. Do not intercept the ball.
  2. Do not throw the ball at another student.
  3. Do not try to break anything in the class with the ball.

In spite of the potential danger with using a ball, I have seen this done with much success and great student involvement. A variation that is safer and fun for grades 1-3 is to pass a teddy bear to the student who will answer the next question.

3. Group Answers

Two commonly used discussion techniques can be put together to allow a discussion that involves everybody at the same time. One is to form small groups of about three students. When the teacher asks a discussion question, every group has a small discussion of its own to come up with an answer. Questions of complexity work best with this method. Add to that the use of small cards with each having a method of group identification. After allowing enough time for each group to develop its answer, randomly pick a card and let that group give their answer. You can pick more than one card for each question. When the answer has been completed, put the used card back in the deck, so that no group can relax and think that their turn is over.

4. Agreements

Keep each question going longer by engaging more students in the discussion. When the first student answers a question, ask another student if he or she agrees or disagrees with that answer. Then ask another student, and keep going until at least five students have participated in each question.

5. Questionnaires

A fun way to discuss famous people or fictional characters is to choose someone you are studying. Divide the class into groups of two or three, and have each group come up with three to five questions they would like to ask that person in an interview style. All group members should agree on all the questions. Each group then passes their questions to another group so that all groups have someone else's questions. Each group then has the task of answering one question in writing, with full agreement, and in a way they imagine the person might answer. Papers are changed until all questions are answered. Then encourage each group to share their questions and the answers they received.

One final point about good discussions: most students can easily hear the teacher, but depending on room arrangement, it can often be difficult for students to hear each other. Have you ever tried to follow a press conference on television when you could not hear the question, only the answer? Our response ranges from frustration to giving up listening. Be sure to repeat student answers if any class member can't hear it.

I'm sure that every reader has either a variation of these discussion methods or some great ones of your own. I hope that many of you are willing to add yours to my humble list. Let's create a dynamic discussion of ideas in this space.

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

ICALTEFL's picture

These are good activities for class. However if the students are not engaged in the topic under discussion no matter how fun the activities, they will not find them stimulating.

This means going back to the class and making sure you find out what subject they are interested in discussing. I'm talking about Needs Analysis, of course. The teacher needs to know for sure not only the level & goals of the class but also the kinds of subjects which the students will find interesting.

Following a Needs Analysis once with a new class in a new country, I discovered they were all utterly engrossed in a soap opera which I'd never seen. So I watched a few episodes and used the subject lines and characters from the soap as a basis for discussion.

The class were hooked!

So I would advise all teachers to use the ideas in this blog by all means, but also make sure that what you are discussing is of interest to the class. This is the most important aspect I feel.

Needs Analysis Explained: http://tinyurl.com/ojhao6g

Norah's picture
Norah
Early childhood teacher, writer, life-long learner

This are great ideas. I certainly used the pass the ball/bear/bee strategy in my year one classroom to ensure that only one person was speaking and the others were listening (hopefully) as they waited for their turn. I do like the idea of small group discussion and employed these frequently as it gives children a greater opportunity to share and allows those who may be reluctant to speak up in a large group to have a voice. I like the idea of the lightning rounds.

Jen's picture
Jen
Middle School Learning Coach

I have found student participation can be increased as well as the quality of participation in group discussions by using the strategy, "Socratic Circles." Check out the resource by Matt Copeland called "Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School." Or check out teachingchannel.org and type in "Socratic Seminar" to watch a few video clips on the topic.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
Blogger

Thank you all for your ideas. I totally support the idea that a great technique cannot help a useless topic. But the flip side is also true, a great topic can be made boring when students are not involved. I checked out the Socratic Dialogue information and found it impressive. So let's keep the ball rolling (pun intended) and hear some more suggestions.

Ellen's picture

Middle School
Whether discussing a specific book the whole class read, or a different topic, students choose which book character they are going to answer for and give their answer through the lens of that characters perspective. Middle schoolers need to stretch to change their perspective but they enjoy the twist, they like turning over the ownership to their character, and they have the opportunity to think even more critically when they offer up why discussing their character answered the way they did.

Alireza Sadreddin's picture
Alireza Sadreddin
English language teacher

Great ideas concerning group discussion, I liked the card idea and using balls I think is a little bit becoming cliche and old fashioned, I find no reason. Although children might like it for the sheer fun of it.
The problem I have while discussing a topic I find it difficult to have all the group members participate. Can you suggest a mechanism so we can make all the group members talk. You mentioned some good tips under number four "Agreement" .My students express their feelings, I mean there should be a challenge in discussion not just everyone says what s(he) thinks and then we go to next student. What do you think?

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
Blogger

Hi Alireza,

Thank you for your kind words. Solving the problem of students who don't seem to participate in discussions can be seen from two perspectives. The first is to develop or discover strategies designed to include all students. There must be hundreds of strategies like this and I know many of them. But eventually strategies will run out and the real problem has not been solved.The real question has two parts: 1) Are students participating even when they don't talk? 2) if not ,then why do they remain uninvolved? Many students talk a lot, but still aren't participating; others don't talk but are truly involved. Find out the level of involvement by asking the target students privately about the lesson and see if they show sufficient understanding to indicate if they are silently involved. If they do, accept it and let them continue the way they are most comfortable. If they show no understanding, then you need to find out why. Talk to other teachers, counselors, parents and others who know the students well enough to figure out why they are so uninvolved. Then talk with the students to see what they think. I think that having the knowledge from others in hand before talking with them works best, but talking to the students first can work well, too.

Understanding what the real issues are is better than using continuous strategies for involvement.

I wish you the best of luck,

Rick Curwin

Ms.Garcia's picture
Ms.Garcia
High School English Teacher from Navajo Nation

We do Four Corners (Strongly Agree, Strongly Disagree, Agree, Disagree) for a subject and students go into one of the corners depending on what they think. Once there, they need to discuss and with their group members on their major points and be prepared to defend their position with examples. They are usually "controversial statements" like "We should only judge a person on the outside" or "Teenagers should be trusted more."

When I first started using this technique, I had to model the process for my students. Also, my class generated behaviors that we wanted to see. A lot of my students like to have these kinds of engagement activities, so we need to get everyone on the same page. I remind them that behaviors not on target tend to ruin the fun. It works well when I frame it like that.

If time is short, I just use two walls with Agree/Disagree and the middle of the wall for maybe. It's up to the teams to persuade other students to join them with their arguments.

I've used it as a way to generate background knowledge for a subject we are going to study or to prepare for argument essays. I've also used it at the end of class as a way for students to use evidence from the unit of study to inform their opinions.

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia
Facilitator

Great article and suggestions, Richard and everyone else. Thank you for sharing. I'd like to share a brief anecdote: I'm a big fan of class discussions, but I've always struggled engaging the whole class. There always seemed to be one or two students who wanted to say something, but never quite managed. Looking for a way to engage all of them, I tried using a twitter backchannel, projected on the board while we had the discussion, with a hashtag for what we were talking about. Suddenly, I had two discussions - the physical one, and the one taking place between students on computers/ tablets online. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the students who were often more quiet in class discussions often found their voice online.

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