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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Whole class discussions are, after lecture, the second most frequently used teaching strategy, one mandated by the Common Core State Standards because of its many rewards: increased perspective-taking, understanding, empathy, and higher-order thinking, among others. These benefits, however, do not manifest without a skillful and knowledgeable facilitator.

Unfortunately, a preponderance of evidence demonstrates that many teachers mistakenly conflate discussion with recitation. "Typical teacher-student discourse resembles a quiz show, with teachers asking a question, the student replying, and the teacher evaluating the student's response. This is called initiation-response-evaluation, 'I-R-E,' or recitation."1

In contrast to recitation, quality discussion, according to the University of Washington's Center for Instructional Development and Research, involves purposeful questions prepared in advance, assessment, and starting points for further conversations. Teachers are also advised to:

  • Distribute opportunities to talk
  • Allow discussants to physically see each other
  • Ask questions that "may or may not have a known or even a single correct answer"2
  • Foster learners talking to peers3
  • Encourage students to justify their responses
  • Vary the types of questions

The Problem with Question Taxonomies

Many instructors reference question taxonomies while planning, such as Barbara Gross Davis' inventory, the Socratic Questions, or the question set recommended by Stephen Brookfield:

  • Epistemological: Why does the author believe that ___?
  • Experiential: What have you encountered that makes you think that ___?
  • Communicative: How does the author rhetorically convey her theme?
  • Political: What groups would take issue with the implicit message that ___?

Developing questions that align with the ubiquitously misused New Bloom's Taxonomy -- starting a discussion with recall questions and stair-stepping through the rest until higher order prompts are dispatched -- has been sold as a pathway to cognitive vigor. Observe how many classrooms have Bloom's Taxonomy posted on the back wall for the teacher to reference. Over-reliance on question hierarchies can result in conversations that are irrelevant to the content and context of the learning environment, and invite answers that nobody cares about.

Claims by commercial texts often employ jargon to defend discussion routines that are unsupported by research, with the exception of studies commissioned by companies selling curriculum materials and tests. Covering all of the question types at the end of a basal reading does not ensure cognitive gains. Also in dispute is the entrenched belief that asking higher-order questions leads to higher levels of thinking (see reviews of meta-studies here and here).

With well over 30 question classification systems, how do you choose those that hold the most promise? According to sociolinguists, the answer depends on the context in which they are used.4

Rather than habitually adhering to any of the hierarchical question sets during class dialogues (a non-hierarchical approach, Christenbury and Kelly's Questioning Circles offer strategies for crafting "dense" prompts that integrate the subject, world and reader), I suggest that instructors direct their attention to modeling inquiry, emphasizing divergent over convergent questions, organizing students' approach to question-asking and -answering, listening, and providing authentic follow-up questions. Because of the complexity of these practices, robots will not replace teachers anytime soon.

The Mechanics of In-Class Discussion

Follow-Up Questions

Ian Wilkinson defines authentic follow-up as "questions that the teacher is genuinely interested in exploring and that evoke a variety of responses from students (in other words, the answer is not pre-specified)." Good follow-up questions expand the conversation and require students to:

  • Clarify their answers: Tell me more about that.
  • Support their answers: What about the reading made you think that ___?
  • Argue: Convince us that __.
  • Examine their responses more fully: In what other context does that idea play out?
  • Consider different perspectives: What would you say to someone who thought ___?
  • Predict: What do you think that we will discover in the next chapter?
  • Hypothesize: How would handle a situation like ___?
  • Decide: So, this leads to you to what conclusions?
  • Compare: How is your answer different or the same from others?
  • Generalize: What did you discover?

Avoid the Following

  • Trick questions
  • Inadequate wait time (less than 3-5 seconds)
  • Lectures disguised as questions
  • Sarcasm
  • Questions with obvious answers
  • Asking multiple questions before allowing response
  • Rhetorical questions
  • Yes or no questions

Set Parameters

Many learners need to be taught how to engage in an academic dialogue -- particularly ELL/ESL students. Provide conversation stems on a poster board or notecards:

  • "Could you tell me more about why ___?"
  • "Let me explain why I see that differently."
  • "Have you considered ___?"
  • "What we both agree on is ___."

A Handy Playbook

Lastly, I've provided a general checklist of items to consider when planning a discussion:

  • Plan for exigencies
  • Plan how you will end the conversation
  • Assess the conversation with these discussant rubrics:
  • Are You a Whole Class Discussion Expert?

    Take the quiz:

    1. True or false? Teachers lecture more than they use questioning.
    2. True or false? Asking questions more frequently leads to higher levels of thinking.
    3. The ideal wait time after asking a question is how many seconds?
      • 1-2
      • 2-3
      • 3-5
    4. Teachers spend how much of class time talking?
      • Over 30%
      • Over 50%
      • Over 70%
      • Over 90%
    5. Do groups larger than three, five or seven discourage students from participating?
    6. Girls talk less frequently when academic conversations are perceived as what?
      • Combative
      • Pointless
      • Too lengthy.

    Answers to quiz:

    1. True (Wilen, 1991)
    2. False. Asking questions does, however, improve factual knowledge. (Good & Brophy, 2000)
    3. 3-5 seconds (Rowe, 1974; Tobin, 1986)
    4. 75% (Dillon, 1988; Hunkins, 1995; Brice & Johnson, 1995)
    5. 7 (Cohen, 1994)
    6. Too lengthy (Larson & Kieper, 2013)

    Notes

    1(2007). Teacherknowledge - Discussion - Recitation - Lecture. Retrieved June 10, 2013, from http://teacherknowledge.wikispaces.com/Discussion+-+Recitation+-+Lecture.
    2(2012). A Literate Community: Common Threads and Unique ... - Google Play. Retrieved June 10, 2013, from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=OVkdHr8FGw0C&rdid=book-OVkdHr8FGw0C&rdot=1&source=gbs_vpt_read.
    3Facilitating Effective Classroom Discussions. Retrieved June 10, 2013, from http://www.mhhe.com/socscience/english/tc/discussion.htm.
    4Cazden, C. (2001).
    Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

    Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

    Jennifer Lubke's picture
    Jennifer Lubke
    Literacy instructor, Tennessee

    This is a great resource. Thank you for compiling it. I am going to share it with preservice teachers I am working with this fall.

    For ELA and reading education folks who seek to resist the IRE pattern in their own classroom teaching, I would also recommend Peter Johnston's short book "Choice Words," in which he makes specific recommendations for framing classroom discussion and teacher-to-student feedback in literacy contexts (especially Ch. 6). Johnston outlines a whole new epistemological viewpoint for building conversations in which children are respected as experienced thinkers in their own right.

    Stephanie Renninger's picture

    What a wonderful resource! As we move forward with Common Core Standards and engage in professional discussions on how to enhance our classroom practices and engage students more in meaningful conversations, your blog, Rethinking Whole Class Discussion, provides a place to start and a vehicle for movement and action. Thank you.

    Todd Finley's picture
    Todd Finley
    Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)
    Blogger

    Thank you Stephanie! Writing about whole class discussion was a good excuse for me to better understand follow up questions.

    Todd Finley's picture
    Todd Finley
    Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)
    Blogger

    Hi Tennessee!

    Thank you for the book tip. I'm not familiar with Peter Johnston's work...but I'll order it today! Appreciate it, Jennifer.

    Ponder's picture
    Ponder
    Ponder is a higher order literacy tool for inquiry-based learning

    This is a wonderful post. Thank you for it! It is interesting how little of a role technology plays in your recommendations. I agree! Perhaps the most valuable educational experience is that of a great, in-person discussion. Technology simply cannot replicate it, no matter how powerful that technology is. Great discussions require human interaction, a degree of comfort and intimacy, and timely comments and questions, none of which technology can wholly replicate. Still, tech can supplement, inform, and enhance it - which is what we hope we're doing with Parlor (www.parlor.is/reading). In any case, great work on this post; it's an invaluable resource.

    The Dixie Diarist's picture
    The Dixie Diarist
    Teacher, Writer, and Artist

    A Monday is a perfect time to give some power back. I've learned that when you make major announcements on a Monday it gives the impression that you spend all your personal time on the weekend thinking up stuff on their behalf while ignoring your personal needs and desires and there are always some students who don't act like they've been duped at all. Sometimes you think up this stuff while you pull into your school parking space that morning.

    But I've given this next one a lot of thought and I decided over the weekend that since we're really starting to cook in class discussion and some kids that haven't said a word for a month and half are starting to perk up that instead of ruining the groove, I told them, that if you have to go get a drink of water then go get a drink of water. Without raising your hand and asking ... get up ... and walk out ... and go get a drink of water.

    Petal asked ... Do we ask you to go get a drink of water?

    I believe I just said you could just get up and go. Walk out without making a fuss and get a drink. I scanned the room and looked at their expressions.

    Some of them mushed up their lips and looked at each other. Wow.

    I said I've got another one. You're not going to believe it.

    No way!

    I said I've decided to treat you guys sometimes like you're in college and in college when you have to go to the toilet you just get up and go to the toilet. You don't bother a professor who's on a roll by raising your arm and wiggling your hand around like crazy and asking him if you can go to the toilet. That's not what he got his p-h-dee for.

    Jimmy Joe screamed that's right! You don't have to ask professors. My Sister's in college!

    Exactly. So whatever you've gotta go do ... pee or poop ... poop or pee ... then just get up and go. Enjoy.

    We don't have to ask. You're sure.

    Nope. Just go.

    Wow! Thank you! Awesome!

    You're welcome. Okay, now please get out your chapter seven study guides and ...

    Four of them, at one time, Tempest, Petal, Debbie, and Sonora, bumping desks around and nearly stumbling over each other, got up and walked out.

    The rest of us watched in awe.

    www.adixiediary.com

    Evelyn Krieger's picture
    Evelyn Krieger
    Author of YA novel, special educator

    Teachers need a lot of practice with this. I'd love to see professional development workshops where they can try this out on each other in an authentic way. Also, students have to be given a lot more time to talk and to ask. They should be the ones asking most of the questions. They can be explicitly taught to do this, if needed. Let the students run the discussions for a change.

    Michele's picture
    Michele
    High School English teacher, graduate student

    Yep, Mr. Diarist, that's about right. I enjoy your posts. Maybe you remind me of Frank McCourt in Teacher Man.

    The Dixie Diarist's picture
    The Dixie Diarist
    Teacher, Writer, and Artist

    CLASS NO DISCUSSION ABOUT IT

    One of my students, Huckleberry, doesn't like to say anything. Even when I go ahead and tell him the answer to a question, and then ask everybody else not to say the answer when I ask Huckleberry the question, and then ask him to say the answer so he can hear what it's like to say something out loud in class from his own larynx, Huckleberry will smile, but he still won't say the answer from his own larynx even when he knows the answer.

    But during the morning and afternoon break and while he's waiting for the bus, Huckleberry's out there with his buddies and he's yakking away like Rush Limbaugh, with arm gestures and everything. He really does have a great smile, too, and a fuzzy wad of red hair with a life of its own. Huckleberry and another student named Flavio are best friends. In class and on breaks, Flavio is just like Huckleberry. The great smile included.

    When I have to leave the classroom to take what I call a "teacher's break," with obnoxious finger quotes, I usually tell everybody to please stay in their desks and work quietly. I drink a whole lot of coffee and then follow that up with a bottle of ATOMIC JAMAICAN STYLE GINSENG ROOTS DRINK WITH TIGER BONE TONIC OPEN WITH CARE I obtain in mass quantities from my local Publix. A vile, gag-inducing beverage, sure, but it makes me a better teacher.

    Anyhow, Spike always gets up the moment I walk out and roams around the room and gives his horrified classmates a quirky commentary of some of the items I've used to decorate the classroom. If Spike isn't creeping around the classroom he's paying attention and answering questions and offering up some mighty good discussion questions. When he participates like that you wonder why he comes to this school about the time Spike starts creeping around all over again. Spike is inquisitive--in an other-worldly sort of way.

    Most of the time Tempest is funny and generous and kind-hearted. Then there are days when she's just evil. Then they are days when she's back to being angelic and if golden wings made of switchblades popped out of her back I wouldn't be surprised.

    Levon will cut enormous flatulations in class and isn't embarrassed about it. Not one bit. Levon's not even embarrassed when he's asked to go outside the classroom to blow his bugle after he warns us he's got a big one coming on. Even when he steps outside the door we can still hear Levon cut enormous cheese. Not embarrassed. About anything. I guess that's all part of Levon's quaint charm. Of course, that's a whole lot of quaint charm to enjoy and I admit--we do.

    Petal will shut down completely and will turn around in her desk for the rest of class and won't look at you or acknowledge anything you say to her from then on. Not just for a class period--for weeks. But when she's on she's the very best at class participation of every one of my students. Probably in the whole school. But then there are those days when I wouldn't be shocked at all if Petal, with her green cat eyes blazing, jumped out of her desk and whipped out a machete and attempted to separate my head from the rest of my body. Not shocked. I would not be shocked one bit.

    Johnny can hardly read. Watching him try to read out loud is so agonizing you finally have to look away. But the effort he gives in trying to spit the words out is profoundly inspiring. I know Johnny knows how much we all admire him because we tell him so every day.

    When Hoover forgets to take his medicine everybody else gets real nervous, too, because the possibility of Hoover flying out of his desk and crawling across the ceiling like a bug instantly increases. Funny, Hoover always apologizes for forgetting, so that sort of calms us down, too.

    In homeroom, Spike also enjoys dropping onto the floor and rocking back and forth on his knobby spine with his ankles locked behind his head. While we watch. In mild horror.

    Then there are all my other favorites, too. A whole bunch of them with a wide and wild range of learning, behavior, and emotional disorders they bring to school with them. During the day, they're all trying hard not to do what their mind and body are furiously telling them to do, usually when it's not quite the right moment in the noble process of knowledge seeking to do it.

    But all that's okay with me. Every bit of it. That's why they come to this school and that's why teachers teach here. You stay hopeful no matter what.

    So is it patience a teacher of kids with learning, behavior, and emotional disorders possesses?

    No.

    Patience means you're waiting for some big payoff. Just getting them through the day with some knowledge in their heads is a payoff, and most days that's satisfying enough.

    So what's the secret to getting them through the school years?
    It's durability and understanding is what it is. The durability of a battle tank and the kindness of human understanding. I learned that when you're in the same classroom teaching the same subject every day and every year, instead of butterflying around campus, you get into a real knowledge groove. Familiarity breeds experience.

    Kids and teachers--sometimes it's a cantankerous combination, but when we understand each other and the reasons why we're in school together, there's a pretty good chance we can all learn something. Even when kids don't talk ... even when some kids crawl across the ceiling like bugs ... and even when some talk too much.

    Teachers included.

    www.actionjacksonart.com

    PriceMath's picture
    PriceMath
    8th Grade Math Teacher from Memphis, Tennessee

    I enjoy your blog and understand that your have to plan your essential questions before you actually teach a lesson. Common Core is changing the face of education, it requiring us to be more precise when using high level thinking questions.

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