Communication Skills

Encouraging Quality Classroom Discussions

Teachers can provide a simple framework for middle and high school students to set the stage for powerful discussions.

December 16, 2022
SeventyFour / iStock

University of Southern California professor Edward Lawlor once shared that “teams are the Ferraris of work design.” They are high performance and high maintenance. This is certainly a quote that resonated in my classroom as I spent a significant amount of time managing groups to get a few moments of great learning. 

Getting students to work together and engage in effective communication isn’t easy. 

When students first come together, there’s a lot of looking around and waiting for someone to speak. But with guidance they can become engaged in routines that encourage everyone to contribute.

These early attempts at conversation are often focused on task completion, and the quality varies; however, with continued practice, students will begin to discuss key questions and the range of conversation spans surface, deep, and transfer levels of learning. Eventually, the students turn their discussions to possible solutions to real-world problems.

The hardest part is often getting students to begin. Over the years, I’ve used six strategies that help students start quality conversations and keep those conversations going.

6 Ways to Foster Quality Classroom Conversations

1. Assign roles that promote conversation. Students often don’t say much to each other when they come together. A natural tendency is for us to give students roles, tasks, and norms to follow in order to get them to work together. While these are helpful, we may want to consider the types of roles, tasks, and norms we bring to the classroom. 

We want to be mindful that the roles we establish are (or at least should be) designed to promote conversation, not compliance.

Think less of a group leader and more of a process observer who ensures that norms are followed. In lieu of a recorder, consider an accuracy coach who ensures that the team is reviewing, discussing, and completing work that is reliable and valid. Consider transitioning away from researchers to viewpoint coaches who ensure that everyone is being heard and everyone is involved in research and asking questions. 

All in all, we want roles that keep us away from dividing and conquering tasks and center on conversations about the learning and the group task. 

2. Employ norms that get everyone involved. Consider offering students agreements or norms that orient how they engage with each other rather than compliance-based behaviors (e.g., being on time). Suggested norms include the following:

  • Speak as if you are right. Listen as if you are wrong. 
  • Check your story by asking for facts and other stories. 
  • Find common ground by seeking flexible, not fixed, positions in our ideas.

3. Assign tasks that promote group work. The mantra for group work needs to be “give them something to talk about.” Students need tasks that require multiple perspectives, are provocative to some degree, and are linked to significant declarative content. When reviewing upcoming curricula, consider the following prompts:

  • What perspectives can I bring out for students to explore?
  • To what extent is this content politically or socially challenging?
  • What core content knowledge is needed to fully access this topic? What is the larger theme here?

4. Use protocols, and reflect on quality. Unless specific systems are in place in the classroom for students to read, write, and talk, they will fall back to old habits that may include listening, surface-level “research” (aka surfing), and copying teachers’ notes. To ensure high-quality conversations, students need to spend time reading, writing, and talking about core content knowledge.

Documenting and discussing the quality of conversations that students are having and then showing that evidence back to students can be helpful. One way to do this is to use discussion mapping. When documenting student conversations, start with a pencil, and illustrate the quantity of the conversation (where are we seeing most of the discussion?). Then move to using colors to designate the quality of the conversation (to what degree are students speaking at surface, deep, and transfer levels?).

Here is a brief reference: 

Quantity. Use a pencil to draw a line illustrating speakers in a group. 

Quality. Use a different-color pencil to illustrate the level of complexity from one speaker to the next. Blue references surface learning, yellow deep learning, and red transfer learning. Conduct this for only a few minutes, and then stop the group and debrief the quality of the conversation.  

After the debrief, allow groups to continue their conversations. Teachers often start this process with a fishbowl, showing the entire class how the process is conducted. They then allow small groups to engage in conversation while the teacher moves around the room and tracks and debriefs the conversations for a few minutes at a time.  

5. Regularly prompt students to infuse academic vocabulary in their second or third attempt of discussion. Students will often engage in discussions using typical colloquial language. Prompt students to restate in their writing what they shared using academic language that’s found in the text or the vocabulary found via the third teacher (board, criteria, etc.). Consider this prompt natural, and do not show frustration over the lack of vocabulary. 

Prior to engaging in the conversation, establish 10-minute reading sprints in which students read content, annotate content, and engage in a think-pair-share. By sprinting, we are expecting students not to read a lot of material but rather to read a short excerpt thought about deeply. If needed, prime students with developing questions and statements using academic vocabulary. 

6. Give students rich tasks that enable them to contribute to the world outside of the classroom. Leveraging real-world problems that bring local or global audiences into the classroom via Zoom or in person helps give students a reason to collaborate and learn core content. 

Prompt students to read, write, and talk about the contextual problem and relate it to the core content they are learning. Here are some prompts that support this learning:

  • To what extent does this issue relate to our learning in the classroom? 
  • Where have we seen this problem before?  
  • How can we support others in solving this problem?
  • What are the most effective solutions to this problem? 

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Filed Under

  • Communication Skills
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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