A few years into my teaching career, a colleague attended training at Phillips Exeter Academy on the Harkness method, in which classroom learning takes place as students and teacher sit in a circle or oval for discussions and all students must contribute. Afterward, she enthusiastically shared what she had learned about facilitating effective student-led discussions.
Until then I had been running discussions in the familiar way: pitch a question to the class, ask students to raise their hands, and try to be equitable when selecting volunteers to answer. The idea of giving students more ownership over what we discussed—from the questions themselves to possible answers—seemed like an exciting opportunity for us to learn together.
With practice, my students and I found success with the Harkness method. I also tried Socratic seminar and other approaches that emphasize student inquiry and collaboration. After years of experimentation with student-led discussions, I’ve honed three approaches that have made almost all conversations in my classroom both complex and enlightening. They start with students arriving to class having read a shared text.
3 Keys to Effective Student-Led Discussions
1. Make a case: At the beginning of class, share a single, open-ended question about the text. It should be an essential question—one that will elicit varied or even polarized responses. Have multiple copies of documents related to that question (literary criticism, encyclopedia entries, op-eds, news articles, etc.) and multiple dictionaries on a table for students to use—I recommend saying nothing about these and seeing what happens.
Instruct your students to work together to consider the question from multiple angles before ultimately voting to come up with an answer the majority feels good about.
This is a timed discussion, with the length determined by you. It may need to extend beyond a 50-minute class period, and could last up to 100 minutes. Remind students that they need to self-regulate—they should participate as close to equally as possible.
Don’t participate, but after the discussion you should facilitate a short (10 minutes or less) reflection. Ask your students: What worked and what didn’t? What could be done to make the discussion better next time?
2. Use genuine questions: Ask students to take 10 minutes to silently type or write at least one genuine question—a real, honest question about the text, as opposed to a discussion question that sounds like one a teacher would ask—about what they read the night before. With genuine questions you get a sense of what students want to know more about, what they’re struggling with, and whether or not they’re comprehending the text.
Once students finish writing, ask them to read the questions aloud, one at a time. Write the questions on the board for all to see. Then ask the class to thoroughly discuss as many of the questions as possible; transition from one question to another when the class agrees it’s time to move on. You should participate but not lead. Multiple class periods might be needed to address all the questions.
3. Share a question, passage, or pattern: This technique, used for online discussions, was inspired by the “One Question One Comment” activity in Kelly Gallagher’s Deeper Reading. After students finish reading an assigned text, they post one of the following on the class website: a genuine question about what they read and a short attempt to answer it, a passage that resonated with them and a short explanation of why, or a pattern they identified with a short explanation of what that pattern implies about the whole text.
If students choose to share a passage, have them point to a specific quotation they find interesting. By articulating why they like it, they notice exactly what it is about the language that moves them. Choosing a pattern enables students to find meaning in repetition—I have them search for repeated words, images, descriptions, or ideas. When they explain the pattern’s implications, they usually begin to identify themes in the text. It’s a concrete path to the abstract.
After posting a question, passage, or pattern, students should thoughtfully respond to the posts of two other students. At the beginning of class the next day, give your class 5–10 minutes to review what was posted online, and then have each student share either one lingering question or a new idea that came from a classmate. In my class, these comments serve as the basis for our discussion that day.
These approaches have helped my students see how questions are more interesting and often more important than answers. They begin to think more critically about every aspect of what they’re reading, from writing style to authorial intent. They feel more ownership over ideas learned in class because they arrived at them, and in turn they become even more curious.
Student-led discussions take time and a teacher who’s willing to step back a little. The results are worth it—when my students are empowered, my classroom transforms into an intellectual playground.