Student Engagement

Giving Students More Authority in Classroom Discussions

When teachers act as facilitators of class discussion rather than leaders, students see themselves as valuable contributors to their own learning.

September 8, 2021
PhotoAlto / Alamy Stock Photo

We all can agree that one of the most rewarding experiences in teaching is helping that one student find their voice and take a commanding role to contribute to the classroom learning experience. Allowing students the opportunity to engage in discourse that involves externalizing, elaborating on their thinking, and receiving feedback will lead to construction of their knowledge and understanding of a topic. However, these discussions require students to have authority and command over their own thinking to reconstruct ideas and concepts based on their previous knowledge and existing schemas.

With traditional power dynamics in the classroom, the teacher is the authority. In order to engage in meaningful student talk, we need to break this hierarchy. Otherwise, students may only regurgitate ideas or express concepts that they perceive to be favorable or correct. Assimilating new knowledge with their previous experiences and knowledge allows them to reconstruct new neural networks that lead to long-term understanding and sustained learning. In other words, the new knowledge is personal and relevant.

Avoiding the Boomerang Effect

The teacher plays a powerful role in changing this dynamic of authority in the classroom. It requires the teacher to ignore the intuitive behaviors of a good conversationalist in everyday situations. A typical classroom discussion may have the following pattern:

Teacher talks—Student One talks—Teacher talks—Student Two talks—Teacher talks—Student Three talks. This continues with more students talking but always alternates between a student and a teacher.

In the above pattern, perhaps all students talk at some point in the discussion, but the teacher is always the central figure. A boomerang effect bounces the conversation back to the teacher after a student talks. To clarify, we are describing “talk” as any significant contribution of thought, ideas, or concepts.

Many different students are participating. However, it’s a teacher-centered conversation. Perhaps the teacher is the only one answering questions, or it’s evident that students are not listening to each other and repeating responses. The teacher is the authority of the conversation, and socialization of learning is not yet at a community level.

In order to increase authority and enhance student construction of knowledge, the teacher’s primary role is to facilitate and guide the discussion, only choosing to contribute when absolutely necessary. The goal is to avoid the boomerang effect. In order to get students to respond to each other, it’s not enough for individual students to feel empowered in their own voice; they must see other students as valuable contributors and listen to their voices as much as they would the teacher.

3 Strategies to Increase Student Authority in Class Discussions

1. Map out the discussion. Prior to the discussion, meticulously think about the desired flow for the development of ideas. Begin with open-ended questions to allow for inclusion of all ideas, and then prepare some follow-up questions and prompts to guide the discussion in the necessary direction. These should also address inaccurate ideas and missing information. Also plan on the exit strategy, or how the discussion will end with a clear and concise summary of concepts.
2. Allow for wait time. Wait time is a great tool to increase authority in our students as well, not just to allow them space to think. When a student asks a question of a teacher, the teacher takes a step back and waits, modeling thinking and processing of the question, making it clear that it’s safe for anyone to respond. This moment of silence gives time and space for students to process the question and offer a response.

Students know the rules of conversations just like we do—a person talks and then another responds. Wait time allows an opportunity for a student to take advantage of this innate rule of conversation. It reinforces that the teacher is not the authority of the classroom community learning experience. It also prevents students from turning off their attention when another student talks because the expectation is for everyone to think and process.

3. Utilize prompts strategically. Teachers can avoid the boomerang effect through the use of prompts that do not add a significant value by contributing an authoritative response, but redirect and facilitate to support a student to respond in an authoritative manner. This approach reinforces the idea that students have authority and students should listen to each other. It also reinforces the community learning experience that sees the teacher as the guide-on-the-side and models conversation skills that students can use outside of class.

You may want to try a few different types of prompts. Here are some simple prompts to engage students:

  • What do others think about that idea?
  • Let’s hear someone else provide additional evidence.
  • What are some alternative ways to think about this?
  • Let’s have someone restate the question/idea in different words.
  • How could we add, revise, rephrase, build on this idea?

The following are scaffolding prompts to address incorrect or missing information:

  • What needs to be revised to improve the accuracy of this idea?
  • What do we know that can help us solve this problem?
  • Where can we find more information?
  • How can we answer this question?
  • Let’s consider [concept]. How does that affect your thinking?

With all of the above prompts, the teacher responds only to transition to another student. It’s important to note that the teacher doesn’t offer praise or criticism directly. Often students are seeking teacher approval. These prompts do not reinforce the students’ seeking teacher approval; they reinforce the socialization of learning in the class community. 

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  • Student Engagement
  • Critical Thinking
  • 9-12 High School

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