Communication Skills

How to Get the Whole Class Engaged in Rich Conversations

Giving high school students agency in open-ended dialogue encourages meaningful conversations involving every student.

February 7, 2022
FangXiaNuo / iStock

My high school students are eager to discuss issues such as food deserts, homeless encampments, teen vaping, immigration, and criminal justice reform. However, a traditional Socratic model presented two problems: Quiet students were left out of the conversation, and the overly prescriptive nature of the questions left the discussion feeling stilted.

By weaving together two facilitation models, I designed a full-class inquiry that gives students agency when discussing a current issue and facilitates a meaningful dialogue. Conversations with this model are lively, engaging, and dynamic. Here’s how it works.

Step One: Choose a Lens to Frame the Issue

Too often, we teachers frame current issues as pro and con, which forces students to take a side and argue for one right answer. Since my students are in small groups with this blended seminar approach, it is easy to introduce multiple lenses, or perspectives.

For example, students may adopt a historical or feminist lens on the topic. These provide students with a deeper understanding about the issue through exposing complexities and additional stakeholder perspectives. Seeing criminal justice reform through an economic lens could lead a student to investigate spending and the value of policing programs. A historical lens, in contrast, might lead a student to see evidence of slave patrols that preceded police departments in the United States. Hearing competing perspectives during their discussion ignites light bulb moments of deeper understanding about the issue that students are investigating.

Step Two: Adopt the Pilot/Co-Pilot Model

I want all students to feel engaged in full class discussions, which is difficult at times. I’ve adopted the AVID pilot/co-pilot model to help design the class discussion. My large classes shrink to eight “pilots” talking in a small conversation circle. Every pilot is flanked by two or three “co-pilots.” Co-pilots serve as more than just observers: They are teammates who actively contribute by listening for connections and then silently passing sticky notes or filling in a shared Google Doc to provide the pilot with timely sources to contribute to the discussion.

Just like real wingmen who provide protective support in the air, co-pilots help the pilot focus on being a part of the conversation and even bolster the confidence of the quietest pilot hesitant to contribute. After each round, the pilots and co-pilots rotate, so that each person has the opportunity to play both roles. 

Step Three: Introduce Focused Conversation

Traditional Socratic seminar rounds can seem like an endless loop of repeated questions. Underpinning the pilot/co-pilot seminar with the ORID method of focused conversation (developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs) helps move the full-class inquiry intentionally toward a decision.

The teacher focuses each new round by prompting the pilots with an ORID—which stands for Objective, Reflective, Interpretive, and Decisional—question. Rounds are lively and engaging, lasting only eight minutes, with one-minute debriefing intermissions. Between rounds, the teacher prompts pilots and co-pilots to debrief together about what they’ve been hearing from the other groups and how it compares with their own team’s thinking on the issue.

Round One: Objective. Students mine their texts for “objective” facts that pull from what they have read about the issue, answering the question, “What do we know about _____?” The objective round helps the group start their conversation from a common understanding.

Our seminar about criminal justice reform began with students framing our conversation with data showing an uptick in police resignations in our local police department; national concerns about lack of trust between police and communities; historic connections between policing and slavery; and evidence of previous attempts at reform, including use of body cameras. 

Round Two: Reflective. The “reflective” round asks students to share their gut reaction to the facts they heard, answering the question, “What do we feel about _____?” Pausing for reflection and time to wonder is essential in the process, and it teases out and honors any feelings students have about the issue.

In this round, students tried to identify with and bring forward the emotions of the stakeholders they found during their criminal justice reform search, like revealing how a police officer may be struggling with their own mental health, or raising the voices of community members feeling targeted, or noting the hesitancy of reform advocates who have engaged in this same work for decades.

Round Three: Interpretive. The “interpretive” round moves from reflection to the question, “So what?” Students are challenged to develop a collective consciousness and imagine possibilities. Working through ideas that answer “How might we…” or “What if we…” helps students to own the issue and see themselves as problem solvers.

In this round, students drill down to identify the real problem with criminal justice reform as viewed through their lens. For example, the futuristic lens group focused on exploring the benefits of body cameras as unbiased witnesses, while the ethical group raised concerns about privacy. 

Round Four: Decisional. Finally, students reach the “decisional” round and are asked, “Now what?” This round prompts them to work together toward solutions and meaningful action steps.

To conclude our criminal justice reform inquiry, my students proposed several potential solutions, including resolving implicit bias, investing in community policing, building trust between police and community members, increasing de-escalation training, and addressing police mental health. 

Step Four: Don’t Skip the Debrief

With this full-class inquiry, students end up discussing potential solutions to the issue they’ve investigated. I’ve had students fill out an exit slip, or write an argument, or even connect with local community groups as a way to take action in response to what they’ve learned.

We debrief the next day and talk about what they thought of participating while flanked by teammates. Students reflect on their experience engaging in rich dialogue with peers and the impact that hearing new perspectives has had on their understanding of an issue. This deeper connection makes facilitating these conversations worthwhile for teachers and students.

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Filed Under

  • Communication Skills
  • Critical Thinking
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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