How to Support and Sustain Rich Classroom Discussions
High-functioning classrooms feature rich, inclusive discussions. Here’s how you can set students up for success before gracefully removing yourself from the equation.
Getting students to sustain an academic discussion is crucial to a high-functioning classroom. In truly productive discussions, students demonstrate tip-of-the-tongue fluency and accelerate their learning by internalizing, and building off of, the collective wisdom of their peers.
These benefits aren’t a secret. But in a recent ASCD article, educators Tracy Hill and Alexis Wiggins write that teachers aren’t always clear on how they can best support and stimulate productive student-led discussions across the disciplines, from English to math to social studies.
What teachers really need, argue Hill and Wiggins, are classrooms that authentically center student thinking and reduce the role of the teacher, at least periodically—along with strategies like developing “essential questions” and discussion rubrics to “foster deep critical thinking and empathy.”
In a high school biology class, for example, giving students time to debate a well-thought-out, open-ended question such as “How do we know something is alive?” primes them for deeper engagement and thinking before a follow-on activity, Hill and Wiggins write.
Afterward, students can use microscopes to observe slides of plant cells or animal cells and “note the differences,” Hill and Wiggins write, before the students reconvene to continue the discussion and “generate a list of qualities they observed, craft questions, and draw conclusions on the topic of what ‘being alive’ means on a microscopic level.”
Here are five ways to set up discussions that feel more like they run themselves.
Hold Yourself Accountable
Teachers tend to be unaware of just how often they dominate conversations in the classroom, Wiggins writes. “It’s hard to let go of control and turn things over to students for collaborative inquiry.”
The first step of letting go is honesty: Measure exactly how much time you actually spend talking, and take a hard look to determine if there are critical points in a lesson during which you prematurely take the reins from students.
Getting colleagues or instructional coaches to observe a lesson is one easy way to do this, but you can also take matters into your own hands by videotaping your own lessons and analyzing them. “Video facilitates self-reflection by showing strengths and gaps in instructional practices,” instructional coach, educator, and author Donna Spangler writes for Edutopia. “More than any other tool, video shows us what it looks like when we teach and our students learn.”
Watching a playback of a lesson can help you identify specific moments during the day when you can incorporate more student-led activities and discussions. As you begin implementing some of the suggestions below, you can also use video to track the effectiveness of new activities and tweak as necessary. For example, Spangler suggests, you can record a “baseline” video before implementing changes and compare it with later videos to see what is working.
Before you review any recorded lessons, Spangler suggests, establish clear goals about what you’re looking for and even make a list of specific elements in the video—such as moments when you step in and try to reframe challenging work before students have had the chance to struggle a bit—that you can track and improve on over time. Sharing videos with instructional coaches, or even more experienced teachers, can also be invaluable, she writes.
Sentence Starters, Discussion Flows, and Talk Progression
To get a sense of how discussions flow among your students—and who is contributing and who isn’t—simple graphing tools like spiderweb discussions are useful for creating physical representations of conversations.
To create a spiderweb graph, “draw a circle or box and write the students’ names around it to indicate where they are seated,” Wiggins writes. As students talk, “draw a line from one speaker to the next,” and continue until the discussion ends and you have a “web” illustrating the exchange that just took place. “These ‘webs’ help us answer questions such as: Did we have a balanced conversation? Did all of us have equal opportunities to speak?” Wiggins writes.
Shai Klima, an English teacher at Kettle Moraine High School in Wisconsin, told Edutopia that after creating her own maps, she shares them with students and asks them to debrief: “Write down what went well and what needs to change for the next time,” she said. “What does the map show us about how well we talk, how well we listen?” According to Klima, the process of creating and then discussing the maps helps everyone “see their improvement in a very real, visible way.”
Naming and practicing the elements of productive classroom conversations also works wonders, according to Gwen Blumberg, a district-level literacy leader in Boston. A “Progression of Talk” chart, created by educator Cynthia Satterlee, for example, provides students with a series of steps they can take during a conversation to ensure that comments are relevant, build on what was previously said, and provide room for clarifying arguments, disagreements, and elaboration. These are all “necessary skills for any form of discourse,” writes Blumberg.
Sentence starters can also be used to draw students into a conversation, says Catherine Paul, an eighth-grade ELA teacher at King Middle School in Portland, Maine. Paul tapes “talk moves” onto students’ tables before discussions that can be used as prompts to ask clarifying questions like “I think what you mean is…” or questions aimed at getting their peers to expand on their thoughts, like “Can you explain more about…”
It is one thing to encourage students to lead more discussions in your classroom, but to ensure that discussions are rich and productive, Wiggins says, you need to define what success looks like. A “clear, checklist-style” rubric is a simple way to do this.
When students know what is expected of them in a discussion—to back up what they say with references to the text in an English class, build off the ideas of others, or demonstrate critical thinking by acknowledging potential blind spots or bias in a text or argument—they’ll have an idea of the specific skills, behaviors, and tactics you’d like them to aim for in discussions, Wiggins writes.
When students are given clear rubrics to consult, they’re also more likely to “generate self-feedback and improve performance,” according to a 2023 study, and teachers are far less likely to allow their own biases to guide their assessment of the work, according to a 2020 study—resulting in a more efficient and productive learning experience.
Students don’t have to be formally graded on their discussions, but according to Wiggins, a list of skills should be written in an accessible and clear way (like this sample Humanities rubric) so that both teachers and students can easily assess whether they were met or not—and have an understanding of what to improve upon the next time around.
The Power of Peer Coaches
To ensure that all of her students participate in discussions, Hill writes, she uses a peer coaching model. At the beginning of new units in her English class, students are assigned a coaching partner they work with throughout the unit on things like everyday classroom activities or providing one another feedback after they produce writing.
During larger group discussions in the classroom, one coaching partner silently observes and tracks the contributions of the other as they participate in the unfolding conversation—recording how often they’re engaging in verbal contributions and what sorts of connections they’re making (text-to-text, text-to-self, text-to-world, etc.). At the midpoint, there is a pause in the discussion, and the observing student meets privately with the participating student to share feedback on the student’s contributions. After the break, partners switch roles.
“They have an opportunity to improve without having to wait for the end of the discussion for the teacher’s feedback,” Hill says of the strategy. “The students are 100 percent engaged, whether participating in the conversation or observing it.”
Better Questions Lead to Better Thinking
Good questions, according to Wiggins, “effortlessly draw out the best student writing, thinking, and discussion.” The best questions, she says, create opportunities for students to expound on their opinions and even engage in healthy—and intellectually stimulating—dissent and debate.
What are the components of a good question? Wiggins argues that they should be open-ended; provoke thought and intellectual engagement; call for higher-order analysis, evaluation, and predictions; and raise additional questions.
In a history classroom, Wiggins writes, an example question could be “Is true democracy possible?” In a chemistry class, the question might look like “How is the energy of the universe explained by the energy of the atom?” And in a math course, you might ask, “What do I do when I am faced with a problem I don’t know or understand?”
Andrew Miller, director of teaching and learning at Singapore American School, writes that questions can be broken down into specific categories. Philosophical or debatable questions, for example, have complex possible answers that require rigorous thought and explanation: “Are highways good or bad for cities? Explain why.” Meanwhile, a role-oriented question can help students apply discipline-specific skills to create a solution to an open-ended problem: “If I were a scientist, how would I design an experiment to debunk the idea that humans only use 10 percent of their brain?”