Communication Skills

A Way to Sharpen Critical Thinking Through Conversation

Reconfiguring your classroom setup can help encourage student engagement during group discussions.

December 4, 2023
Ben Miners / Ikon Images

Silence can be golden, it’s true, but so can noise. There are few things as joyful to a teacher as hearing a classroom filled with excited and curious chatter—a cacophony of half-formed and tentative ideas sharpened in and through conversation. 

Yet, orchestrating such a scene is not easy. It doesn’t happen by accident, but through well-established and precisely chosen activities. 

One such activity is a mainstay of my own classroom practice; its major benefit is to promote greater depth of discussion and questioning. In what follows, I’ll outline step-by-step how to set it up and how you might use it in your own teaching. The example I’ll use will be drawn from English teaching, but the same principles could be applied to any other subject. 

The SetUp: Table Orientation 

Start by creating two spaces where students can sit. The first is a central block of tables, creating a small rectangular area in the middle of the room. Now place tables around this central block so that students are seated facing toward the middle group.

As students enter the classroom, hand out a poem. It’s best if you specify where students will sit, either verbally as they enter the room or with a displayed seating chart. If this is their first time doing this activity, notifying them beforehand that they’ll be sitting in a different configuration also helps to ease any confusion. Once seated, they read and annotate the poem as in any other lesson. 

Now explain that during the course of the lesson you’re going to explore the poem they’ve just read. In order to do this, some students (maybe four or five) will be seated at the middle table and some around the outside. You as the teacher will also be seated at the middle table, and you’ll lead a conversation about the poem with those students. Their role is to do nothing different from what they usually would: to discuss and analyze the given poem, answering and asking questions as they do so. 

However, those around the perimeter (meaning everyone else) will have an equally important but slightly different role. They will need to listen carefully to the conversation taking place in the middle. If they hear something they find interesting, they can make a note of it. If they have questions to ask, they can make a note of these too. Therefore, the expectation is that they remain silent during the discussion, but as we’ll see, there will in fact be plenty of opportunity for them to get involved in the discussion. 

There are two further strategies you might deploy to ensure that students on the outside are thinking just as hard as those on the inside. 

First, rotate who is in the middle, ideally once every 10 or so minutes. Inevitably, those on the outside will have ideas and thoughts of their own, and we don’t want to exclude these students from the lesson. That anyone might be invited to the middle table also gives all students an extra reason to make sure they are thinking hard and listening. You could rotate students at random; but perhaps even better, use your knowledge of the class to decide appropriate combinations of students as well as looking at who seems to be especially keen to contribute. 

Second, while the primary focus is the discussion at the middle table, try to pause at certain points, inviting those on the outside to contribute. This works especially well if you ask them to comment on something they’ve just heard. “OK, Jessie,” you might say, “what do you think about what Melinda has just said?,” with Melinda currently at the central table. This helps students to reflect on and extend aspects of what has been said in the middle. 

And on the lesson goes: You now have the raw ingredients to orchestrate exactly the scenario described at the start of this article.

Benefits of the Activity

This is a completely reasonable question: Moving tables around is not necessarily going to be easy, so why bother? 

Reflecting on my personal experience, there are three main reasons I continue to use this activity. 

  1. It allows much greater depth of discussion with a smaller number of students. This can lead to rich and sustained conversation that can be difficult to maintain with a whole class. You can really push students in their thinking, asking lots of probing questions.
  2. The allocated roles make it extremely clear how you want everyone to participate. Class discussion is simultaneously more sustained and more free-flowing, while also more tightly orchestrated and focused. A common critique of group work is that it can lead to off-topic class discussion. This strategy has all the benefits of high-quality, dialogic discussion without the (perceived) downsides of group work.
  3. An obvious challenge to this strategy would be whether or not those on the perimeter are thinking hard. We guarantee this by making it clear that students on the outside should be writing down their observations based on what they hear, formulating questions to ask. We then make sure to embed into the activity an opportunity to pause and bring other students into the conversation as well as rotating out the middle. This helps ensure that all students are focused and involved while retaining the obvious benefits to those students taking part in the central discussion. 

In essence, this activity helps create a classroom environment where an emphasis is placed on academically ambitious and dialogic talk as well as its careful observation and metacognitive reflection. Silence can be golden, yes, but so can noise.

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Filed Under

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

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