George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Rethinking Whole Class Discussion

June 24, 2013
Image credit: iStockphoto

Whole class discussions are, after lecture, the second most frequently used teaching strategy, one mandated by the Common Core State Standards because of its many rewards: increased perspective-taking, understanding, empathy, and higher-order thinking, among others. These benefits, however, do not manifest without a skillful and knowledgeable facilitator.

Unfortunately, a preponderance of evidence demonstrates that many teachers mistakenly conflate discussion with recitation. "Typical teacher-student discourse resembles a quiz show, with teachers asking a question, the student replying, and the teacher evaluating the student's response. This is called initiation-response-evaluation, 'I-R-E,' or recitation."1

In contrast to recitation, quality discussion, according to the University of Washington's Center for Instructional Development and Research, involves purposeful questions prepared in advance, assessment, and starting points for further conversations. Teachers are also advised to:

  • Distribute opportunities to talk
  • Allow discussants to physically see each other
  • Ask questions that "may or may not have a known or even a single correct answer"2
  • Foster learners talking to peers3
  • Encourage students to justify their responses
  • Vary the types of questions

The Problem with Question Taxonomies

Many instructors reference question taxonomies while planning, such as Barbara Gross Davis' inventory, the Socratic Questions, or the question set recommended by Stephen Brookfield:

  • Epistemological: Why does the author believe that ___?
  • Experiential: What have you encountered that makes you think that ___?
  • Communicative: How does the author rhetorically convey her theme?
  • Political: What groups would take issue with the implicit message that ___?

Developing questions that align with the ubiquitously misused New Bloom's Taxonomy -- starting a discussion with recall questions and stair-stepping through the rest until higher order prompts are dispatched -- has been sold as a pathway to cognitive vigor. Observe how many classrooms have Bloom's Taxonomy posted on the back wall for the teacher to reference. Over-reliance on question hierarchies can result in conversations that are irrelevant to the content and context of the learning environment, and invite answers that nobody cares about.

Claims by commercial texts often employ jargon to defend discussion routines that are unsupported by research, with the exception of studies commissioned by companies selling curriculum materials and tests. Covering all of the question types at the end of a basal reading does not ensure cognitive gains. Also in dispute is the entrenched belief that asking higher-order questions leads to higher levels of thinking (see reviews of meta-studies here and here).

With well over 30 question classification systems, how do you choose those that hold the most promise? According to sociolinguists, the answer depends on the context in which they are used.4

Rather than habitually adhering to any of the hierarchical question sets during class dialogues (a non-hierarchical approach, Christenbury and Kelly's Questioning Circles offer strategies for crafting "dense" prompts that integrate the subject, world and reader), I suggest that instructors direct their attention to modeling inquiry, emphasizing divergent over convergent questions, organizing students' approach to question-asking and -answering, listening, and providing authentic follow-up questions. Because of the complexity of these practices, robots will not replace teachers anytime soon.

The Mechanics of In-Class Discussion

Follow-Up Questions

Ian Wilkinson defines authentic follow-up as "questions that the teacher is genuinely interested in exploring and that evoke a variety of responses from students (in other words, the answer is not pre-specified)." Good follow-up questions expand the conversation and require students to:

  • Clarify their answers: Tell me more about that.
  • Support their answers: What about the reading made you think that ___?
  • Argue: Convince us that __.
  • Examine their responses more fully: In what other context does that idea play out?
  • Consider different perspectives: What would you say to someone who thought ___?
  • Predict: What do you think that we will discover in the next chapter?
  • Hypothesize: How would handle a situation like ___?
  • Decide: So, this leads to you to what conclusions?
  • Compare: How is your answer different or the same from others?
  • Generalize: What did you discover?

Avoid the Following

  • Trick questions
  • Inadequate wait time (less than 3-5 seconds)
  • Lectures disguised as questions
  • Sarcasm
  • Questions with obvious answers
  • Asking multiple questions before allowing response
  • Rhetorical questions
  • Yes or no questions

Set Parameters

Many learners need to be taught how to engage in an academic dialogue -- particularly ELL/ESL students. Provide conversation stems on a poster board or notecards:

  • "Could you tell me more about why ___?"
  • "Let me explain why I see that differently."
  • "Have you considered ___?"
  • "What we both agree on is ___."

A Handy Playbook

Lastly, I've provided a general checklist of items to consider when planning a discussion:

  • Engage students with the first question
  • Vary the whole class format:
  • Conduct formative assessment with these questions:
    1. What conclusions have we drawn so far?
    2. What part of our discussion is the most confusing?
    3. What questions should we focus on next?
  • Plan how you will end the conversation
  • Assess the conversation with these discussant rubrics:
  • Notes

    1(2007). Teacherknowledge - Discussion - Recitation - Lecture. Retrieved June 10, 2013, from
    2(2012). A Literate Community: Common Threads and Unique ... - Google Play. Retrieved June 10, 2013, from
    3Facilitating Effective Classroom Discussions. Retrieved June 10, 2013, from
    4Cazden, C. (2001).
    Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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