How to develop independent student discussion

When carefully planned and executed,  discussion is a powerful tool for learning. During a discussion, students are actively involved in the development of their own knowledge and must constantly re-evaluate their position in relation to others. So how can we equip our students with the skills required to engage in high-quality independent discussion? We have compiled five top tips and will be sharing one a day to support you in your classroom practice.

Model expectations

When working towards independent student discussion, clearly model expectations for those conversations. Try using the ‘fishbowl’ grouping to do this. Choose a group of confident communicators and have them sit in a circle facing inwards. Have the rest of your class sit in a circle around the outside of the inner circle, also facing inwards.  Give the students taking part in the discussion an interesting talk stimulus, a protocol and the appropriate scaffolds required such as sentence stems.

Then, provide the observers with a framework including the essential skills for independent discussion. Talk Detectives is a great way to do this, a small group of students looking for aspects of your Discussion Guidelines. At the end of the discussion, reflect as a whole group. What did you notice about the talk? Which Discussion Guidelines did you notice? How did this impact the conversation?

Set clear objectives! 

If a group discussion is not set up with clear objectives, it can be easy for students to wander off topic. To avoid this, be explicit with students about what their end objective is.

If your objective for students is to reach a consensus, use Talk Tactics to encourage them to build on each other’s contributions, reminding them to ask clarifying and probing questions along the way. If, however, your objective is for students to negotiate and even debate, then encourage them to challenge and disagree with each other politely. Remind students to justify their opinions with explanations and/or evidence when they challenge each other.

Using group protocols also helps to ensure everyone in the group has the chance to have their say. Designating someone as chair can help to manage contributions from more dominant speakers. Before groups begin, ask students to nominate someone to summarise their group’s discussion – reminding them to check they have met the original objectives.

Use talk trios

Talk trios are a great way to structure and support independent discussions in the classroom. Often, reluctant speakers find it easier to join in if they are able to initially listen and respond to an idea instigated by someone else.

Asking for a group member to feedback provides accountability to a trio discussion – whether it be feeding back key points or a consensus from the group. The silent summariser role works well for this. Student A and B have a discussion around a talking point while student C (the summariser) remains quiet until the discussion has finished, before summarising the key points at the end. It can be an effective way to challenge the skills of more confident and dominating speakers in a group.

Scaffold discussions

Before the discussion, ask yourself, do all your students have the knowledge they need on this topic to develop each other’s ideas and will all students be able to contribute? Think about scaffolding the discussion as you would an activity with a written outcome.  You could brainstorm key arguments as a class before the discussion and have them on tables or on the board for some or all students. You may want to equip students with the relevant vocabulary to help.

You can also scaffold how the discussion unfolds in order that everyone has their say. Teachers often cite concerns about students taking over, not talking at all, or becoming very noisy, as barriers to successful student-led group discussions.  Choosing a protocol such as thumbs in helps to ensure that turn-taking is organised, and that only one person is talking at a time. 

Try a Harkness discussion

The idea of “Harkness Teaching” is that students work together, exchanging ideas and information, around a table. In a Harkness discussion, the teacher’s role as a subject authority is changed as it is the students who ask each other questions so it’s a great opportunity to encourage independent discussion.  

Harkness discussions can be used with students of all ages. The discussion can be tracked to give a visual record of who said what, enabling students to reflect on their role in moving the group’s knowledge and understanding forward. 

Harkness depends on the development of a classroom culture in which talk flourishes and where every student feels that what they have to say matters, linking closely to our Teacher Benchmark of ‘Values Every Voice’. In this sense, it could be argued that Harkness is a pedagogical philosophy that shifts the balance of power from teacher to students.

If you find these suggestions useful or if you have any strategies of your own that you’d like to share with the Voice 21 Community, tweet us at @Voice21Oracy or email us at [email protected]

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