Discussion is one of the best learning tools that educators have available to them. When students are able to talk about ideas, they get deeper understanding while probing their own perspectives and placing them into dialogue with others. It is through discussion that they are able to examine topics meaningfully and thoroughly.
However, it can sometimes be difficult to get a meaningful discussion going. Students are often intimidated about speaking up in large group settings. The same two or three voices can tend to dominate the conversation, leaving quieter students out of the interaction. Teachers can feel pressured to maintain a conversation and end up asking leading questions that don’t fully explore the topic the way they had hoped.
If large-group discussion has fallen flat in your classroom, here are three strategies to get it back on track.
1. Start Small
Often, students will find it challenging to jump right into a large group discussion. Students who are quieter and more reserved may feel uncomfortable in that setting. Students who have slower processing speeds may find themselves unable to participate as quickly as they need to in order to be heard.
Instead, you can start in small groups before bringing the class together for a large group. Students who are able to chat in groups of 3 to 4 before bing asked to participate in a whole-class discussion will have an easier time making sure that their ideas are heard. They will also gain confidence in their ideas and feel more capable of sharing them. Even if not every student participates in the large group discussion, starting with small groups ensures that each student gets a chance to talk about the topic. This activity can be scaffolded by providing students guided notes about the topic to complete together in their small groups.
2. Concentric Circles
This discussion strategy is sometimes referred to as “speed dating” because students end up speaking to several different classmates one-on-one. Students are arranged in two circles, one outside and one inside, facing each other. Students will chat with the person across from them for five minutes. After that, the outside circle moves to the right, giving each student a new partner.
This strategy gets the whole class engaged and interacting, but it alleviates the pressure of talking in front of the class as a whole. It also gives the teacher lots of opportunities to shift the prompts and get plenty of discussion points into the class period.
This discussion strategy is based heavily on a modeling framework. A small group or pair of students is selected to sit in the center of the “fishbowl,” while the rest of the students are arranged around them in a circle. The center group discusses a pre-arranged topic, and the other students take notes or prepare questions for the end of the discussion.
If fishbowl discussions become a regular part of the classroom activities, students can be assigned their participation day in advance, ensuring that each student gets a chance to play the active role and the note-taking role.
However you choose to get students engaged and active in their discussions, don’t get discouraged if a large-group activity takes a while to get moving or falls flat. Often, a little planning and creating discussion opportunities that allow students to participate in different ways will address the issue and give everyone the chance to benefit from this rich pedagogical strategy.