Discussion Days

Best for:

I use formal discussion days to wean my uncertain 9th grade World History students away from their dependence on me to structure our discussions and provide feedback on their ideas.

What I Do

Choose a question broad enough to generate a period’s worth of discussion, open enough to allow for genuine disagreement and important enough that students will care about the answer.  Some examples I’ve used:  Was the agricultural revolution a bad idea? Was Luther a revolutionary? Did Rome or China deal better with the challenge of barbarians? What one single turning point we’ve studied this year was most important?

Tell students what the question will be ahead of time and ask them to give it some thought.  I sometimes assign them to come to class with three points they would like to make or five pieces of evidence they think will be useful to support their argument.  Before the first discussion day of the year, I give them this description of the skills involved in holding a good discussion to read.

On the day, assign responsibilities to class members.  After the first couple of times, I usually ask the class itself to decide what roles they need to assign, but they often include: facilitator (makes sure everyone gets a chance to be heard), topic minder (lets class know when they’re veering away from the question or talking in circles), evidence checker (listens for unsubstantiated claims and points them out), scribe(s) (keep track of the ground covered and sum up at the end) and time keeper. This can seem like a lot of jobs, particularly in a small class, but assigning each to a different person makes the complex pieces of a good discussion more explicit and reminds everyone what they’re trying to do.

Sit down and shut up.  I make a big production of not talking–I “zip” my mouth, cross my arms, put my feet up on the desk and pretend to ignore the whole proceedings.  In early discussions, the conversation usually stalls after about 15 minutes;  it is absolutely crucial to ride out the silence until some student steps up to move things along–once this has occurred, it shifts the dynamics in ways that last.  I try not to answer even direct factual questions unless they are essential to the topic at hand–try pointing to reference books, instead.

When the timekeeper brings the discussion to a close, ask the scribes what was accomplished.  It is important, I think, not to let them just read back a play-by-play: the point is that a discussion should conclude something, even if it is only to clarify the ground of a disagreement–the work of the discussion is to in some way advance understanding.

Debrief.  I always start by asking students what they think worked well and what they want to do differently next time, but I also give them my own thoughts–scholarly discussion is a learned skill, and students learn faster if they have direct, immediate feedback about their mastery of it.  This is also when I clear up any factual confusions or misstatements that arose during the discussion;  if you speak up during the discussion, with inexperienced students, you will almost certainly kill the momentum dead.

Variations

The possibilities for tweaking this are endless.  As the year goes on, classes generally want fewer official roles as they internalize the tasks.  Some of my classes like to have each speaker call on the next, rather than appointing a single moderator. Sometimes, instead of ignoring the speakers, particularly later in the year, when students are more confident, I keep a transcript, partly as a way to show that I’m paying attention even if not participating and partly because I can then use it as the basis for individualized written comments.  I learn a lot from reading those transcripts later.

Look out for:

The tendency for discussion days to seem too different from normal days.  These should, I think, be a transition tool and a way to show students what they can do without me.  If they go on too long, with all the buildup I give them, then the message can be that on the other days, discussion is not required, which is the opposite of the message I hope to send.

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