Learning the Secrets of Good Class Discussions

By Matt Smith

As my school year is now officially over, I have shifted into reflection mode so that I can process the previous ten months. One area of my teaching that has improved tremendously since my novice days as an educator is my ability to host a productive class discussion.

Classroom conversations are critical, particularly in English Language Arts. Students need to actively engage in dialogue to process complex texts and the ideas and themes within them. Rich discussion can enhance a student’s ability to comprehend on a higher level.

Here are three strategies that I’ve been trying to incorporate into my classes the past year. Taken together, I think they’ve really strengthened the quality of our classroom discourse.

The importance of wait time

A teacher’s role in classroom discussion should be that of facilitator. However, sometimes teachers can unintentionally be the biggest inhibitors to a meaningful classroom discussion because they are not intentionally structuring wait time into their discourse.

In education, wait time is the time a teacher waits for student response after asking a question. Education researcher Mary Budd Rowe found (way back in the 1970s) that, on average, teachers provide students with 1 second or less of wait time. She concluded that allowing 3 seconds of wait time significantly increased the quality of student responses as well as enhancing the overall value of classroom discourse.

More than 40 years later, we’re still struggling to do that. Why don’t teachers just keep a 3-mississippi count going in their head after they posit a question? It seems so simple. However, allowing for wait times is DIFFICULT!

Two to three seconds can feel like an eternity when you are standing in front of a class trying to foster a discussion. Teachers can hear the momentum of their lesson coming to a screeching halt during those silent seconds. For new teachers, this silence can seem even more pronounced and bring on strong feelings of inadequacy, or at least that was the case for me when I first started out in the profession.

Not long ago, an instructional coach at my school told me that one of the new 8th grade teachers was literally finishing her students’ sentences. I felt for her because I knew not only how nervous she must have been, but also how desperately she wanted to reach the kids.

After six years, I can say that I feel much more comfortable with the seconds of silence that follow my questions. Experience has taught me that it doesn’t mean that my students aren’t engaged; it means they are thinking, and eventually, someone will offer a thoughtful response that MIGHT even include a few details from something we have just read.

(For more ideas about wait time, see this summary “Wait Time: What’s In It For Me” by MiddleWeb contributor Jackie Walsh, which proposes a Wait Time 2.)

Resisting that urge to affirm

Sometime last year, I stopped offering affirmations to student responses. Prior to that, if a kid raised his or her hand and made an observation, I’d usually give them an “Exactly!” or “Great response!”. However, I began to notice that every time I affirmed a student response in that manner, one or two other hands would slowly make their way down.

My affirmation caused these students to choose to not participate, most likely because they thought that the other student had given the “correct” answer. With all of the book discussions that we do in my ELA classes, the last thing I want to do is discourage participation because exposing my students to diverse viewpoints concerning the same topic is an essential component of my job.

I reflected on this observation, and I changed. Now, when a student gives a response during a class discussion, I usually offer either an “okay” or “uh huh,” both in my most neutral tone possible. This leaves the door open for more replies, and I’ve definitely noticed an uptick in participation since I started employing this strategy.

When I don’t positively affirm a response, other students feel as though their ideas are still valid. Our role as teachers is to ENCOURAGE classroom discussion, not dominate it.

Helping students become better listeners

Last summer, I attended an International Baccalaureate conference in Atlanta, Georgia, and the instructor used a host of pedagogical strategies to introduce the various concepts to us throughout the three-day event. I stole one of them called “1-minute partner talk” that I began using in my classes this year.

Basically, you pair up two students and they each get a maximum of one minute to discuss whatever topic you are having your class talk about. They can use the full minute, or they can talk for just 10 seconds (that was the minimum I set with my students). The person who is not talking CANNOT respond to anything their partner says during the minute; the only thing that he or she can do is LISTEN.

I absolutely LOVE this simple strategy. First off, it gets the kids talking, which is something that middle school students clamor for all the time. Second, it teaches them to listen to one another without jumping in and interrupting. I joke with my kids that I have plenty of adult friends who need to play this game to practice their listening skills.

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After four years of teaching 7th grade Language Arts in Athens, Georgia, Matt Smith will be teaching the same subject to 6th graders in southwest Colorado, between hikes. He writes regularly at his blog Can I Get a Pencil? His favorite recent quote – from a Tennessee BBQ pitmaster – is: “If you want to be one of the best, then you need to be evolving and understand that you don’t know everything.” Follow Matt on Twitter @msmitty34.

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6 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    I love that you are reflecting on such an important aspect of good classroom practice but I would like to offer an additional thought. I think that discussion is equally important in math class. Students need to be able to present and defend their mathematical thinking and question the thinking of others. This is consistent with many of the mathematical practices but is, unfortunately, missing in many math classes. Your ideas are equally valuable in math. Students need to engage in partner talk, further their thinking (through good teacher questions/prompts_, and listen to one another. Keep writing.. I like your ideas.

    • Matt Smith says:

      Totally agree about kids needing to engage in classroom discussion in math class (and every other class for that matter). Thanks a lot for the comment!

  2. Sam Taylor, Jr. says:

    And throw this in on the end of your partner talk: Have the students tell you (and the class) something that their partner said that they found interesting. *NOT* something that *they* said.

    Having the pairs turn to the class and say things like, “Michael said that the nobles at Runymede wouldn’t have made Bad King John agree not to tax them all the time if he hadn’t have been already doing it. He said that his mom never tells him to stop leaving his shoes in the hallway, except when he is actually doing that. That made sense to me,” is much more powerful, I find, than having students just repeat what *they* told their partner…

  3. Sarah Laurens says:

    I love your non-affirming “uh-huh’s”! As soon as one of my fifth graders speaks, there tends to be hesitation for others to continue commenting or interpreting. I wait a couple of seconds while I nod my head and then ask, “Who can add onto what _____ said?” Or, “Who can build on that?” This usually gets multiple hands up with my predominantly EL students.

  4. Matt Smith says:

    That’s awesome that you are getting the EL kids to build up the confidence to participate in the discussions! My first two years of teaching were in a contained 10th grade World Lit class comprised completely of refugees from around the globe, all of whom were ELs. It was challenging to get them to that comfort level of participating verbally because they had those insecurities that all of us experience when using a language that isn’t what we speak primarily at home. I’m going to start using your “Who can build on that?” in the future as I feel it’s a tad more academic sounding than my “uh-huhs” :) Thanks for the comment!

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