Learn to Discuss

In Learning to Discuss: Strategies for Improving the Quality of Class Discussion, Dr. Jocelyn images-1Hollander notices that classroom discussions are unsatisfying in two ways: 1) individual contributions are emphasized over the collective process of discussing, and 2) teachers emphasize discussion performance rather than the development of discussion skills. She notes that some strategies are important play makers in the classroom:

  • Assigning writing exercises prior to discussion allows students to compose their thoughts before being required to speak.
  • Small group discussions may be more comfortable for shyer students, encouraging them to speak more freely.
  • Grading students on their class discussion provides a material incentive for participation that may be meaningful to some students.

While these strategies are important, Hollander goes further to bring out the recurring problems of classroom discussion and the necessary strategies to allay the frustrations that teachers may encounter in creating a discussion-based culture in their classrooms.

Hollander points out that “when a contribution from Student B amplifies, builds on, imgrescontradicts, takes issue with, or in some other way responds to the contribution from Student A, we have a discussion.” But…students must be taught these maneuvers, they do not come naturally nor are they placed in the classroom from other teachers. The classroom teacher must make a firm decision to teach FOR discussion in order for “academic moves” to occur/teaching the maneuvers that count in academia.

Teachers should be careful with reward structures for discussion as this only teaches students quantity over quality. Teachers should further be careful not to focus on the “problem student” who does not participate, and instead focus on teaching all students the skills to effectively participate in discussion. Hollander offers the following from her own teaching (she focuses the teaching during the first week of the term, returns to this mid-term, and then again at the end of the class term):

  1. Offer an assignment/brief paper at the beginning of the course that analyzes what factors contribute to a good discussion. The findings are then shared with all students. I would further teach a self-reflection rubric that the students can begin to understand what it takes to “grow” through the rubric towards mastery. After each discussion, students self-assess (Hollander also asks students to write their thoughts about the discussion based on three questions (1. In your opinion, what is going well with class discussion? 2. What could be improved? 3. What progress are you making toward your discussion goal?)
  2. Assignment #2 involves discussion goals on behalf of the individual students (this takes away the “problem student” as this student will grow towards their own goals).
  3. Assignment #3 is in fact a major reflection assignment at the end of the course. All assignments are offered as an appendix to the article above.

Hollander’s paper is one of the best research-based articles that I have read regarding the importance of discussion in the classroom while it still offers excellent classroom-experience strategies that she herself works on with her students.

More Evidence for Discussion & Philosophy

Recent Research Study: “Children who participated in a philosophy class once a week overimages-1 the course of a year saw significantly higher math and literacy scores.” The Education Endowment Foundation of the U.K. conducted a major research study to find that young children who were taught philosophy through a discussion-based approach were more likely to achieve higher level math and literacy scores, with “disadvantaged youth” demonstrating the largest gains. The foundation offers a tool kit webpage that has multiple studies and the interventions necessary to find success in a school setting.

“Kids who took the course increased math and reading scores by the equivalent of two extra months of teaching, even though the course was not designed to improve literacy or numeracy. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds saw an even bigger leap in performance: reading skills increased by four months, math by three months, and writing by two months. Teachers also reported a beneficial impact on students’ confidence and ability to listen to others.” This study is just more evidence for discussion-based strategies and teaching with philosophical texts.

Where Should a Teacher Start?

The Touchstones Discussion Project offers excellent social science/philosophy content for discussion in the classroom. A newsletter from Touchstones points to the progress made with their discussion-based curriculum. As a classroom teacher, I cannot say enough about the Touchstones content, as I have used their content for my weekly formative Socratic seminars. The content is engaging for students and it connected to their study of history and language.

The Gift of Gab

The Gift of Gab for Literacy in Secondary Math Classrooms

The Secondary Literacy Partnership offers professional development webinars in order to offer quick impact takeaways for classroom teachers. The professional development presentation “The Gift of Gab for Literacy in Secondary Math Classrooms” intrigued many imgres-1of my colleagues who are struggling to teach mathematical literacy. How are our schools preparing our students? How are math teachers facilitating problem solving, procedures, and concepts through collaborative communication?

The Common Core State Standards is the opportunity for a shift in the teaching of mathematics from “calculating” to incorporating methods of “disciplinary literacy,” and allow students to take a leading role in the discovery.

With a rubric for the levels of math classroom discourse, and the importance of reasoning and explaining, students learn by communicating their oral math language. Students need to make sense of the word problems instead of just blindly going into procedures of problem solving. “True learning depends on an understanding of how ideas fit together”images-1 (Piaget). What does “productive struggle” look like in the classroom? Productive struggle is necessary for students to begin communicating their ideas with their classmates. Math teachers can begin by teaching students the importance of asking questions instead of the teacher asking the leading questions and offering feedback. Monitoring students during “number talk” allows the teacher to work the room facilitating the thought process of students.

With a list of web links for math literacy resources, teachers can begin the process of this new framework for teaching mathematics.

L2 in the Classroom: Input, Interaction & Output


Collaborative tasks give language learners what they ultimately need (input, feedback, output). One essential question to ask is, “are there better language-learning tasks than others?” The Grammar-Translation Method and the Direct Method are frequent methods in language-learning classrooms, but linguists agree that these methods are outdated and do not lead to necessary language acquisition. Professor Ineke Vedder of the University of Amsterdam points to the Communicative Approach and the Task-based Learning and Teaching (TBLT). One teaching and learning strategy that couples the Communicative Approach and TBLT is the Dictogloss activity. Dictogloss has long been considered an approach in which students “make meaning” with a clearly defined communicative outcome.

Dictogloss Activity

Step 1: Text read by teacher – the text is read twice by the teacher, at normal speed. The first time the students just listen.

Step 2: Listening and taking notes – second time the text is read by the teacher the students take notes.

Step 3: Text reconstruction in small collaborative groups – in groups of 3 or 4 students the text is reconstructed. Together they first compare their notes and then decide who of them will have the role of ‘secretary’, the one who has to do the writing. The condition is, however, that all students are responsible, not only the one that does the writing. The imagesteacher is present in the classroom (‘silent spectator’), but doesn’t intervene.

Step 4: Analysis and correction – students go once more through the written reconstruction of the text and correct errors, or add or omit text elements, if necessary. The text is then copied/handed in to the teacher/sent by email, etc.). Students then receive the original version of the text and compare the original version with the text they have just produced.

Step 5: Feedback – feedback or follow-up activities by the teacher, on the basis of both the oral reports of the groups (‘what difficulties did you encounter’) and on the basis of first impressions by the teacher.

Studies prove that during the collaborative activity all language skills are involved in the dictogloss procedure: listening, reading, speaking and writing. The role of interaction and output are crucial for language learning as are the episodes of ‘noticing’ during the activity (the episodes where learners’ attention is focused on form), while they are engaged in a communicative activity and are negotiating meaning.

Complexity of Language Teaching

images-10-44-18-pmA recent online article points to the continued need for public speaking and the four
reasons why millennials should develop their public speaking skills. Why are these skills not addressed in our secondary classrooms? One reason is that it is more complex than we may originally think. If it is a complex measure as your first language, what could make it possibly more complex? A second language.

Professor Rose van der Zwaard of the University of Amsterdam explains the problematic teaching methods of the past, and the possible reasons for failure to launch a second language. During her presentation, she gave the example of her own son who studied at a school in the Netherlands that has an outstanding reputation. While there, he studied images-1French, but the teacher made the students spend an enormous amount of time conjugating verbs. When they went to Paris for vacation, the professor asked her son to go to the counter to order a croissant. He returned to ask her, “How do you say croissant in French?” (This is not a joke). Explicit knowledge transfer does not work for language acquisition if there is no communicative activities in which the students are “making meaning” (i.e. discussion, deliberation, debate).

Dr. Ian Tudor goes deeper when he writes that we must learn to live with the complexity of language teaching. Ultimately, Tudor points to the need for “local” decision making for the teaching of language. He points to the recent trend of technology and how “technology offers potential, but does not in itself guarantee that a given result will be obtained, not in a complex human activity like teaching.” Tudor’s thought on the explosion of “edu-technology” flies in the face of the overwhelming trend in U.S. schools of spending more money on expensive technology. The concept of “localism” is defined as ethnographic in the sense that it explores the “cultures of learning” in order to accurately address the needs of students, and therefore any possible language intervention.

In “Classroom Discussion: Models for Leading Seminars and Deliberations,” Walter Parker looks at the differences with discussions and deliberations in social studies classrooms. As an English teacher, I have offered deliberations in my classroom in order to increase spoken language and critical thinking. Basically, the difference is that a discussion leads to the finding of common ground by the students, whereas deliberations are a discussion-imagesdebate hybrid that leads to students voting (this can include Mock Trial). Parker worries that students (and society) have taken democracy for granted, and there is a need to teach our children the need for discourse and voting. Parker further points to the multiple obstacles in current classrooms as to why more discussion is not offered. One of these reasons is that fact that teachers were not taught this way, and teachers tend to fall back on the way they were taught in secondary schools! Parker observed two teachers over the course of his study, pointing to the fact that one teaches for discussion and the other teaches for deliberation. Below is a small chart that delineates the differences. The Teaching Channel offers a great lesson with video on “Scaffolding for Socratic Seminar” for our English language learners.

Table 1. A Typology of Discussion (Shared Inquiry)

Dimensions Seminar Deliberation
Purpose 1. Reach an enlarged understanding of a powerful text.

2. Improve discussants’ powers of understanding.

1. Reach a decision about what a “we” should do about a shared problem.

2. Improve discussants’ powers of understanding.

Subject Matter Ideas, issues, and values in a print or film selection, artwork, performance, or political cartoon. Alternative courses of action related to a public problem.
Opening Question What does ______ mean? What should we do?
Exemplar Socratic Seminar Public Issues Model

Speaking of…

Cross Section of Speaking & Listening and Language Acquisition

In Rod Ellis’ journal article “Principles of instructed language learning,” there are basically 10 principles of language acquisition in the classroom. While there is controversy amongst researchers, it is agreed that comprehensible output is required (communicative activities). Too much focus on grammatical function does not take into account proper output for the language learner. One of Ellis’ conclusions is that specific Language Development classes should not be taught as “support” for the regular day schedule of the students, but instead focus on meaning-making through intensive input (instruction of grammar, vocabulary). Those specific classes work to develop this portion of language learning, while the rest of the students’ class schedules should focus on communicative activities.

In recent news, a school district in Arkansas sees major gains in their ELD program by providing block scheduled ELD classes that do not work to support the other curricular
classes. Instead, the ELD class works to provide the grammatical structure necessary, while there are some discussions and communicative activities. The ELD program is considered an early success for the school district.


L2 in the Classroom: An Introduction, Professors Ineke Vedder and Rose van der Zwaard ask the essential questions regarding who is a good language learner? Are there good and bad language learners? What is the purpose of the teaching and learning of L2? Much of secondary school English Language Development (ELD) instruction is done so with the purpose of passing tests in order to “reclassify” the English language learner out of the ELD system. Schools are rewarded for such reclassification because it demonstrates learning and language development.

Although the previous stated purpose is debatable because of the reclassification/reward system, many ELD classes are taught concurrently with the students’ regular academic schedule. For example, students will take a general education English class (9th grade English) along with an additional ELD class. I have seen ELD classes taught differently based on teacher preference and school requirements.

imgresIn Improving Literacy Instruction in Middle and High Schools: A Guide for Principles, the report specifically advances research-based recommendations to administrators for developing school-wide literacy goals. Among them are the following tenets:

  • Discussion – opportunities for deeper, more sustained discussions of content from text. Extended discussions of text can be facilitated by the teacher, or can occur as structured discussions among students in cooperative learning groups.
  • High Standards – setting and maintaining high standards for the level of text, conversationquestions, and vocabulary reflected in discussions and in reading and writing assignments.

More proof that standards-based instruction and research-based methods include discussion, deliberation, and debate in our classrooms!


Socrates as Method

Stanford professor Rob Reich describes the Socratic method of teaching as a pedagogical tool that has come under some criticism, although the method is “considered a relevant framework for actively engaging students with the critical thinking process.” In a proper Socratic seminar, the teacher is neither the sage on the stage nor the guide on the side. Dr. Reich explains his thoughts on the process.

Essential Components of the Socratic Method
  1. The Socratic method uses questions to examine the values, principles, and beliefs of students.
  2. The Socratic method focuses on moral education, on how one ought to live.
  3. The Socratic method demands a classroom environment characterized by “productive discomfort.”
  4. The Socratic method is better used to demonstrate complexity, difficulty, and uncertainty than eliciting facts about the world.


Tips for Using the Socratic Method
  1. Set down conversational guidelines
  2. Ask questions and be comfortable with silence.
  3. Find ways to produce “productive discomfort.”
  4. Above all else, develop follow-up questions
  5. Always be open to learn something new.
  6. Welcome the “crazy idea.”
  7. Brevity is key for the teacher.
  8. Discourage deference to authority
  9. Change classroom space
  10. Don’t be scared of class size.

As many teachers that have worked with me know, I am a big proponent of the Socratic method. Recently, the method has become more trendy and I welcome the trend. But, I am always curious as to why I receive so much pushback from administrators and teaching colleagues when the method is sound. There are many different ways to hold Socratic seminars in order to teach FOR discussion, and hit multiple “power standards” for literacy. Professor Reich just offers a few. To see more details of the remarks by Professor Rob Reich, read the Stanford University newsletter “Speaking of Teaching” (Fall 2003).

Teaching FOR Discussion

In Talking in Class: Using Discussion to Enhance Teaching and Learning, Professor Larry Johannessen offers a quiz based on research (Nystrand, et al., 1997). Take the following quiz to see if your answers are correct (answers offered at the bottom / Don’t Look!!!).

Authentic Discussion in Classrooms: A Quiz

1// How much discussion takes place on average in 8th grade classrooms per class period?

a) a little over 15 minutes

b) about 6 minutes

c) less than 15 seconds

d) about 50 seconds

2// How much small-group work (discussion) takes place on average in 8th grade classrooms per class period?

a) about 30 seconds

b) less than 15 seconds

c) about 6 minutes

d) a little over 15 minutes

3// How much discussion takes place on average in 9th grade classrooms per class period?

a) a little over 17 minutes

b) about 7 minutes

c) less than 15 seconds

d) about 1 minute

4// How much small-group work (discussion) takes place on average in 9th grade classrooms per class period?

a) a little over 2 minutes

b) less than 15 seconds

c) about 7 minutes

d) a little over 17 minutes

(Answers to quiz: 1. (d) about 50 seconds, 2. (a) about 30 seconds, 3. (c) less than 15 seconds, 4. (a) a little over 2 minutes)

How did your answers match up with the research by Nystrand and presented by Johannessen? Are the answers disturbing? Since the research method by Nystrand there has been a slight increase in the amount of discourse in classrooms, but not nearly enough. A few teachers that I know and have observed point to the fact that they have added more discussion, deliberation, or debate to their curricula. But, the research further indicates that there is a large difference between teaching BY discussion, and teaching FOR discussion.

Findings presented by Dr. Johannessen include the following:

  • Discussion rarely occurs
  • Discussion is important to learning
  • Discussion is tied to achievement
  • Discussion is especially important for “language minority students”
  • Teaching discussion is not easy
  • Teaching and facilitating discussion involves skills that require practice and development

Talking in Class: Using Discussion to Enhance Teaching and Learning. A presentation to the National Council of Teachers of English (2006)