In Learning to Discuss: Strategies for Improving the Quality of Class Discussion, Dr. Jocelyn Hollander 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, contradicts, 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):
- 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?)
- 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).
- 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 over 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.