Class Discussion for Teaching Goals

Although Stanford University’s Center for Teaching and Learning focuses primarily on university teaching, I have blogged in the past about their work and how to adapt the strategies for imgressecondary classrooms. Their 2005 research and practice-based newsletter Speaking of Teaching exemplifies teaching strategies for classroom use. What matters from the research is that discussion must be taught, it is not naturally acquired, “Truly successful classroom discussions are guided by specific teaching goals such as increasing students’ comfort with the specialized language and methods of a field or developing critical thinking.” Ultimately, discussion-based teaching and learning should serve the following three elements:

  1. Increase students’ comfort with the specialized language and methods of a field.
  2. Develop critical thinking.
  3. Develop problem-solving skills.

But…where should teachers start? I have spent an enormous amount of my career developing discussion-based teaching methods with inclusion of deliberation and debate. I have further spent frustrating moments trying to get my teaching colleagues to join this research-based and success-proven endeavor. The Stanford article supports this approach, and further encourages the teaching approach for undergraduate classes with hundreds of students! Some of the articles tips and tops for teachers:

  • Exercises and Prompts ~ Analyzing texts or examples from the field.
  • Comparing Texts or examples from the field. One step up from analysis is comparison. Ask students to compare and contrast two texts or examples.
  • Guiding Discussion, Partner Swap, Two-Four-Six-Eight (enlarge grouping)
  • Troubleshooting during Discussion ~ when students lack intrinsic motivation
  • Stir up controversy!!!
  • Encourage and provide competing alternatives

Teachers are then encouraged to assess student learning through reflective assignments, asking students to write about how the discussion changed their thinking or understanding.

Stirring Up Controversy, albeit “structured academic controversy”

Developed by social studies teachers, Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) is discussionimages that moves students beyond either/or debates to a more nuanced historical synthesis. Sample lessons are offered by different websites, but I have included a history format with reading and handouts. SAC is also an excellent opportunity for discussion in the science classroom. In the past, I have found this teacher document to be the best primer, and it includes a generic task card and worksheet. The goal of SAC is for students to work towards finding consensus, but also offers a type of deliberation. When my students could not find consensus, we took the topic to a vote. There are several ways for a teacher to develop the SAC method in their classroom and the ultimate measure is for teachers to see the value in the critical thinking/language acquisition.

In their article “Understanding and Developing Controversial Issues in College Courses,” Brian Payne and Randy Gainey offer possible topics in eleven different disciplines, and then go further in detail for the main four that social science students are most interested in (gun control, death penalty, alternative sanctions, and drug legalization). The authors highly note that teachers must take into account:

  1. There may be differing degrees of background knowledge on behalf of students
  2. Gender and demographic differences that affect individuals’ beliefs

searchThe instructor must make students aware of these differences in order to help students understand their own values and how they may differ from others. This is further important to stress the differences to students so that the discussion is not monopolized by one segment of the class with a distorted view of the issue. Interestingly, the authors point to the method of notecards on each student that is randomly called upon. The article further notes that one instructor quadrupled the turn-in rate for notes and reflections because students are told that the notes are returned the day of a test, and that they may use their notes and reflections on the assessment.

For note-taking, I teach and encourage high school students to use the double-entry journal method or the Cornell notes method. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, but they are both effective tools for secondary school students’ success!

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