Discussion and argumentation

After a lab activity I try to engage students in a discussion of their findings. I use a variety of strategies to involve the students, but I find they don’t really know how to have a meaningful discussion without interruptions, off-topic statements, or inappropriate language. Do you have any suggestions?
—Rosalie, Portland, Oregon

You didn’t mention your grade level, but I suspect this is an issue for both elementary and secondary teachers. Students are exposed to television talk shows in which people yell at and interrupt each other, make unsubstantiated claims, or call each other derogatory names. Texting and tweeting have replaced in-depth, face-to-face conversations. In some classrooms, a “discussion” may be limited to students giving short responses to teacher-directed questions. Students may try to dominate discussions by intimidating or making fun of other students. For many students, it’s much easier to laugh at another’s comment or say “You’re stupid!” than to present a meaningful alternative.

With a heavy focus on reading and writing, the other components of communication—speaking and listening—may be overlooked or taken for granted. And yet, being able to hold a conversation with others is an important skill in the real world. A recent Edutopia blog addresses this topic (Teaching Your Students How to Have a Conversation). These positive conversations contribute to an atmosphere of respect in the classroom, and students should come to understand their role in promoting this respect.

It’s important for teachers to model the expected type of conversation. Demonstrate the language students should use during a discussion: That’s an interesting observation because… Could you please explain that again? I don’t understand. Do you mean that… But what about… What would happen if… It’s been my experience that… I agree/disagree because… I would add that… What evidence do you have for… Could you add more about… (The Edutopia blog mentions that some teachers post these and other discussion stems in the classroom as a reminder for students.) Many of my middle and high school students were self-conscious about using this kind of language. There was a lot of eye-rolling and nervous laughter at first, and I had to be persistent (my students might say relentless) before everyone caught on.

I observed an elementary classroom in which the teacher used several discussion strategies to cut down on interruptions. A quick glance at the interrupter, a shake of the head, or a quiet signal discouraged some. In a particularly effective strategy, the student who was describing the findings of an investigation was given a microphone (a non-functioning one from the technology department). No one was allowed to say anything while that student had the mike. The student could then pass the mike to another who had a question or comment.

In a discussion, listening is as important as talking, and wait time is an effective strategy to promote listening. After you pose a question or discussion topic, wait a 4-5 seconds before calling on a student. Some students (including those for whom English is their second language) may need time to compose their thoughts. This seemingly “dead air” is actually thinking time, and research has shown students’ responses are often at a higher level of complexity. After a student’s response, use more wait time. During these few seconds the student may elaborate on the response, or another student may volunteer to contribute. Before your response, call on other students for follow-up: “Do you have anything to add?” or “Do you agree/disagree?” To acknowledge other students, before your feedback or comment you can say “I noticed your hand was up, too. What were you going to say?”

By creating an environment conducive for discussion in your classroom, you’re setting the stage for Engaging in argument from evidence, one of the Science and Engineering Practices in the Next Generation Science Standards. As students engage in investigations, they develop claims and support them with evidence. They use both verbal and writing skills to critique ideas, propose alternate explanations, and communicate their understandings.

See these NSTA blogs for more information, suggestions, and examples:


Class discussions

Photo: http://www.nsta.org/publications/news/story.aspx?id=52391

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