Students discussing in a small group

3 engaging student discussion strategies for any classroom

There were moments in my middle school English Language Arts classroom when my students would not stop talking when they were supposed to be silent. And there were moments when they were supposed to be talking that they were silent. Oh, the irony!

I wanted to channel that enthusiasm for informal discussion toward an academic end. That’s when I began implementing engaging class discussions, and the conversations in my classroom were forever altered.

As we know, speaking and listening skills are important in both the professional and personal arena of life. We want our students to have the ability to articulate thought, analyze, and discuss. We want them to know how to disagree and come to a consensus. We also want students to know how to clearly communicate. The question becomes: How do we get there?

In my experience, engaging student discussions are the answer to creating a culture of speakers, listeners, and learners. Here are my top three classroom discussion strategies that worked to build student engagement in the areas of speaking and listening.

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3 classroom discussion strategies you can use

1. Socratic seminar

High school students having a group discussion

In a nutshell:

Socratic Seminars allow students to develop inquiry skills in the context of collegial discussions. There are many ways to set up this engaging group discussion strategy and adapt it to your classroom or setting.

The goal of a Socratic Seminar is to pursue a deeper understanding with the help of peer collaboration.

How it works:

The essential principle here is that students read a text and come to class prepared with discussion questions. The in-class time is spent on the Socratic Seminar.

Most Socratic Seminars use small groups — an inner and an outer circle. The inner circle is discussing while the outer is performing any number of tasks related to the seminar (including participating in a backchannel, analyzing their partner’s input to the seminar, or providing the questions in written form to the inner circle.)

The student-written questions need to be open-ended and, ideally, will lean toward the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy where student analyze, synthesize, and evaluate.

Socratic Seminars are not debates. Instead, they require students to work toward understanding, together. The texts are intended to be used during the discussion. In fact, quoting the text can be a requirement.

Teachers often use a checklist or a rubric that outlines the expectations of the Socratic Seminar. A student reflection piece afterward is often a part of this engaging class discussion strategy.

How it worked for me:

In my small, rural school, I had to teach students how to ask questions. At first, they were content to write low-level recall questions that only required their classmates to have read the article. With some practice and direct instruction, my students blossomed into better analyzers and independent thinkers. They would draw connections across texts, units, and time frames.

My students were excited about Socratic Seminar days, and this increased the number of students who were coming prepared because they wanted to be able to add to the discussion. To me, this is winning!

2. Pop-up debates

School child with hand raised in the classroom

In a nutshell:

Pop-up debates are informal debates that focus on both a soft skill as well as a content topic. They are easy to implement and adjust based on content, the student’s age, and the duration of the class period.

Students work on specific skills such as building on the ideas of others, paraphrasing, using evidence, and participating in collegial disagreements within the context of the debate. Teachers need to explicitly teach, model, and share expectations prior to the pop-up debate.

How it works:

Pop-up debates rely on one central question that is, well, debatable. Teachers decide how many times each student has to speak during the debate, giving everyone the chance to participate.

It is called a pop-up debate because the students stand at their desk while they are speaking. If multiple students stand ready to share, the group must silently defer and sit back down with only one member of the class remaining standing. This reinforces social-emotional skills without teacher intervention.

During the debate, the teacher posts a list of student names and tally-marks the number of responses given while the debate is occurring. Once a student has spoken the prescribed amount of times, they are not allowed to speak in the debate any further. This gives the pop-up debate an element of strategy and pre-planning, often from your most competitive and confident speakers.

The goal for students is to avoid siloing. Siloing happens when someone stands up, states their response, sits down, and the next student does the same without regard to what was shared before them.

Teachers can participate in the debate, but I adhered to the prescribed number of times that students were allowed to speak. This created a culture where students saw me as less of a sage and more of a guide. It allowed me the opportunity to give alternative viewpoints or considerations if the students were generally landing on the same conclusions.

How it worked for me:

I used these as quick, paperless, formative assessments of both content and a soft skill. It required very little preparation, but allowed me to see big results and areas of focus in the arena of speaking and listening.

One of my favorite pop-up debates involved using text evidence with the book The Outsiders by SE Hinton. The debate statement was: Johnny is solely to blame for the death of Bob. Students used specific lines from the text defending other views, and they built their thoughts off the ideas of others. These views ranged from Johnny’s parents, society, the Socs, Bob himself, Cherry, and Ponyboy. It was engaging, interesting, and better yet, student-driven.

3. Speed dating

kids with pens and notebooks discussing in classroom

In a nutshell:

Speed dating is where students discuss a question one-on-one with a classmate while standing in an inner or outer circle. They rotate and continue answering questions in this manner. These questions are directed by the teacher and can easily be amended depending upon the needs of the learners in the classroom.

How it works:

In this engaging discussion strategy, students form an inner or outer circle. They stand across from one classmate that is in the opposite circle. The teacher asks a question relating to anything discussion-worthy from the content and allows time for the two students to discuss. One minute is usually plenty of time. Then students rotate, the teacher asks another question, and the discussion continues with a new partner.

Rotations can be done in a routine by moving one circle in either direction or shifting the circles a few steps in opposite directions. This allows you to add your own style and flair to the process.

The questions can move thinking deeper. The teacher has complete reign to switch, amend, or create questions that better suit the needs of each class of students. For example, asking students to find one statement they have disagreed with in the conversation or having them synthesize/evaluate information is a great way to keep them on task and going deeper into the discussion itself.

These discussions can be as formal or informal as the teacher wants them to be. Sometimes, speed dating involves a collaborative assignment, which requires additional work like writing. Other times, it can serve as a pre-test of sorts where the instructor listens in informally to see what students know or do not know about a topic.

Depending on the format for speed dating, it can easily lend itself to a bell-ringer or exit-slip activity. Students can reflect on one component or a specific question before leaving for the day.

How it worked for me:

This strategy worked well when I wanted to scaffold writing instruction. If I knew I was going to be giving a writing prompt that would be difficult for students with exceptionalities, I would often host a speed-dating event to give students some collaboration amongst peers before starting their own pre-writing process.

The classroom can become a setting for engaging student discussion

These three strategies helped my classroom to become a rich setting for engaging discussion. My learners were practicing key content and skills collaboratively while simultaneously developing positive social-emotional skills.

In my world, anything practical that gives me such a big return on my investment is worthwhile. Engaging student discussions do just that in my classroom. Happy discussing!

Photo credit: Rawpixel.comMonkey Business ImagesBrian A JacksonSyda Productions / Shutterstock.com

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