24 ideas for creating a discussion-rich classroom

Ed Tech

Ed Tech | Thursday, May 12, 2022

24 ideas for creating a discussion-rich classroom

Discussion can engage students and help them to see different perspectives. Here are strategies you can use to create a discussion-rich classroom.

"I want to tell you something about <insert topic>."

"Let's have a discussion about <insert topic>."

If someone approached you with these two statements, which would draw you in most?

For many of us in many circumstances, we'd pick engaging in discussion. Why? It's back and forth. A two-way street. Everyone gets to participate, and everyone something learns from everyone.

Discussion is a powerful tool in the classroom, too. Current research cited by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics shows that discussion can increase student learning, motivate students, support teachers in understanding and assessing student thinking, and shift authority from a teacher or textbook to community.

It's also a powerful teaching strategy that can save teachers time! 

  • During a discussion, the teacher doesn't drive all of the instruction.
  • Preparing to moderate a class discussion vs. lecture can save planning time.
  • The interactive nature of discussion and the contrast of voices (i.e. not just the teacher's voice) can have great benefits.
  • Hearing responses from classmates can be memorable for students.

So ... how can we create a discussion-rich classroom? How do we set students up to succeed in discussion, and what does it look like in practice?

Let's take a look!

Creating a discussion-rich classroom CULTURE

Ask students what they want to discuss

We've all been a part of discussions that went nowhere. No engagement. No participation. When learners -- adults or children! -- are forced into a discussion, they see little incentive for engaging. However, if there's a natural draw into the discussion, they won't just participate. They'll WANT to participate.

How can we do that? Let students have a say in what is discussed or how it is discussed. Even if the discussion needs to go in a certain direction, students can have a say in a specific focus, in the way the discussion is organized, or how to make it more engaging.

Resource: 20 juicy questions to ask students (#5 will REALLY get them talking!)

Give students ownership with surveys and voting

We just gave students a voice in what they want to discuss. So ... how can we make that happen? Fifth grade teacher Gina Ruffcorn, author of the book Our Class, Our Voice, lets her students vote and fill out surveys to give them a voice in what happens in class.

How do we know what our students think and feel if we never ask them? When we know what students want in a classroom, they can be more productive learners. We can use student surveys and provide opportunities for our students to vote on different discussion activities. Do students prefer to have a speed dating discussion or do they want to listen and learn through a fishbowl discussion activity?  -- Gina Ruffcorn, Our Class, Our Voice

Video series on class voting, student surveys, and more

Fifth grade teacher and author Gina Ruffcorn shares some of her best tips, strategies, and ideas for giving her students a voice in class in this four-part video series. 

Classroom voting: Gina shares some of her best tips for taking class votes as well as a list of things her students vote on.

Student surveys: Gina shares three types of surveys her students take and how she uses the resutls in class.

Use discussion mapping and logs for conversation equity

We've all been a part of a discussion that didn't really feel like a discussion, right? One person -- or just a few people -- monopolized all the discussion space, leaving LOTS of people's voices unheard. It doesn't have to be that way. A couple strategies can help.

Strategy 1: Discussion mapping

Monitor who is contributing to discussions using discussion mapping; analyze to see who is taking space in the discussion and share so students can be aware of making space in discussions for others. Also helps avoid the teacher controlling the discussion or responding to students, rather than students responding to each other. -- Amanda Madsen (via our EfficienTEACH planning document)

Strategy 2: Discussion logs

Ask students to log responses of self and peers during discussion to work toward understanding when they need to communicate more or back off so as not to overtake the discussion. Encourage students to draw in other students whose voices have been silenced with open-ended questioning. -- Stacy Roeming  (via our EfficienTEACH planning document)

10 ways to teach active listening in the classroom

Listening is a skill! If we want to host rich discussions in our classrooms, listening is a crucial part of it. Only one person can talk at once, so there are LOTS of students listening. When students listen, the subsequent responses in the discussion will be richer. 

It seems intuitive to just listen. Everybody listens, right? But not everyone is good at it.

"Genuine listening has become a rare gift—the gift of time," writes Dianne Schilling, a writer, editor, graphic artist and instructional designer. "It helps build relationships, solve problems, ensure understanding, resolve conflicts, and improve accuracy."

Her 10 tips to develop active listening skills are summarized in the infographic above and in this Forbes article.

An exercise she suggests to improve active listening: conclude every conversation in which information is exchanged with a summary statement. 

10 discussion strategies to use in class tomorrow

1. Sentence stems

Sentence stems are a great jumping-off point for a discussion. They're sentence starters. Students use a sentence stem like "I agree with this because ..." and finish it. It's a form of scaffolding, less daunting than coming up with sentences all on your own.

Using sentence stems and small groups is great. Students choose one sentence stem to complete, go to small groups and share their sentences. One member reads their choice of the best sentence aloud. So, they don't even have to share their own. Then, they can write each others' sentences for a great summary. -- Michelle Brumley (via our EfficienTEACH planning document)

Resource: Sentence Stems: Reporting Out in Academic Language (printable with two sets per sheet) by Karly Moura, Ditch That Textbook blog and social media editor

Resource: Sentence Stems from The Teacher Toolkit with elementary and secondary videos, downloadable templates, and ideas for use

2. Friends without Pens

From an AP workshop, but usable all over the place for writing practice, "Friends without Pens" as a protocol students are paired to talk about the answer to a question/prompt, but not allowed to write down anything during the discussion (hence friends without pens), but then individually write out answers. It allows students to brainstorm with one (or more) other brains, but their actual practice writing will be their own. It is meant to help students put ideas into written work. -- Tim Ellis (via our EfficienTEACH planning document)

Additional Perspective: Reducing Exam Anxiety: Friends without Pens gives students time to chat about the exam before starting

3. Think-Pair-Share (and variations)

This strategy has been around for a LONG time, but it still works. It gives students time to think before responding to questions with a partner. It builds confidence. Plus, students are more likely to participate when they can write and discuss ideas with one other  before sharing with the whole group.

Variations on Think-Pair-Share (via The Teacher Toolkit): 

  • Think-Listening Pair-Share: To work on students’ listening skills, tell them that they can only share their partner’s viewpoint during “Share.”
  • Think-Pair-Square: After “Pair,” have partners “Square” with another pair to discuss their ideas, making a group of 4.
  • Think-Pair-Share - The Teacher Toolkit (This also included the variations)

4. Number Talks

Number Talks are short, daily exercises that help students build number sense. Number sense is the ability to think flexibly and fluently about numbers. Students who have strong number sense can visualize and talk comfortably about numbers.

Resource: Number Talks agenda, explanation and ideas via youcubed

Resource: Number Talks via Meaningful Math Moments by Jennifer Barker

5. Socratic Method

The Socratic method teaches through the asking and answering of questions. It's been around for centuries, based on the teaching style of Socrates. "It has survived the test of time mainly because it is student-centered, based on the art of questioning, and fundamentally constructivist in design," writes Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa in Making Classrooms Better.

Here are research-based tips offered for the Socratic method in Making Classrooms Better:

  • To manage Socratic dialogue, a teacher must have a strong command of the content. They must also be able to stimulate dynamic conversation that captures student attention.
  • Base discussion in clear conversational guidelines. For example, students should know each other's names. They should understand that their active participation is key to success. Students should focus on answering with concepts or principles, not first-person narratives.
  • Embrace silence. This gives students' brains time to think and find the right reaction.
  • Focus on the entire body of questions. A good Socrative seminar isn't based on a good question, but rather a string of questions that leads students in a path of thinking.

Resource: Socratic Seminar via Facing History and Ourselves

Resource: Socratic Seminar Sentence Stems via Facing History and Ourselves

6. Student-Produced Questions

The Socratic method (above) focuses on a teacher leading students through a line of questions. But asking questions is challenging, and students can do deep thinking and learning by developing questions (Franke et al., 2009). This practice also engages students' working memory and long-term memory (Arnold, 2013). 

Instead of asking students to produce answers, encourage students to ask their own questions.

7. Fishbowl Strategy

The fishbowl strategy is a fantastic way to have students model having a conversation while others watch and listen. In this strategy the students are separated into an inner and outer circle. The inner circle of students engage in conversation while the outside circle listens and takes notes.

Resource: Fishbowl Strategy via Facing History and Ourselves

8. Question Formulation Technique

Question Formulation Technique (via the Right Question Institute) is a framework to help students dive deep into a topic by generating questions. Here are the main steps:

  1. Create a question focus: This is a statement, a visual, audio, etc. but not a question. It should be simple and guide the production of different lines of questioning.
  2. Produce questions: Based on the focus, ask as many questions as you can. Don't discuss, judge, or answer them. 
  3. Improve questions: Categorize them as open-ended and closed-ended. Change open-ended questions to closed and vice versa.
  4. Prioritize questions: Decide how many questions you'll narrow your list to. Create criteria for prioritizing. Decide what you'll do next with your questions.
  5. Reflect: Think about the question process, the results, and what happens next. What did you learn, and how can you use it?

Resource: Question Formulation Technique steps (via Right Question Institute)

9. Visible Thinking Routines

Visible thinking routines are a set of questions or a brief sequence of steps used to scaffold and support student thinking, according to Harvard Graduate School of Education's Project Zero. They're quick, plug-and-play strategies you can use without lots of training or work to implement. You can find dozens of visible thinking routines here, or check out a few favorites below:

  • I Used to Think, Now I Think: A simple line of thinking where students share how they thought before, how they think now, and what caused the change.
  • Compass Points: A four-point discussion prompt reflecting the four points of a compass. N: Need to know; E: Excited; S: Stance or Suggestion; W: Worrisome
  • Circle of Viewpoints: Brainstorm a list of different perspectives on a topic and describe the topic from those viewpoints. 

Resource: Introducing Visible Thinking Routines (via Harvard Graduate School of Education's Project Zero)

10. Concentric Circles (aka "Speed Dating")

This activity encourages all learners to be both the speaker and the listener. It's great for child AND adult learners. I've used it in professional development several times!

The group arranges itself in two concentric circles. Those in the inside circle face outward toward those in the outside circle (and outside circle faces inward). Everyone pairs up with someone else (one on the inside and one on the outside).

Ask the group a question or give them a prompt. Describe how they'll discuss (i.e. one speaks for one minute, the other speaks for one minute, and both discuss together for a minute). When they're done, they rotate to another partner to repeat the same question/prompt OR respond to a new one.

Resource: Concentric Circles via Facing History and Ourselves

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  • Lesteraction says:

    This activity encourages all learners to be both the speaker and the listener. It’s great for child AND adult learners.

  • Alex says:

    Everything you need to control the classroom

    Manage permission of audio/video & writing for participants
    Mute classroom in one go
    Remove all chat messages
    Clear all whiteboards
    Increase/decrease quality of video based on available bandwidth
    Remove & block participants
    Divide students into breakout rooms, send content to specific breakout rooms.
    Enable waiting room and permit students to get into the classroom.

  • Zoe says:

    Thanks for sharing these strategies. It is really helpful.

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  • Wanda says:

    Thank you for these resources. I love that these could be adapted for any grade level.

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