The Power of Classroom Discussion

Maggie Bruski

Think back to a learning experience that led to deep thinking. Who did the majority of the talking? Your instructor or you and the other learners?

Not that long ago I wrote a series of blog posts about cooperative learning, and one of the five strategies that I highlighted was the need for students to be able to communicate effectively. As I did some research for that particular post, I found some interesting statistics. Renowned educational researcher John Hattie found that classroom discussion had an effect size of 0.82. But what does that 0.82 represent and why is it so important? For those of you who may not be familiar with effect size and how it is used in education, here’s the low down: an effect size of 0.40 is known as the hinge point, which means the typical student made one year’s academic growth in one year. Anything over 0.40 has an impact on student learning which leads to more than one year’s growth in one year’s time. In fact, an effect size of 0.82 means that the typical student who engaged in meaningful classroom discussions has the potential of two years academic growth in one year’s time. In other words, it is a really big deal - a highly effective instructional strategy that can pay off huge dividends - if done with fidelity.

And this is important. If done well. Before getting into some suggestions for how teachers might lead effective student discourse,  let’s see how Hattie defines classroom discussion:

Classroom discussion is a method of teaching, that involves the entire class in a discussion. The teacher stops lecturing and students get together as a class to discuss an important issue. Classroom discussion allows students to improve communication skills by voicing their opinions and thoughts. Teachers also benefit from classroom discussion as it allows them to see if students have learned the concepts that are being taught. Moreover, a classroom discussion creates an environment where everyone learns from each other.

-From Glossary of Hattie’s influences on student achievement

Hattie himself talks about the difficulty of creating the climate of trust and respect in the classroom that leads to students being able to think aloud - together (Hattie, 2018). As a teacher reflects on the classroom discussions that take place in their classroom, there are some elements they can refer to in this reflection. The PD Market resource, Effective Classroom Discussions, by Selma Wassermann highlights 5 guidelines that a teacher needs to attend to and honor before leaping into classroom discussions:

  1. Listen, Attend, Apprehend

  2. Clarify What Students Mean

  3. Give Students Time

  4. Appreciate Students' Ideas

  5. Accept Lack of Closure

These guidelines are not structures for classroom discussion, they are necessary baselines. Once teachers have created the right culture and climate for students to be able to effectively communicate, they can then turn to structures to guide classroom discussions. Often times ensuring that more than a small group of students are engaging in classroom discussions can be challenging. Through my work with adult learners, we’ve come to rely on protocols - structures for allowing learners the opportunities to process new content with a peer or a group in a way that honors each thinker’s voice. One set of protocols that I often turn to, and is designed with k-12 students in mind comes from Facing History and Ourselves: Student-Centered Strategies. They have dozens of protocols designed to engage students in rich, thought-provoking conversations. Examples include:

Four Corners: Get all students involved by asking them to show their stance on a statement through their positioning around the room.

Concentric Circles: This kinesthetic discussion activity invites students to be active listeners and speakers and to interact with a wide range of classmates.

Concept Maps: Students sort, arrange, and connect their thoughts on an idea or question, creating a visual representation of their understanding (Facing History and Ourselves, n.d.).

All of the protocols shared by Facing History and Ourselves have the potential to involve all students in deep thinking with equitable participation by all - with one caveat - teachers should be mindful that classroom discussions can be intimidating for some students, in particular, the more introverted, quiet students. If you’re interested in reading more about how to conduct meaningful classroom discussions while honoring introverted students check out this community garden resource: Engaging the Quieter Students. In any case, as you consider the makeup of your class- the various personalities, strengths, and challenges, be sure to carefully consider the structure of your classroom discussions and start out with small groups, or partner interactions, building up to more free form discussions.  

When you evaluate all the instructional strategies that have a positive impact on student learning, classroom discussion is worth a deeper review as the benefits of rich student discourse are remarkable. If students do the talking, if it is their voice that is heard and considered, the level of thinking increases. When your students look back on the time they’ve spent in your classroom, will they remember the great things that you said or the great things that they themselves said? You decide.

 

Citations

Facing History and Ourselves. (n.d.). Teaching strategies. Retrieved from https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/teaching-strategies

Hattie, J. (2018). How powerful is student dialogue? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/254282799

Wassermann, S. (2010). Effective Classroom Discussions. Educational Leadership,67(5). Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb10/vol67/num05/Effective-Classroom-Discussions.aspx

Visible Learning. (n.d.) Hattie ranking: 252 influences and effect sizes related to student achievement. Retrieved from http://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/