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Perfect the art of conversation

Discussion is a powerful tool, but using it in class can be a minefield. Mike Gershon shares tips on making it work

Discussion is a powerful tool, but using it in class can be a minefield. Mike Gershon shares tips on making it work

A problem shared is a problem halved, goes the old saying. But what does it really mean? Analysing the maxim helps us to understand why discussion is a powerful tool in the classroom that can help pupils to make significant progress, no matter what the subject.

If we share a problem in the classroom through discussion, we:

- use language to articulate the thoughts and experiences that are in our minds;

- share this with another person;

- respond to that person, first by rephrasing and altering our speech to make our meaning clear and second by taking account of what they say;

- decode, analyse, compare and assess what they have said; and

- create new thoughts and pieces of speech as a result.

In addition, the teacher can benefit from listening to what his or her pupils are thinking and use this information to adapt the teaching.

Discussion prior to writing gives pupils an opportunity to order and arrange their thoughts before having to translate them into that more complex medium. This allows them to give their full attention to the process of articulation, without having to divide their energies between writing and working out what they want to say.

Paired discussion

In most classrooms, pupils will be seated in such a way that they can team up with their neighbour or someone sitting behind them. This makes paired discussion simple to use and easy for the teacher.

Here are three ways in which you might put it into practice:

1. Do a little bit of teaching in which you lead the class through a new idea or piece of information. Ask pupils to pair up with the person next to them. Display two or three questions related to what has been taught. Ask pupils to discuss the questions with their partner.

2. Put pupils into pairs. Give each pair some stimulus material. This could be provided to each group, perhaps in a hand-out, or to the whole class, possibly in the form of a video. Ask pupils to share their thoughts on the stimulus material. (You could scaffold this with some open questions, such as "What are your thoughts on this?") Finally, invite the pairs to feed back the results of their discussions to the whole class.

3. Throughout the course of a lesson, give pupils 30- to 60-second windows in which they can discuss a point that has been raised with the person next to them. This will assist them in understanding things that come up during the lesson.

Group discussion

This sees the teacher giving up some control in order to gain the benefits that come from pupils working collaboratively. The risk is that pupils may lose focus or become distracted. Here are some strategies you can use to structure discussion and avoid such pitfalls:

1. Keep group sizes small. Three or four pupils per group is ideal. This diminishes the possibility that some pupils will sit back and let their peers carry them through.

2. Assign roles. Give each member of the group a specific role to fulfil, for example, timekeeper, scribe and motivator. A good way to imbue the "role ethic" in your class is to develop a collection of roles with them at the beginning of the year, specifying what each one entails.

3. Divide the discussion into separate parts and give each of these a specific length of time. This helps pupils to maintain focus, creates a sense of pace and urgency and avoids protests that they don't know what they are meant to be doing.

4. Provide a series of mini-tasks or questions for groups to work through. Again, this helps to keep discussion moving and prevent pupils from becoming bogged down or losing concentration.

5. Display clear instructions on the board. These could include all of the above, giving pupils a reference point they can turn to throughout the activity.

In each case, the emphasis is on distinguishing group discussion in the classroom from group discussion elsewhere. The key is to make it clear that discussion is being used as a means to an end - learning - rather than an end in itself, as in social discussion.

Whole-class discussion

Whole-class discussion differs considerably from paired and group discussion in terms of its structure. In the other two approaches, all pupils get a multitude of opportunities to talk and be heard. In whole- class discussion, only one pupil at a time is allowed to speak, while the rest must listen.

This has three great advantages. First, pupils are exposed to a wider range of ideas and viewpoints than might otherwise be the case. This will lead to a more nuanced and rounded understanding of the matter in hand.

Second, it is easier to facilitate debate because a whole class is much more likely than any single group to contain competing perspectives.

Third, the teacher is in a position to make teaching points during the discussion. These will be attended to by the whole class and will either be in reference to something a pupil has said or based on something the teacher feels has been missed.

If the teacher can facilitate pupil-pupil interactions (instead of pupils' comments always coming back through the teacher) then more powerful learning will take place. A good way to do this is through "bouncing" what one pupil has said over to another pupil, without commenting on it. For example:

Pupil A: "In my opinion, the greatest threat to our freedom is government surveillance."

Teacher: "Thank you for that point. Pupil B, what are your thoughts on what Pupil A has said?"

This leads to a more natural discussion in which pupils engage directly with their peers. It avoids a situation where a series of separate conversations between individual pupils and the teacher takes place, which are then bracketed together as a whole-class discussion.

In summary

Discussion is a powerful tool for helping pupils to learn. It allows them to bridge the gaps between minds, to order and articulate their thoughts, to process and respond to the ideas of others and develop new knowledge and understanding.

There are many ways it can be used in lessons. But for the discussion to be effective, it has to be structured and clearly aimed towards some goal.

Now you're talking

How to show progress through discussion:

- Appoint a scribe to keep a record of what is talked about.

- Follow up discussions with a written task.

- Provide pupils with a worksheet on which they can make notes. This could be used prior to, during or after discussions.

- Ask pupils to note down their thoughts before beginning a discussion. At the end of the activity, ask them to revisit these and to write a reflection.

- Use peer- and self-assessment. This could be done at the end of lengthy discussion activities or in response to pupils' contributions.

Rules for discussion

It is helpful to have clear rules guiding discussions in the classroom. These could be negotiated with pupils at the beginning of the year. Here are the rules I stick to when using discussion:

- If someone is talking, everyone else must listen.

- One person speaks at a time.

- Everyone is entitled to their opinion.

- Everyone must support their opinions with reasons, evidence or examples.

- Everyone must remain polite at all times.

So to speak

Tips for keeping any discussion on track:

1. Make it interesting. Choose engaging topics or questions.

2. Keep it structured. Make sure pupils know what you are asking them to do.

3. Move around the room. Keep an eye on pupils and get involved in their discussions.

4. Be flexible. If your questions turn out to be less stimulating than you imagined, draw things to a close sooner.

5. Create guidelines. You can then refer pupils to these if necessary.

Different types of discusser

- Pupils who prefer to talk, rather than listen. Encourage these pupils to do the latter by asking them to relay to you what their peers think. In addition, you may want to appoint them as scribes. This will mean that they have to pay attention to the ideas of others.

- Quiet pupils. These pupils may be timid or shy and so reluctant to take part. Encourage them by showing interest in what they think and praising the insight that underpins their ideas. They will most likely find paired discussion easier, so use this technique where possible. Put them in a group with supportive peers.

- Dismissive pupils. These pupils may not be prepared to accept or tolerate the reasonably held views of others. Model good etiquette and discussion manners for them and refer them to the rules by which all pupils are bound. If they persist, give them an individual task as a sanction.

- Pupils who want a social discussion. These pupils look for opportunities to turn talk away from the learning and towards other matters. Stay close to them and gently redirect them when necessary. If they persist, exclude them from the next discussion.

- Pupils who run out of things to say. Give these pupils prompts such as further questions and sentence starters.


The problem

I've been an English teacher for quite a while now, but have never found behaviour management a natural skill. While I am not being crushed by badly behaved classes, I have never really felt that I created a afe, nurturing environment where pupils feel comfortable to take risks and try their hardest. A few big personalities in my classes have too much influence, while other pupils pretty much refuse to speak in front of their peers. How can I get reluctant pupils to speak?

What you said

Gently. Tactics that work for me are:

- Drawing names for answers - everyone has to come up with an answer and it's entirely random (or you can rig it).

- Mini-whiteboards - they write a short answer and you pick people to elaborate.

- Paired answers.

- Circulating around the classroom talking to pupils one-to-one.


The expert view

It is common to feel that your class is not exactly as you would like it to be; it just shows that you want things to get better, which is the first essential condition of actually making it so.

Now you have identified the areas you want to improve: big mouths dominating and little voices too shy to say anything. There is probably a common factor here: you need to step up a little and reinforce your authority in the room.

Restore the balance by rebooting your classroom boundaries the very next time you see them. It is a simple tactic, but requires tenacity. Just tell them what will and will not be tolerated and then - and this is the hard part - do something about it. If someone shouts out when you have forbidden it, they need a deterrentsanction that very day. If they repeat the action, the sanction needs to escalate relentlessly until all but the most determined to self-destruct will comply.

Eventually they realise that the room has rules - your rules. Praise and encouragement for quiet pupils works well. Do not get them standing in front of the class reading their poems quite yet. Get them working with groups or peers so that they get used to the idea of sharing their thoughts verbally. Perhaps even have a little one-to-one time with them where you get them to talk just to you.

Tom Bennett's latest book, Teacher, is out now. Post your questions at

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