Pupils need opportunities to try out their opinions in public, to see how they stand up in the context of new information and in the light of other people's views. And it's the teacher's job to create the opportunities for that to happen. Certainly, a well-managed group discussion is a powerful tool for learning.
Of course, effective group discussion doesn't just happen - you have to manage it. To do that, you'll need to:
* decide how to organise your discussion groups
* offer clear objectives
* create a "safe space" for all pupils to have their say
* keep pupils on task while keeping the level of chat down
* devise suitable ways for pupils to report back
* create opportunities for your pupils to consolidate and evaluate their findings; and
* suggest suitable information for pupils to use.
And you need to do all that without presenting your own points of view as "right" ones. When you succeed in this, you will have enabled your pupils to exchange, develop and refine one another's ideas in ways that allow them to make their learning their own.
This will depend on your knowledge of the pupils and the nature of the discussion. Will you organise your discussion groups:
By friendship? This is good for sensitive subjects, but talk may lack the internal opposition needed for good debate. And what to do with Billy and Bella No-mates?
By gender? This is useful when responses are likely to differ between the sexes, but you do risk reinforcing stereotypes.
By ability? This is fine for differentiated tasks, but potentially divisive By random grouping? This is good for encouraging pupils to work with different partners - but bad mixes are as likely to emerge as good ones.
By groupings decided by you? If you know the pupils well, you can ensure a mix of ability, motivation and knowledge.
Group size is important, too.
* Paired discussion is quick and easy, and useful for reviewing prior knowledge.
* Groups of three or four offer a wider range of opinion, and are easy to organise - just turn the chairs around.
* Larger groups - five to eight - need more structure, and maybe a chairperson. This makes it hard for individuals to track all the input, unless it's collated on paper. But it's easier for the quiet ones to avoid involvement. The bigger the group, the easier it is for one or two pupils to dominate.
* Whole-class discussion is easier for the teacher to monitor, but it is very easy for individuals to opt out.
This doesn't have to be a tedious, group-by-group recitation of what is essentially the same material. If you must do it that way, don't allow repetition. Get groups to state only those opinions that have not been voiced already. But there are better ways, such as:
The rainbow group: Put pupils into "home" groups. If you have, say, seven discussion groups, give each member of each home group a different colour of the spectrum, then ask all the yellows to re-group in one area, greens in another and so on. You are in control of the constitution of the colour groups, but you can make them appear to be randomly chosen. After initial discussion in colour groups, pupils return to the home group and share what they have learnt. (You don't have to use colours - use anything non-hierarchical: flower names, fruits etc. Avoid letters or numbers as pupils can feel that, say, A has higher status than F.)
The envoy: At intervals during discussion, send one member of each group - the envoy - to the neighbouring group to tell them what his or her group has discussed, and to be briefed on the neighbouring group's findings.
Snowballing: Start with discussion in pairs. On your signal, pairs become fours and continue. Then fours become eights. You could stop there or re-combine until you have the whole class together. This mixes pupils and ensures that their points are disseminated thoroughly.
PUT SOME LIFE INTO IT
Drama teachers often use these techniques, but they work just as well in exploring issues. Some may need preparation, but most will work with a group of reasonably well-informed pupils.
Hot-seating: One pupil goes into role as an expert on the issue to be explored. If it is something topical, the pupil could role-play a real character. For example, you might have a chief constable defending the use of curfews for under-16s. The others take turns to question the role-player, who must respond in role.
Decision Alley: One pupil has to make a decision about a specific issue.
The others form two rows, facing one another, and the decision-maker has to walk between them. One row must encourage the pupil to decide one way, the other rows tries to persuade him or her of the opposite view. While walking between the rows, the "decider" must listen to the advice of each row member, and at the end of the rows must announce the decision and give reasons.
Just a minute: At the end of a discussion, pupils are called on to speak for exactly one minute, to tell what they learned.
The community meeting: This requires a chairperson and a recorder. Pupils go into role as participants in a local consultation - to grant permission to build a wind farm perhaps - and are asked to make their case, for or against. Sum up the discussion in the form of a statement to the planning authority.
USE SOURCES TO THE FULL
There should be no shortage of issues to discuss in tutorial or PSHE sessions. But bear in mind that your objectives include giving pupils:
* the confidence to speak their mind
* practice in listening
* space in which to change their minds in the light of evidence
* freedom to explore; and
* an introduction to the way the world works.
There are issues everywhere, and your pupils are aware of them. Try to make connections between the issues and pupils' everyday lives. For example:
* When local issues arise, what questions should the local media be asking? And of whom? You could role-play reporters and interviewees.
* What dilemmas are characters in their favourite soap operas facing? What advice do they need? (Some soaps deal with very adult issues, so use your judgement about what subjects are admissible.)
* Make explicit connections between issues and the content of school subjects. Science, RE, geography and history should be very fruitful, though you may have to research them yourself. Fiction and drama often pose more questions than they answer. Ask pupils to identify the hard questions they've encountered in their reading, and in set texts. For example, in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, was George right to shoot Lennie? And in Michelle Magorian's Good Night, Mr Tom, was Mr Tom right to take Willie back?