Classroom practice - Speak easy: learning through discussion

20th September 2013 at 01:00
Teachers can feel as if they spend half their time telling students to quieten down, but there are reasons why it's good to talk

In the classroom, talking is rarely seen as a key skill. Teachers' time can be so much taken up with managing chatty misbehaviour that talking is usually associated with a lack of work. When discussion does take place, it rarely stands alone, often being followed by "more important" written work. Assessed pieces of work are usually written, too, and even when there is an oral component, written components invariably have greater weight. As a result, discussion can be seen by students as a free-for-all - fun, but not "real work".

Yet discussion has a lot to offer. According to Robin Alexander in his book Towards Dialogic Teaching: rethinking classroom talk, it gives students "communicative rights": they are regarded as having something to contribute to a lesson, rather than being mere receivers of knowledge. It also creates an environment of constructive feedback in which tough questions are posed, forcing students to learn to tackle issues on their feet and to articulate them orally. Oracy and autonomy go together; dialogue presupposes that students can think through challenging questions and formulate plausible solutions.

Doubtless, there are examples of bad discussion work. Alexander, responsible for much recent research on dialogue, distinguishes between loose classroom discussion and structured dialogic teaching; if students are simply saying what they think, no dialogue is taking place. Bad discussion allows students to think that any opinion is valid, whether or not it is plausible, and fails to use the views expressed to build towards something.

Good discussion, on the other hand, is a collaborative effort to reach a conclusion. It is, therefore, productive. It involves students responding to the views of others and evaluating them, and is intellectually stimulating and rigorous. Effective discussion is not an airing of views, it is a speaking and listening exercise that can be a dialogue between two students, a teacher and a student, or a group of students.

It's useful to point out that Socrates, such an important figure in the West, wrote nothing. He was not concerned with publishing or posterity; he was interested in dialogic teaching in the here and now. He spent most of his time in the marketplace, talking with young Athenians. Socrates would have thought it strange to espouse a thesis and write about it; stranger still to propound his ideas to others. He was not a philosopher with a view: he sought truth through talk.

Socrates would start with a question such as: what is knowledge? Suggestions would follow, many of which would be flawed and some of which would need rethinking. He and his companions would hack away at all the solutions, chipping off anything illogical or counter to the evidence until what was left was an answer that seemed to them incontrovertible.

Community of enquiry

Matthew Lipman, author of Thinking in Education, gave up a professorial chair in philosophy in order to take the teaching methods of Socrates into the classroom. He perceived that teachers have a tendency to introduce students to the "products" of enquiry, presenting a body of knowledge that students have to learn, rather than allowing them to develop their own skills of enquiry.

Lipman formulated the idea of a "community" of enquiry as a structure for discussion to be incorporated into the classroom. The structure works as follows:

  • Introduce stimulus: this could be a picture, a video or something to read.
  • Set up small groups: students work together to identify questions for discussion prompted by the stimulus.
  • Address questions: the class as a whole discuss the questions raised, responding to one another's points.
  • Reach a conclusion: the process of discussion should lead to some kind of conclusion, however tentative.
    • Discussion activities such as this might seem to suit only specific ages and subjects, but they can be a powerful tool in many different teaching contexts.

      To begin with, we must not think that discussion can be managed only by older students. My philosophy class for children aged 7-8 discusses questions including "Could anything be perfect?", "Can I know I am not dreaming?" and "Can you think of nothing?" Young children are open and curious: they formulate logical and imaginative responses and react to one another's points of view. Over time, even the quietest students learn that they have a role in discussion.

      As demonstrated by a small-scale project undertaken by Elbers and Streefland in primary schools in the Netherlands - the results of which were published in 2000 - the community of enquiry can work in subjects such as maths, too. Rather than teachers imparting mathematical knowledge, students investigate questions, formulate strategies in groups, then discuss and evaluate them as a class. Even in subjects that do not seem naturally discursive, discussion can provide young children with the opportunity to really think about a subject and thereby grow into understanding it.

      Discussion can also be useful in practical subjects. We might think that discussion is conceptual, not practical, but here is an example of a community of enquiry built around a design lesson. Students are presented with a new project - designing a chair, for example - and this is used as the stimulus. They formulate questions in groups, such as "Does a chair have to have four legs?" or "What kinds of properties do the materials used need to have?" They discuss all these questions and their conclusions provide an excellent starting point for each student when they come to make the design choices for their project.

      Lipman's model does not only apply to developing a student's own perspectives - consider the adoption of a community of enquiry for the history classroom. The stimulus can be controversial: it could be positive propaganda about the bombing of Dresden or an Arab response to the creation of Israel. In small groups, students work on what the response given by a certain group might be. One group might work on an Arab perspective, one on an Israeli perspective and one on an American perspective. The discussion that follows is aimed at finding the most accurate perspective or where the truth lies between those differing views, as well as developing an understanding of a range of viewpoints.

      As these examples show, dialogue is an incredibly effective teaching tool, no matter what age or subject you teach, and it should not simply be a task that appears on your lesson plans now and then. Lipman is clear: we do not do a community of enquiry, we become a community of enquiry. Dialogic teaching is not a technique, it is a way of operating in the classroom that can bring about cognitive challenge, rigour, autonomy, collaborative working and independent thinking.

      Clare Jarmy is head of philosophy and religious studies at Bedales School in Hampshire, England. She is the author of Arguments for God, published by PushMe Press, and forthcoming religious education study guides.


      Alexander, R (2004) Towards Dialogic Teaching: rethinking classroom talk (York, Dialogos)

      Elbers, E and Streefland, L (2000) " `Shall we be researchers again?' Identity and social interaction in a community of inquiry" in H Cowie and G Van der Aalsvoort, eds, Social Interaction in Learning and Instruction: the meaning of discourse for the construction of knowledge (Oxford, Pergamon)

      Lipman, M (1991) Thinking in Education (New York, Cambridge University Press)

      In short

      Talking in the classroom has a bad reputation - one not helped by official assessments that do not give much weight to discussion.

      This limits discussion as a tool, when it could be a useful and productive part of classroom practice.

      Best practice when it comes to discussion is to ensure a collaborative effort to reach a conclusion, with students responding to the views of others and evaluating them.

      Lipman's community of enquiry is a framework that teachers can apply to discussion activities for all ages and subjects.

      What else?

      Are words worth a thousand pictures? Find out with this piece on the importance of discussion in the classroom.

      How to prevent speaking and listening from becoming just another fad.


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