Perfect the art of conversation

21st September 2012 at 01:00
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, so goes the old saying. But what really is the meaning of this? By analysing the maxim, we will be well on our way to understanding why discussion is a powerful tool in the classroom - one that can help pupils to make significant progress, no matter what the subject.

Once we have thought a little about the theory behind the method, there will be a collection of ready-to-use ideas, strategies and activities you can drop straight into your lessons. The benefits of discussion will be yours to reap.

Our minds are private spaces. Only we are privy to the thoughts and experiences that occur within them or go to make them up. Unless, that is, we possess some means by which we can communicate - for example, language.

Through language we can transcend the privacy of our minds. Such a process is occurring right now - you are reading a composition I have constructed that is based on my experiences (including reading, writing, observing and teaching) as well as my thoughts about these experiences. If we found ourselves together, we would be able to discuss the ideas I am putting forward.

Two key processes would occur during our discussion. First, we would both have to use language in order to articulate our thoughts. This would include rephrasing and altering what we said so that it was comprehensible and so that its intended meaning was clear. As such, we would be extensively manipulating language on the hoof.

Second, we would be experiencing and thinking about each other's thoughts. This would happen on at least three levels: that of understanding what one another said (decoding meaning); comparing what was said to what we already know and think; and judging whether we agree with what has been said.

It is likely that our discussion would be lengthy, contain a great deal of information and exhibit a high degree of proficiency in the use of the spoken word. This would be due in part to our respective backgrounds and education, but would also be a result of the huge amounts of experience we both have in speaking. This, after all, is the main method of human communication.

Let's now go back to our adage in order to draw some conclusions about the role of discussion in the classroom. If we share a problem, and we are assuming that this will be done 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 in order 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 of this.

You do not need me to tell you why this would lead to the problem being, metaphorically, halved.

All the points just noted apply to discussion in the classroom. In addition, we may note the benefit that the teacher draws from being able to listen to what their pupils are thinking and use this information to adapt their teaching.

Further, 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 means they can 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.

With the benefits of discussion laid out, let us now look at how it can be used in the classroom. To do so, we will examine three aspects in turn: paired, group and whole-class discussion.

Paired discussion

In almost every classroom, pupils will be seated in such a way that pairs can be formed with little or no disruption. Pupils can team up with the person next to them or with 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 sat 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, for example in the form of a hand-out, or to the whole class, for example 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 sitting next to them. This will assist pupils 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 by social matters. 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 the activity.

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 pupils protesting that they do not 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 - that is, learning - rather than an end in itself, as is often the case with 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 to be heard. In whole-class discussion, only one pupil at a time is allowed to speak, while the rest of the class must listen. As such, it is somewhat more formal and more likely to be teacher led.

The three great advantages of the approach are as follows. 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 course of 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 during whole-class discussions. A good way to do this is through "bouncing". This involves taking what a pupil has said, not commenting on it, and bouncing it to another pupil. 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 are engaging 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 to develop new knowledge and understanding. There are many different ways it can be used in lessons. All of these share the principle that, for discussion to be effective, it has to be structured and clearly aimed towards some goal. Bear these two points in mind in the classroom and you will be a long way towards ensuring success for yourself and your pupils.

Mike Gershon is an author and a sociology teacher at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds. His extensive sets of free teaching resources can be downloaded from the TES website:


Five tips for keeping any discussion on track:

1. Make it interesting. Choose topics or questions that will engage pupils.

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 first envisioned, draw things to a close sooner than you intended.

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


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 decided in negotiation 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.

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, making them reluctant to take part in discussion. 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. When discussion is taking place, stay close to these pupils and gently redirect them when necessary. If they persist, exclude them from the next discussion as a sanction.

- Pupils who run out of things to say. Give these pupils prompts such as further questions, sentence starters and extra stimulus material. You may also want to try joining them in discussion, using this as an opportunity to turn their thinking in new directions.

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