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Getting started with discussions

Discussions are at least as challenging for students as for teachers. Your students will need some cues, teaching and guidance if they are to become partners with you and each other in worthwhile discussions.

Provide a cue. When a teacher is standing silent in front of the room and students are sitting in their seats, one cannot tell whether the teacher intends to begin:

  • a lecture (in which students are to listen actively),
  • a demonstration (in which students should watch closely what the teacher does with an object),
  • a recitation (in which students are to respond when called upon), or
  • a discussion (in which students are to take initiative and participate actively).

If you just say something or ask a question, students cannot know how to respond. So give them a clear cue that you want a discussion. "Please discuss this with me." "Let's discuss this together." Then you can associate norms for discussion with that signal.

Teach (and obey) the norms.
Probably, the cue will be useless if you don't also teach the norms that go with the different participation formats:

  • "When I am lecturing, ..."
  • "When I am giving you a demonstration, ..."
  • "When I am leading a recitation,... "
  • "When I invite you to discuss a topic, I hope you will [this is the blank you need to fill with norms]."

Here, you have to think how the norms, both for students' conduct and for your conduct, should be different for discussions than for other class activities. For example, what is likely to happen to a discussion if you constantly evaluate student contributions, as you would do in a recitation? We provide a tool to help you establish interaction routines and teach them as you would teach other routines. [Defines and teaches routines]. And of course, you must obey the norms you establish.

Motivation. Genuine discussion is challenging mental work, not run-of-the-mill doing school. Probably, you will have to take particular care to motivate students to participate, attending both to whether students might value the discussion and to whether they feel that they can succeed in that discussion. Your students may vary greatly from each other, on both counts. Here is a tool to help you build your motivational repertoire. [Motivating students to learn ].

Questions. Just as the norms for recitation and discussion are quite different, so are your questions and statements. What kind of discussion can be had from a series of questions confirming facts in a textbook chapter? None. That's recitation, and it could be used to confirm a set of facts before going on to a discussion of those facts. A question like the following might get a discussion going: "Please discuss this with me: The chapter starts off by giving us a set of facts about X; how can we interpret those facts? What do we think might be going on in X?"

There is a lot more to think about with discussions, as indicated by the range of tools in this section, but perhaps these few things will help you to get the game started.