Wouldn’t you love to wave a magic wand and instantly increase classroom participation? With these discussion strategies, you’ll have all the magic you need!
I think you’ll agree with me when I say there’s nothing that lets the wind out of your sails in education quite like a lack of classroom participation. You know what I’m talking about… when you try to initiate a discussion only to be met with a silent room full of students looking at anything but you. I’ve been in this position more times than I can count, and it reminds me every. single. time. of how essential it is to have a few go-to discussion strategies to rely on.
Discussion routines are timeless classroom engagement strategies that take little prep but pack a big punch; they increase classroom participation and ensure that the vast majority of students are engaged throughout the entire lesson! They help students initiate conversations with one another and take charge of the discussion, allowing you as the teacher to take a back seat and facilitate the learning. I use them to discuss short stories, nonfiction texts, Article of the Week, novels; you name it!
If this sounds like something your classroom could benefit from, read on to see how to intentionally establish expectations and routines for facilitating your classroom discussions, as well as read about my eight favorite routines guaranteed to enhance learning for all your students!
DISCUSSION ROUTINES 101: EXPECTATIONS & ROUTINES
Facilitating successful discussion routines is just like any other instructional activity. If you take the time to establish discussion norms and review key routines, you’ll increase the likelihood of student success. In my classroom, discussions have five expectations:
- Come prepared.
- Listen attentively.
- Mutual respect.
- Show appreciations/acknowledgements. (No put downs)
- Stay on task.
Students are also more successful with discussion strategies when you set parameters around them. Plan for things such as:
- Who will students discuss with? (Table groups, shoulder partner, groups of 3, etc.)
- Who will speak first? (The student with the longer hair, the older student, etc.)
- How long will they have to share their thoughts? (30 seconds? 2 minutes?)
- What should listening partners or other group members do after someone speaks? (Agree/Disagree, acknowledge, reflect, etc.)
Taking a few minutes to preplan your discussion routines before executing each week will ensure students stay on track and eliminate some last-minute stress.
Once you’ve made a plan for how you’ll facilitate the discussion, it’s time to pick your text or topic & identify a discussion routine.
Discussion Routine #1: Four Corners
Four Corners is a discussion strategy that invites students to connect with the text on an emotional or intellectual level separate from the standards. You won’t be asking students about the main idea or the organizational structure the author decided to use. Instead, you’ll be asking students what they think or how they feel about the content or topics in the text!
Before class begins, preread your text and develop a list of subjective statements related to the topic. Label all four corners of your room with the phrases “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree,” “strongly disagree.” After reading the text, read aloud each statement and have students quietly think and make notes of their stance. Then, read the statements aloud one at a time. Students will leave their seats and stand next to their perspective on the topic.
Give them time to discuss with students who share the same view and students with opposing views. Afterward, wrap up your discussion and circle it back to the text and the task at hand.
Discussion Routine #2: Compass Points
The Compass Points discussion routine is used to help students think about a concept or topic from multiple perspectives. As a result, students will be able to identify areas where they need more information.
Students can complete this routine in small groups, individually, or as a whole group. I like to combine all three by hanging up four posters around the room labeled with the compass points. Each student receives four sticky notes. Read aloud your questions one at a time and have them jot their thoughts on each sticky note. The students will answer the following questions in response to the text:
- N-What else do you Need to know or find out about this idea?
- E- What Excites you about this idea? What is the upside?
- S- What is your current Stance or opinion on the idea or what Suggestions do you have at this point?
- W- What do you find Worrisome about this idea or proposition? What is the downside?
After they’ve considered and responded to all four questions, they will place their sticky notes on the appropriate compass point. Once everyone’s thinking has been laid bare, have them form groups of 3-4 and conduct a gallery walk to read and discuss the different answers.
Discussion Routine #3: Chalk Talk
Chalk Talk is a silent discussion routine that invites students to discuss anything from a text-based question to a quote, historical document, piece of writing, image, poem, etc. The sky’s the limit!
To facilitate a “Chalk Talk,” you’ll need to prepare your set of questions or prompts ahead of time and write them on a big sheet of paper, one question per. Place students in groups of 2-4 and spread them across the questions. Provide plenty of markers at each station for students to use. To start the discussion, students will focus on the subject written in the middle of the paper. They will respond and record their thinking on the large paper. After their initial responses, they should “discuss” with their groups silently; students should write all reactions, comments, and questions on the poster paper.
Next, students will switch to different stations in silence, reading and commenting on other poster papers. Once students have traveled around to the other stations and are back at their original location, they should read the comments and debrief. What do they notice about the responses? What new thinking emerged?
Bonus: This discussion routine is just as easy to facilitate digitally using a platform like Padlet.
Discussion Routine #4: Tug of War
The “Tug of War” discussion strategy will help your students understand the forces that may “tug” on both sides of a dilemma. For example, when reading the book Refugee by Alan Gratz, you might have students discuss how Cuba closed its border to the Jewish refugees aboard the MS St Louis. By using an instructional strategy like the Tug of War, students will analyze the “pull” of multiple factors going back and forth and appreciate the fairness of a topic that may not always be black and white.
To facilitate this discussion, you’ll first need to identify the two opposing sides of a given issue. Using sticky notes, invite students to determine as many “tugs” (reasons) as possible that pull them towards a particular side of that topic and place them on the whiteboard (class) or table (group). Once complete, they will do the same thing on the other side of the topic.
After identifying the tugs, have students arrange the “tugs” to strengthen the argument by placing the strongest reasons at the end of the rope and the weakest toward the middle. Finally, have students discuss their reasoning and placement of “tugs.”
Using this discussion routine, you can assess the students’ ability to see both sides of a dilemma, how the class views a dilemma, and ultimately, how clearly students can articulate their thoughts and opinions.
Discussion Routine #5: Four C’s
The 4C’s is a discussion strategy that provides a set of questions for students to answer in a purposeful, structured way. In a four-square format, your students will answer questions based on the content or text you provide.
- Connections – What connections do you draw between the text and your own life or your other learning?
- Challenge -What ideas or assumptions do you want to challenge within the text?
- Concepts – What key concepts or ideas do you think are important and worth holding on to form the text (themes)?
- Changes – What changes did the text bring about in your attitude or thinking?
Discussion Routine #6: Connect-Extend-Challenge
This Connect-Extend-Challenge discussion routine is a great way to help students connect prior knowledge with new content. I like to use this discussion routine after reading a chunk of text that builds on something students already know but offers a unique perspective or critical piece of information.
With this strategy, you will share your source of new information (article, text, video clip, image, infographic, etc.) and give students time to read or digest the information. It may be helpful to view or read the material two to three times to understand and synthesize the information thoroughly. Afterward, pose the following three questions to your students and give them ample think time:
- Connect: How do the ideas and information in this text connect to what you already know about _______?
- Extend: How does this information extend or broaden your thinking about _______?
- Challenge: Does this information challenge or complicate your understanding of _______? What new questions does it raise for you?
Pair students up with a partner or small group to round-robin share out and then debrief with a whole-class discussion.
Discussion Routine #7: Penny For Your Thoughts/Fishbowl
The Penny For Your Thoughts discussion routine offers a unique opportunity to have a whole-class discussion in which every student’s voice can be heard; however, it does take a bit of time and prep work. To prepare your room, you’ll need to arrange the classroom furniture before class begins. Form a circle of chairs around the perimeter of the room facing the center. Bring enough pennies to give every student at least two. To prepare for the discussion, you’ll need to generate a set of questions in response to a poem, text, short story, etc. that you’ve just finished reading. You’ll increase the likelihood that all students can succeed if you create scaffolded questions and provide a fair amount of level one, two, and three DOK questions.
Kick off your discussion by posing a question and then allowing students to step up and drop their penny in a jar, placed in the center, as they answer the question. Students can use their pennies to respond to the first answer, provide a different answer, or extend/add on to the previous answer. Students on the outside might observe, take notes, complete a graphic organizer, or use a rubric to give feedback.
An alternative to this discussion routine is a “Fishbowl.” In a fishbowl, you’ll place two chairs in the middle of the room facing each other, with the rest of the students sitting in a circle around them. With this strategy, the two students in the middle will have a conversation (questions predetermined by you).
Both of these variations offer a great way for students to find their voice, listen to others, observe academic conversations, and note how their classmates feel about a topic!
Discussion Routine #8: The Pyramid
This last discussion routine is a student favorite, and you should be prepared for it to get loud! To prepare for this routine, make sure you have a few higher-level essential questions that could have multiple possible answers. For example, after reading this text on plastic disease in coral reefs, students could discuss potential questions like:
- Whose responsibility is it to ensure that our corals remain healthy and plastic free?
- If countries like Austrailia can curb coral disease with proper waste removal systems, whose responsibility is it to ensure countries like Indonesia do the same? What happens when they don’t?
To start this discussion routine, begin by pairing students in groups of two and presenting the question. After each partner has had a chance to share, the group of two will join another group creating a group of four. These new groups of four students will discuss the same question, ensuring they listen to all points of view. When each group of four has finished, two groups will join, forming a group of eight, and the students will once again discuss the question. This process will repeat itself until the whole class has joined as one and the topic is discussed as an entire group.
DISCUSSION STRATEGIES ARE A WINNING ROUTINE FOR EFFECTIVE TEACHERS
Adding discussion routines to your toolbox of instructional strategies will take some practice, but it will be well worth the rehearsal when your classroom participation skyrockets (win!) and students can fully lead the conversation with little or no support from you (double win). Don’t leave the fate of your lesson in the hands of those few students who always raise their hand. By planning a couple of discussion routines each week, you can ensure whole class engagement and participation as well as take some of the pressure off you.