Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Anatomy of a Discussion

William Cowper, The Anatomy of Humane Bodies (1698)
Image source: Book Use, Book Theory exhibit
Recently, I was asked to share my thoughts on how I facilitate discussion. At first, I started rattling off tips and tricks, experiences and expectations, pitfalls and pet peeves. But the more I talked, the more I realized that I had never actually dissected (to keep my metaphor going here...) the inner workings of great classroom exchanges. I know this sort of thing has been done and re-done, but I thought I'd offer my view of the basic skeleton underlying classroom conversation (I know, I know...the anatomical language has now gone too far).

Side note: As an early modernist, I couldn't resist posting this image from the 17th-century anatomy theater. It plays on the source of knowledge--both body and book--and nicely contextualizes my own thinking about discussion. Or, at least I'd like to think so.

  • Give everyone a chance to "warm" their brains up, come up with some ideas, and get on the same page (not to mention remembering the text/homework if they came straight from an exam, lunch, etc.)
  • Try to get everyone to participate before the main conversation begins to build confidence & openness
  • Encourage evidence-based responses NOT opinion
  • Think Pair Share
  • Free Write (1-minute paper) with an advanced organizer handout
  • Respond with a word or phrase
  • 3 observations, 2 emotional responses, 1 question
  • Text to Self, Text to Text, Text to World
  • Have students generate their own discussion questions (alone, with partner, or in group)
  • Generate a Do/Don't list for Discussion Groundrules (do this on first or second class, ideally--or online)

  • Don't come with a hidden agenda or set of answers; come with goals & issues you'd like raised
  • Your job is to facilitate "aha" moments and prod students to think in new ways--not to teach them what to think
  • Avoid questions that have informational or yes/no answers
  • Use discussion questions that get at issues, problems, conflicts…not "answers" (students can see through you to your secret "agenda")
  • Have students answer discussion questions they came up with (night before or during warm-up)
  • Give a handout (or blog post) with possible questions for the day and let them choose

  • Try not to run discussion until the very, very end. Give time for at least a minute or two to come above water and make sense of it all.
  • Ask students: "What can we take away from today?" or "How has this discussion complicated or changed the ideas you cam to class with?" 
  • Ask students to reflect in a meta-way (as future teachers, especially): "What content/skills/strategies/tools/calls to action are you leaving with?"

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