Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #4: Making Discussion in the Classroom Work

December 1, 2014
Instructional Communication

Discussion in the classroom is something we’ve all experienced, whether as teachers or students. Researching discussion-based teaching as a communication practice makes visible ways of thinking and talking that foster lively classroom discussion and ways that bring about inconsistent and intermittent student participation. Engaged and participatory classroom discussion is accomplished through the co-creation of an interaction where teacher and students talk together in curriculum-relevant ways. Students willingly—and even eagerly—choose to participate in discussion when the talk in the classroom makes it apparent that what they have to say is equally as important as what the teacher and the time-honored and consequential material in the discipline or content area bring to the course.

Discussion-based teaching is usually advocated as an alternative to lecture-recitation or direct instruction as a way to more actively engage students in their learning and to provide the opportunity for practicing personally meaningful and societally relevant group interaction processes. However, it is not per se a more involving approach to teaching than are other instructional formats. In observing and talking with classroom participants, teachers often struggle to get and/or keep students talking. Unless the class is well run, students can become highly frustrated with discussion-based courses.

The ever present multiple and often competing, important, and valuable things a teacher can attend to in a classroom make teaching a process of ongoing dilemma management where teachers constantly have to make decisions about where to apply their focus and concurrently where not to apply their focus. In the communication practice of discussion-based teaching, the central irresolvable dilemma is engagement. The competing sides in this dilemma are individual engagement (individuals engaging with curricular material) and shared engagement (engaging or talking with each other in the co-creation of the discussion). For an interaction to feel like a discussion, it has to go somewhere. Comments need to build on each other, and participants need to feel as if they are talking with, being heard by, and responding to each other. Yet, for the discussion to be instructional, individuals need to be learning, and therefore their talk needs to be relevant to the curricular material of the course.

The instructor as discussion facilitator experiences continual tension because of simultaneously feeling the need to talk in two different and contrasting ways: enacting a valuing of the student’s contribution to the discussion by being directly responsive to what he or she has just said, and striving to clarify, explain, or in other ways assist students in learning the course curriculum and the established, valued ways of talking in the discipline. Responding too much to student contributions generates a wandering, tangential, non-instructional interaction, and focusing too much on the course material makes the teacher sound like a textbook and the interaction feel like a lecture in disguise. Both are needed, but making them work together is the unending challenge.

How do teachers work to relieve this tension? How do they decide the best ways to communicate? When communicators experience tensions or problems in interaction, their beliefs about good communication become especially relevant. If these dilemmas are encountered while talking in specific communication practices, individuals can refer to their normative ideals for how people should talk in that practice. These beliefs about what makes good communication in this particular situation or kind of interaction assist the communicator in choosing what talk techniques to employ to relieve the tension, appropriately and successfully navigate the dilemma, and best manage the problem.

For discussion to thrive, instructors need to work on both of these levels. They need to develop ways of thinking or practically relevant theoretical conceptions of what discussions should be like, and they need to become adept at talk techniques that accomplish these ideals in interaction with students. While the case being made here is that a teacher’s discussion ideals need to fit the course, the discipline, and the teacher, thus far the research points in the direction that the more these beliefs about good practice value both curriculum-relevant ways of talking and responsively talking together, the more informative these models of practice become in assisting teachers in choosing talk techniques that foster lively classroom discussion.

While all teachers in this research have ideals for discussion that value both sides of the dilemma of engagement, when the balance tilts toward individual engagement, the classroom interaction is stilted and haphazard. In classrooms where an instructor’s ideals contain an explicit balance in valuing shared and individual engagement, students consistently participate in discussion. While the kind of discussion valued by these instructors can vary dramatically from an instructor who thinks there needs to be a certain “fight” in the interaction to a teacher who wants to hear “every voice every week,” what is shared by these instructors is a clear conception of what good discussion should be. Integral to their beliefs about or situated ideals for this communication practice is that student-generated and curricular content are both inherently important.

In the classroom discourse, these ideals are clearly seen in how the teachers talk when responding to student comments. Whether it is in the Socratic classroom where the teacher consistently challenges nearly every student comment or in the classroom that has an encouraging feel reminiscent of client-centered therapy, through their consistent use of these dialogic talk techniques, the interaction becomes a co-created discussion in which all participant comments are valued, participants are responsive to each other, and the talk is taking the discussion somewhere. Yet, while the expectation for participation in these classrooms becomes talking responsively with each other, rather than the traditional focus on primarily listening to and learning from the teacher, course-relevant learning is always focal. This instructional quality is accomplished through the instructor’s use of balancing talk techniques that turn the discussion away from student comments and in a variety of ways makes the talk more explicitly curriculum-relevant.

In the classroom where the teacher’s ideal is similar to Socratic teaching and a certain “fight” becomes the norm in the interaction, the instructor’s primary response to student comments is:

  • Extrapolation, or a version of extreme case formulation. For example, if the student says something like, “All opinions are true,” the instructor’s response would be something like, “My opinion is that if I let go of this piece of chalk, it will hover in the air, true?”

When taking this approach to discussion facilitation, there are typically long exchanges between a single student and the teacher as the teacher “challenges” the student to continually refine his or her articulation of a point. Although this technique challenges the student, it is still dialogic because it values what a student has just said and keeps what students are saying as central in the discussion. Through this primary talk technique, the instructor and the students co-create the discussion.

To move the discussion toward more individual engagement with the course content, this instructor “balances” the student-centered talk technique with two other techniques:

  • Positive evaluation, in which the instructor “passes” on further interaction with the student by either agreeing with the student or saying something like, “That’s a good point.”
  • Providing information, where the instructor can essentially insert a mini-lecture into the discussion.

Through this balance of talk techniques, the teacher responds to student comments in a way that consistently keeps student-generated content at the center of the discussion, but importantly, at relevant times, switches to making course content central.

In the classroom where “hearing every voice every week” is a valued part of the teacher’s ideal for discussion, the primary talk technique in response to student comments is:

  • Encapsulation, or a kind of paraphrasing of student comments akin to active listening. For example, if a student would say something like, “When I moved it was different out here,” the instructor would respond with something like, “Okay, so it differs from state to state.”

In this kind of discussion, the teacher and an individual student have a quick back and forth in which the student and the teacher negotiate the meaning of the student’s comment. The discussion moves quickly from one student to the next, with many students speaking in the same amount of time that one student would talk in the Socratic classroom.

At times, this instructor uses an additional technique:

  • Alteration, in which the instructor substitutes a more curriculum-relevant word for a word offered by a student; for instance, altering “spirituality” so that it becomes “respect,” thereby highlighting a particular discussion track in this course.

When alteration is used, the student usually holds the floor much longer than is typical in this classroom because the meaning negotiation ends in a more curriculum-relevant approach to talking than that offered by the student. Through encapsulation and alteration, teacher and students consistently co-create the discussion and at specific times the working together explicitly focuses the discussion on curriculum-relevant material and ways of talking.

A common thread through all the classrooms studied is that the teachers talk a lot. One of the myths of teaching through discussion may be that students will talk more when teachers talk less. Discussion-based teaching is still instruction, and when the teachers’ talk doesn’t provide structure to the interaction, the responsibility for structuring their own instruction falls to the students. Instructor-facilitated collegiate classroom discussion (IFCCD) is a particular communication practice, the skills of which neither students nor teachers practice or learn through everyday conversation or traditional classroom interaction. This approach to teaching and learning seems particularly relevant in a democratic society, and yet rarely are resources allotted in ways that foster the kind of rigorous reflection, collaborative inquiry, structured guidance, and sustaining communities of practice through which instructors develop ways of thinking and talking that are integral to discussion-based teaching.

The art of facilitating classroom discussion is in embracing the dilemmatic nature of the undertaking accompanied by an unwavering commitment to discursively navigating the dilemma of engagement. As a way of teaching, it demands not only learning to think and talk in particular ways, but also generating significant amounts of energy from the instructor in the classroom as well as multiple levels of commitment and dedication throughout the educational community in terms of time, support, and collegiality.

About the author (s)

Heidi L. Muller

University of Northern Colorado

Assistant Professor