Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Six Principles for Classroom Discussion

I was in an ELA classroom a few days ago listening to students engaged in a discussion. I am always surprised to hear student led discussions in classrooms, because they vary wildly based on the teacher and the content. In this particular conversation, students were discussing Facebook and the issues with privacy being breached and user data being misappropriated. Very quickly things got personal and uncomfortable. There was a total breakdown in discourse because the students weren't on the same page with how classroom discussions should be managed.

I taught ELA for several years at the middle school level, and for most of those years student led discussions intimidated me quite a bit. That was until I realized that, like any other student behavior, I need to teach appropriate behaviors of discussion to ensure that students interact appropriate in that setting. Here are the six principles of discussion that I shared with my students:

1. Dignity

Above all, when we have discussions in our classrooms, we treat each other in a dignified way. This means we honor and respect others, regardless of what they think or how different their ideas or opinions are. With my 7th graders this was often a struggle, because when an argument falls apart, it's easy to resort to name calling or immature bickering. I want students to feel passionately about what they believe in and argue with conviction, but there can be no tolerance for disrespecting a classmate over a difference of opinion.

2. Listening

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen Covey.

People, in general, don't listen to understand. We listen to RESPOND. We already think we are right, so there's no incentive to listen. We are oriented to make you understand our side rather than listening to understand yours. This is usually what breaks down most classroom discussions. Students stop listening because they only want to respond and attack. It takes a lot of time and practice to learn how to actively listen while another human being is speaking. Something I often required my students to do was to keep notes about other people's thoughts, and use those words to start their reply. For example, "I hear you're saying ----------, but I believe --------". Sometimes hearing the words out of your own mouth helps make them real to you. Sometimes having to fit your words into the actual context of another's argument can make you rethink what you were going to say. It's makes listening a far more valuable tool.

3. Equality

Everyone in the room has an opinion. And we are obligated to listen to every opinion equally. As teachers we totally understand this -- students share their harebrained schemes and half baked ideas with us all the time. Teachers have unending patience to listen to wackiness. But students can go from zero to indignant very fast. We must model for students that we consider every idea before dismissing it out of hand. Think critically about it. Question it. Ask for clarification. But never allow someone to be shut down just because in your heart you believe an idea has no merit.

4. Question

In my opinion, students are getting worse at asking questions every year. They just don't seem to be curious, interested in truth, or care to have things clarified. They are either accepting things as they are, or too lazy to try and know more. This is probably a reflection of the way we teach. We must do more to push students to ask more questions, particularly when in discussions with each other. When we don't agree, we should ask questions about why you believe what you do. We should SEEK understanding rather than to win an argument. The only way we can understand each other is if we ask more questions in those moments of discussion.

5. Disagree

While we should seek to understand and we should have an appreciation for those who think differently than us, we should also be unafraid to disagree. Not every discussion has to have a winner and a loser. The true power of discussion comes from the exchange of ideas given with respect to the opinions and feelings of those on the other side. Growth happens within the simple experience of the discussion.

6. Change

Even if your conviction is strong, if you realize you are wrong or you witness an undeniable truth that completely changes the footing of your own argument, it's totally acceptable to change your mind. There is little to be gained from holding on to a belief that has been proven demonstrably false or incorrect. And you're only making things needlessly personal by doing so. 

Practicing these principles with students didn't ensure productive conversation 100% of the time, but I would say we were generally successful in having respectful discourse most of the time. The most important thing here is that you shouldn't magically expect students to be able to have discussion and debate without preparation and practice, especially when those debates are led by fellow students. Find some structure to allow your students to work within and you'll see a dramatic improvement in the conversation in your classroom.

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