Class discussions are one of the best strategies for encouraging students to take a more active role in their learning. They allow students to find their voice. They create a space for the sharing of ideas and an opportunity to engage in debate. They also provide valuable feedback for teachers.
The problem is that the standard ‘review type’ questions that ask students to recall and give back information follow a familiar pattern. The teacher questions, a student responds and the teacher evaluates. It is sometimes known as IRE (initiate, respond, evaluate). There is a time and place for this type of questioning, especially when teachers want to activate prior knowledge, unfortunately though, it is the default style of discourse in many classrooms. Unless teachers make a deliberate attempt not to always use this style, it will prevail and limit the richness of discussions.
The IRE pattern of interaction is best described as resembling a ping pong match, with a back and forth between the teacher and a single student. Doug Lemov refers to it as playing catch, or static questioning. Much of the class is left out of the interaction, and as a result, they usually tune out. The teacher is the one getting most of the practice, with students not having to carry much of the load. It also focuses primarily on memory as the main cognitive function, offering a limited effect on the development of thinking and reinforcing the idea that learning is memorizing.
Instead of the ping pong style, a more useful metaphor for effective discussions is basketball. The ball, representing the question, is passed around and ideas are bounced off one another. There is a greater involvement from the whole class as each student has an opportunity to contribute to the discussion. This approach forces students to prove, justify, or defend their answers and those of their classmates. Students are held more accountable for contributing to the discussion, leading to a more engaging environment and livelier discussions.
The ice-cream cone is another metaphor for class discussions, with each scoop resting on the foundation of the one preceding it. By building on the comment that comes before it, the discussion becomes deeper, with ideas being connected together. There is a sense of cohesion. It also requires students to really listen to their peers and contribute only that which moves the discussion forward. It brings a focus to the discourse and a sense of purpose, as there is no place for random thoughts or tangents.
To get the most out of class discussions, it’s important to move away from the traditional game of ping pong and play more basketball, build more ice-cream cones.