A good classroom is similar to a good professional office: despite its well-established hierarchy, a key to its success is giving everyone a chance to contribute ideas and express opinions. If you’re a teacher wanting to ensure that everyone gets the most from classroom discussions—whether they’re focused on a chapter in a textbook or possible remedies to a social problem—here are a few tips to maximize participation and effectiveness.
Your role is to:
Since you probably do the most total talking in the classroom as it is, you should refrain from doing more talking than strictly necessary during whole-class discussions.
Even if someone makes a bigoted or ignorant comment, a sharp reprimand will make that student and everyone else uneasy about further speaking their minds. Instead, gently encourage the “offender” to look at things from a different angle: “What have you seen that encourages you to believe that?” (Not, “Where did you get that idea?,” which is condescending.) “Can you think of any exceptions? How would you feel if you were this other person?”
Lay out the rules the first time you introduce class discussions: No belittling anyone else’s opinion. No loaded language. No interrupting. If you disagree with someone, say so only after restating their position as you heard it—and then pausing so they can clarify if needed.
Often, a handful of vocal students wind up dominating a discussion, while the shyer ones simply sit and listen. Don’t let this happen in your classroom: often, the softest-spoken people have the best ideas. Watch for “I’m interested” or “I disagree” body-language signals, and when you see them, take the hint to ask, “And what do you think, Shawn?”
As mentioned under point 1, the teacher’s role in classroom discussions is normally limited to keeping things flowing and on schedule. However, there are times when it may prove necessary to interrupt:
Robert Quillen said, “Discussion is an exchange of knowledge, an argument an exchange of ignorance.” As teacher, it’s your job to give students every opportunity to embrace discussion and avoid argument.