#10. Small-group discussions

Posted on April 23rd, 2014

From the Institute for Learning, this is Pam Goldman.

Last time, I talked about some of the benefits and challenges of whole-group discussions. The bottom line: The teacher can monitor the entire class's discussion in terms of both norms and content. Still, we acknowledged the great potential of small-group discussions. They can provide more opportunities for more students to engage in classroom talk. As with most things, small-group discussions have both advantages and challenges.

Most of us, as teachers or as students, have experienced small-group discussions that did not work. Perhaps one or two students dominated. Perhaps a quieter student or a struggling student was treated with disrespect. Perhaps the group devolved into a discussion of a television show or, these days, perhaps a YouTube video. After all, even the most energetic teacher cannot be everywhere at once, and so modeling for and monitoring of small groups is necessarily spotty. Nevertheless, small-group discussions can be, should be, an important part of an Accountable Talk® classroom. When they work well, small-group discussions not only get more students talking more of the time, they also provide an opportunity for students to try out and refine ideas and get feedback before they present them to the entire class. They provide rehearsal opportunities for students who may not be completely comfortable with academic English. Small groups also allow students to go deep and build ideas or solutions together.

Small-group discussions can vary in size from two students up and in time from a quick couple of minutes to a substantial part of the class period. How do we see Accountable Talk playing out in these different kinds of situations?

We always start with two preconditions. If you've been listening to these podcasts, you might think I am a broken record about norms, but establishing and maintaining norms is crucial, especially before students go off to talk on their own. The other precondition is thinking through what questions you, as the teacher, will use to initiate discussion and keep it moving in the right direction. Of course, this is important for a whole-group discussion too, but when you’re working with a number of groups it is of particular importance. Each group might go in a different direction. You start, as always, with something worth talking about, a question that does not have one obvious answer or a problem that can be approached in a variety of ways. Then, think through your next questions. What directions might student discussion take? For each direction, what questions might move students to deeper understanding? What misconceptions are you likely to encounter? What questions might you pose to help students understand the misconceptions and self-correct? Probably, these are decisions you make on your feet everyday. Planning ahead of time and making this thinking explicit to yourself will help you craft even more purposeful questions, facilitate better discussions, and over time help you develop a question toolbox for discussions and concepts that will make your work easier.

At the Institute for Learning (IFL), the two small-group formats we use most are partner talk, also referred to as turn-and-talk, and student-led, small-group discussions.

Partner talk, to us, means just a few minutes, say two to five, in which students generate ideas. During those two minutes, a teacher may listen in to a few groups, but obviously, cannot get a sense of the entire class. And, obviously, the talk will last only that short duration if the class understands the expectations and knows to stop and reassemble when time is called. Timers or chimes can help. You can plan breaks for partner talk strategically when you think through a lesson. You can also use it if the class gets stuck. You ask your great open-ended question and no one responds. Sometimes a break to think through the question with a partner is what leads to a break through in conversation. Some students, for example English learners, may have an idea in mind but may be unsure about how to express it. Others may simply be unsure. A quick rehearsal with a classmate may be all that’s necessary to prepare that student to contribute to the whole class.

Small-group work is an important part of IFL lessons, whether for students or in professional development settings. As the teacher circulates from group to group during extended small-group work, she plays two roles. First, she listens in to each group and determines which questions will advance that group’s learning in the moment. Simultaneously, the teacher must think about how she will use the thinking of each group when the class reconvenes as a whole. A logical choice and sequence of various groups' ideas must be presented, all leading to the goal of the lesson. Wow! I always think that is a tall order, but one that is easier to fill with preparation.

Perhaps the ultimate lesson here is that different talk formats play different roles within a lesson, and that it's good to mix them up—both to give students opportunities to think, talk, and learn differently and also to keep interest from flagging.

Pam Goldman

Pam Goldman is the Institute for Learning (IFL) Instructional Design Fellow. In this role, she designs, authors, produces, and edits a series of learning tools for educators based on the Institute's theory of action and practice of district and school reform.

More information on Pam Goldman.