#9. Teacher-guided whole-group discussions

Posted on April 15th, 2014

From the Institute for Learning, this is Pam Goldman.

When educators think about upgrading classroom talk, some think this means focusing on small-group discussions. After all, small groups have the potential to give more students more opportunities to talk. So, if you want more students to participate in academically productive talk, you should always go small group, right? Well, not necessarily. Whole-group discussions can be rich, academically productive, and even enjoyable for the entire class. While they may present some challenges, they also present advantages, the most important of which may be that the teacher hears and directs all classroom conversation.

Think about a classroom in the process of transforming itself into an Accountable Talk® environment. Once successful, students will listen to each other attentively and respond respectfully. On the way, we find that students often need to learn these skills. For example, they need to listen to each other instead of concentrating on what they want to say next or, worse, drifting off into other realms. Thus, as we discussed in an earlier podcast and in Donna Bickel's webinar, the first and foremost task for everyone is to establish and maintain appropriate classroom talk norms. Every student needs to feel safe enough to try out ideas, even if they are not yet well formed, even if they might prove to be not quite right. In a whole-group discussion, the teacher can model norms for the entire class, monitor how all students talk to each other, and make on-the-spot gentle corrections if norms are violated. In fact, the teacher can explicitly give the message that the goal is to make the classroom a safe place for everyone to go public with ideas.

Another advantage of whole-group discussions is that everyone in the class has the opportunity to hear all the ideas generated and everyone has the opportunity to build complex ideas together.

What's difficult about whole class discussion? Obviously, it can be a challenge to keep an entire class on track at once, especially in the early days of Accountable Talk.

In order to be successful, teachers must be able to orchestrate talk among a large and diverse group of students who bring to the discussion widely divergent background knowledge, interests, attitudes, community-based ways of speaking, facility with academic English, and perceived status in the classroom. Most rooms have a number of students who raise their hands just about every time a question is posed. These students may be perceived as the “smart” students, yet all students have the potential to make meaningful contributions to a discussion. The challenge is to incorporate and honor the talk and ideas of all students. While more participation may occur in small-group settings, the teacher can ensure that it does occur while in a group discussion.

Another challenge of whole-group discussion can be the possibly dizzying array of ideas and information that can arise. Students may generate a plethora of ideas, some useful to the goal of the lesson, some less so. The teacher may need to sort ideas quickly and make immediate decisions about next questions most likely to steer the conversation in a productive direction. Even more difficult might be the task of figuring out how to help the class pull together the many threads of ideas at play. This is always a big job but can seem even bigger if, at the same time, the class, and maybe the teacher, are just getting started with Accountable Talk. Next time, I’ll talk about how preparation can help. In the meantime, here's a tip: If you find yourself in the middle of an Accountable Talk discussion and you are lost, if you know there should be a great follow up question but you find yourself frozen like the proverbial deer in the headlights, you can always try a move like this. Depending on the age of your students, you might invite them to help you. Say something like, “Wow, we’ve had a lot of interesting ideas surface in the last few minutes. Let’s capture them. Let’s see. Where are we? Who can summarize the two or three big ideas related to X that we have been talking about in the last few minutes?” If they are not able to do this, perhaps you will have bought yourself enough time to summarize for the group. If that doesn't work, you can always return to your comfort zone. Revert to IRE. There's no shame in that. Catch your breath and continue.

Next time, I’ll talk about small-group discussions.

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.