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6 Keys to Structuring Successful Student-Centered Class Discussions

By Kara Wyman March 28, 2017

A student-centered discussion gives your class an opportunity to take ownership of their learning and truly engage with each other.

But young people have a natural tendency toward chaos, so you need a clear structure to make student-centered discussions succeed. Here’s how to create that structure:

Set the stage

Before beginning, talk with your students about your expectations for the discussion. You can either describe it as just another assignment or tell them it’s a special event where they are no longer talked at by an adult but are instead leaders of their learning.

Whether they are sixth-graders or high school seniors, tweens and teens tend to enjoy opportunities like this because so often they feel belittled, ignored or underestimated by adults.

Create a circle

Whether you want your students to engage in a Socratic seminar, a modified version of that, or a more informal discussion, having them sit in a circle changes the classroom dynamic. All students face each other in an equally connected way. One student is never above another, and no one’s back is to anyone.

It’s crucial for you to stand outside the circle. This shows you are not a part of the discussion but rather an observer who will try to stay silent once it starts. You should step in only to break up disruptions, clarify specific questions or encourage students to move on if they keep rehashing the same idea.

At first, your silence may feel odd for your students, and possibly for you, too. But with practice, students will rise to the challenge of working to learn as a team.

Establish ground rules

Ground rules must be set to maintain the trust and order you’ve already created in your classroom. Start by reminding your students they’re in a safe space where all opinions and ideas are respected.

It’s also crucial that they understand the value of active listening, open-mindedness and inclusion. Class discussions are not debates. Some students may need to be reminded they are supposed to be sharing and exploring ideas — not proving someone wrong or shutting down an opposing viewpoint.

Without firm guidelines, discussions can quickly dissolve into interruptions, arguments and hurt feelings.

Prepare with your students in mind

Some teachers conduct class discussions as Socratic seminars, but you don’t have to feel that’s the only way to do it. It’s important to do whatever you think will engage and challenge your students based on who they are individually.

Personally, I liked assigning each student one question in advance so they could prepare an answer, and requiring them to respond to at least one other person’s question. This ensured that everyone spoke at least twice. I could also use differentiated instruction by assigning the higher-level thinking questions to students who needed that intellectual push, while others were challenged by comprehension-based questions.

Meanwhile, I observed and took notes on who was actively listening, what concepts, ideas and questions were brought up, and how well students connected with each other.

Provide additional support, if needed

Consider providing a word bank if you have students who have struggled with specific terms or textual references, or if any of your students are English learners. Sentence starters can also help level the playing field so each person has the foundational knowledge and support they need to express their thoughts and opinions. If some of your students are socially awkward or are new to discussions like this, consider assigning questions to pairs so they feel supported.

The goal is not to force students to be in the spotlight as if it’s a verbal exam. It’s to create an engaging dialogue where they get to exchange ideas and feel heard and valued.

Build in reflection time

Be sure to make time for students to reflect on their experiences. This helps them process what they’ve learned, and it gives you a chance to see it through their eyes. You may have thought it went well, but a few students may leave feeling confused. If you don’t ask them, there’s only a slight chance they will tell you.

Ask them to write down how they feel it went, what new ideas arose, who helped them see something differently, what they struggled with, and how they felt the class did as an inclusive team. Gathering that information will let you fully assess the discussion’s success and figure out what to alter in the next one.

Kara Wyman has a BA in literature and an MEd from University of California-Santa Barbara. She has worked with adolescents for a decade as a middle school and high school English teacher, the founder and director of a drama program, and a curriculum designer for high school and college courses. She works with 13- to 19-year-old students as a project manager of a nonprofit organization.

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