Home > Future of Education > Who’s Doing The Talking During Class Discussions

Who’s Doing The Talking During Class Discussions

I had an interesting conversation in my class tonight regarding the development of discourse and hosting student conversations in (math) class. I shared with my classmates an observation I’ve had as a consultant: during most class discussions a teacher will say a few dozen words, and then a student will respond with two or three.  Teacher then affirms or rejects the students input, says a few dozen more words, and eventually elicits another 2/3 word response from a second student. This pattern continues until the conversation ends, and the teacher wraps up the ideas for students.

When I think back to my own classroom practices, I wonder if my classroom conversations were the same. I believe conversations are one of the most important activities that students can be engaged in during the learning process, but students need to actually be engaged. Sometimes we educators monopolize conversations in class in order to guide the discussion to where we want it to go.

I worked with a teacher today, John, who very successfully implemented an online discussion (shameless plug) in his social studies (grade 9) class. Students were highly engaged writing pages upon pages of ideas, pulling in evidence from online sources and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Canada) to back their opinions. John only had to add his input on occasion to gently nudge the conversation (moderating) keeping it on topic. Students were very successful and in turn, so was John as a teacher facilitating discussion.

John took it further and added something that I haven’t seen before. He told students that they were required to read through the entire conversation before the next class, and write a brief 1 or 2 paragraphs. The focus will be on how their thinking has either changed or their opinion has become stronger due to the comments of their peers. In addition to having every student participate in a conversation, John now has students reviewing the collaborative learning process and synthesizing it on their own. Brilliant!

If you value conversations as a part of the learning process you may want to reflect on what experience your students have during a class ‘discussion’. Are students listening to you state facts and ask a few questions from a handful of students? Or are they deeply engaged in a conversation, given the chance to think about their own ideas, revise them, and challenge each other?

One things for sure, the next time I host a ‘class discussion’ I’ll be considering who’s doing the talking, and who’s doing the listening.


  1. November 19, 2010 at 16:23

    Hi Daniel,
    I loved this post and couldn’t agree more. I am currently doing my Masters part time while teaching and the focus has been on formative assessment. I have looked at self and peer-assessment and come to the realisation that unless kids know how to talk properly too each other and can reflect on what others have said as well as what their ideas are/were, self and peer assessment will never really be more than a superficial task. I have spent the last 6 months analysing talk in my classroom and letting the kids lead the conversations and respond to each other rather than me butting in on the time has been liberating and fascinating – the results have been tremendous. I’ll be posting about this in the near future on my blog once I have a few more hard facts from the analysed conversations.

    • November 19, 2010 at 17:22

      Hi Sarah, thank you very much! It surely is quite a fascinating topic. I can’t wait to read about your experience developing discourse in class! It is a real challenge, but as you’ve noticed it is quite the rush when it starts to happen!

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