Effective Student-Led Discussions
The Harkness approach was introduced to me by a colleague when she attended training at Phillips Exeter Academy a few years into her teaching career. In this method, students and teachers sit in a circle or oval for conversations, and each student is expected to contribute. Her enthusiasm for sharing what she had learnt about facilitating excellent student-led discussions continued after the session ended.
So far, I had been conducting conversations in the same manner I had always done them: I would pose a question to the class, ask students to raise their hands, and attempt to be as fair as possible when picking volunteers to answer the topic. Making students more involved in our discussions, from the questions themselves to possible responses, felt like an exciting opportunity for us to all learn more.
My classmates and I were able to achieve success with the Harkness technique after putting in the necessary effort. I also experimented with Socratic seminars and other approaches that place a strong emphasis on student investigation and collaboration. Using three tactics that I’ve refined over years of experimenting with student-led debates, I’ve been able to make practically all talks in my classroom both complicated and informative. They begin with students entering to class after reading a text that has been assigned.
3 KEYS TO EFFECTIVE STUDENT-LED DISCUSSIONS
1. Make a persuasive argument: Share a single, open-ended question about the text with the entire class at the start of class. Ideally, it should be an essential question, one that will provoke a range of responses, if not polarising ones. Prepare a table with numerous copies of documents connected to that question (literary criticism, encyclopaedia entries, op-eds, news items, and so on) and multiple dictionaries for students to use—I recommend saying nothing about these and watching what occurs—and then watch what happens.
Instruct your pupils to collaborate in order to evaluate the subject from a variety of perspectives before ultimately voting to come up with an answer that the majority of them are satisfied with.
This is a timed discussion, with the length of the discussion controlled by the participants. It is possible that it will need to last longer than a 50-minute class time, possibly even up to 100 minutes. Students should be reminded that they must self-regulate and that they should strive to participate as evenly as feasible.
Don’t take part in the conversation, but thereafter, you should assist a brief (10-minute or less) period of introspection. Inquire with your students about what worked and what didn’t. What changes could be made to make the debate more productive the next time around?
Authentic questions: Have students spend 10 minutes silently typing or writing at least one genuine question about what they had read the night before. This should be an honest, real-world question about the text, not a discussion question that sounds like one a teacher would ask. By asking genuine questions, you can get a feel of what students are interested in learning more about, what they are having difficulty understanding, and whether or not they are absorbing the content.
Students should read the questions aloud one at a time after they have completed their writing. Write the questions on the board so that everyone may see them. Instruct the class to extensively discuss as many of the questions as possible before moving on to the next when everyone agrees it is appropriate to move on. You should participate but not take the initiative. It is possible that multiple class periods will be required to handle all of the questions.
Sharing a question, passage, or pattern was inspired by the “One Question, One Comment” activity in Kelly Gallagher’s Deeper Reading and is now commonly used for online discussions. The following is what students should post on the class website after they have finished reading an assigned text: a genuine question about what they read and a brief attempt to answer it, a passage that resonated with them and a brief explanation of why, or a pattern they noticed with a brief explanation of what that pattern implies about the entire text.
As a starting point for discussion, ask students to point to a specific quotation from the passage that they find interesting. Through clearly articulating why they like it, they become acutely aware of just what it is about the language that touches them. Choosing a pattern allows students to discover meaning in repetition—I ask them to look for repeated phrases, images, descriptions, or concepts after they have chosen a pattern. When they begin to discuss the consequences of the pattern, they frequently begin to discover themes in the text as well. It’s a logical progression from the concrete to the abstract.
Students should thoughtfully react to the posts of two other students after they have posted a question, paragraph, or pattern on the board. Allow your class 5–10 minutes to study what was posted online the previous day, and then ask each student to share either one lingering question or a new idea that came from a classmate at the beginning of the next day’s session. These remarks serve as the starting point for our discussion the following day in my class.
These methods have assisted my pupils in realising that questions are more interesting and, in many cases, more significant than solutions. When they read, they begin to think more critically about every part of what they are reading, from the writing style to the author’s aim. They feel a stronger sense of ownership over the concepts they learn in class because they were the ones who came up with them, which leads to them becoming even more curious.
Time and a teacher who is willing to step back are required for student-led conversations to be successful. The outcomes are well worth the effort: when my pupils are given the opportunity to make decisions, my classroom becomes an intellectual playground.