Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Myth of Classroom Discussion

“Class discussion on…” How many times have you written that on a lesson plan? Here’s another question: how many of those sessions are truly “discussions”? In real situations I know of no discussions that include one person directing questions to a large group of people who raise hands, competing to be the first to answer. True class discussions are rare. I have seen it done well by a few teachers in my school. The class is organized in a big circle, and more often than not, the teacher is outside of that circle, merely moderating. Discussion skills take practice too. If you circle the wagons and expect kids (at any age) to conduct a scholarly discussion on their own, you may be disappointed. While this scenario is closer to “discussion,” two problems still exist. First, only those who are socially assertive participate, and second, due to the competition to be fast, responses are often half-baked and brief.

So what’s the solution? Cooperative groups can encourage a higher participation rate—it’s hard to hide in a group of three. The problem is that often some great ideas are lost within the group and not shared with the whole class.

Enter discussion boards.

OK, discussion boards arent as sexy and new as some other applications discussion boards hold many advantages over class conversations. Since they are asynchronous, participants have time to respond; there is no pressure to “compete” with other students to answer quickly. Another advantage of asynchronous communication is that it often results in more thoughtful, thorough responses. A study done in 2006 revealed that asynchronous writing produced richer, morwe thoughtful responses than did synchronous writing (Mobrito). Also, because of the permanence, participants can read and reread posts to avoid misinterpretation.

Because of their egalitarian nature, discussion boards allow opportunity or all students. I was always pleasantly surprised to see some very thoughtful responses from students normally “quiet” in the classroom. Perhaps those students were not as vocal, or they preferred to have time to process the ideas to formulate insightful responses. Either way, the discussion board encourages thoughtful participation from everyone.

Using discussion boards allow teachers to assess social skills as well as the content. Give students a set of protocols for posting on discussion boards. Make sure when responding that they acknowledge the previous response and if they disagree, that they criticize the idea, not the person. It’s also a good idea that students are aware that they are to post using standard English; this isn’t a chat room (LOL).

Some teachers may argue that they don’t have the time to post, review, and respond to discussion board. True, if discussion boards are added on to an existing curriculum, time becomes very limited. Consider this: perhaps the discussion boards are replacing some other activities that are more teacher centered. Perhaps you can “selectively abandon” some other activities. (Translation: lose the worksheets).
Once you set up the discussion board the teacher include a few other structures to ensure success. First, you must determine your role in the discussion. Will you participate? Are you starting all threads and letting them respond? Will you assign student moderators for discussions? Ideally, the more students “own” the discussion, the more authentic, but you may need to be a presence at least in the beginning. Next you must determine the topics of discussion. Make sure that the focus is on open-ended questions that encourage debate, dissention, and controversy; the idea is to encourage students to support answers, and listen to dissenting opinions.

Equitable participation is often another caveat. One solution is to break down the discussions into smaller groups, that way each person is responsible for a larger percentage of the discussion. Another possibility is to require minimum posts for “credit.” While I am loath to do this, I did find the need to tell students to “start at least one new thread” and “post at least three responses.” While this is admittedly, a bit artificial, it was a good way to get students started. Ideally, the discussion leads to meaning that will be required for another project; the motivation stems from the idea that “I need this discussion board to learn X.”
If you are not sure where to start, many web applications contain discussion boards. Ning, Moodle, and Wikispaces each has discussion board capabilities.

Many forward-thinking educators preach the need to develop more student-centered classrooms. To do so, students need to “own” the learning and have the opportunity to use take advantage of learning spaces outside of the classroom walls. Purposeful use of discussion boards is one way to achieve this.

1 comment:

gayle said...

I agree - classroom discussions are typically anything but . . . thanks for sharing your thoughts and suggestions for improving on this teaching strategy. Gotta love technology! : )