Let’s Talk: Promoting the right sort of talk in the classroom

How many times during a teaching day do you say to students: “Stop talking?”Are you tired of student chatter that distracts rather than encourages learning? Discussions in the classroom can be a powerful teaching technique that channels both the students’ need to talk with the desire of the teacher to stretch and challenge learning.

Facilitating a discussion in the classroom can be difficult. Asking a number of students their opinion on a topic area is not a discussion but a transmission of views through talk. Instead there are a few key pointers that distinguish a developing discussion from other types of talk:

  • Students building upon another student’s view (“As Luke said I also think that…”)
  • Students agreeing or disagreeing with another student’s view (“I don’t agree with Luke because…”)
  • Students giving eye contact- directing their point to another student rather than using the teaching as a go between

These might seem very simple and straightforward however creating the learning environment were students are comfortable to do this is not easy.

So here are a few of my tips that I have found helpful when establishing a comfortable environment for a discussion:

  1. Make sure you are happy with the layout of your classroom: This might be different from the normal layout. The students should be able to see each other without having their backs to anyone (I know this is based on the luxury of space.) Also place yourself where you are comfortable – don’t sit behind a desk (this creates a barrier between you and the discussion.)03089_5563.jpg
  2. Plan the time of day: Judge when your class are tired or not as responsive e.g. not Monday morning
  3. Set ground rules before you start (even write them on the board): If someone is speaking you will not interrupt them. (This is significant to creating the right environment.) It is also very important at the beginning of a discussion to emphasize: all students have the opportunity to share views and opinions but must consider the other members of the class so not to offend or upset. (If a delicate discussion is coming up I would give prior warning e.g. abortion/ euthanasia/ ethics of soldiers – allowing any student the opportunity to privately speak with you before the discussion takes place)

Once the scene is created it is important to carefully plan a series of questions and stimuli to encourage the first speaker. I recommend starting with:

  1. Discussion question, “Do you think there is life after death?”
  2. Devil’s Advocate, “Could you kill baby Hitler?”
  3. Quote, “I have to believe in freewill I have no choice.”
  4. Exam style question: “There is too much evil for God to exist.”
  5. Anything that may interest and grab a students attention. E.g. The rise in premarital sex can be linked to the rise of sexually transmitted diseases.

Give all students the opportunity to: think, reflect and write down their views prior to the start of the discussion. This could be on a post it note, worksheet, thought bubble etc. discussionThis allows each student time to think of a point and also gives them an opportunity to prepare themselves to speak. I have found that putting students on the spot will only produce short, quick responses. For developed, mature, insightful views give your students time to process first.


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