Discussions are an essential part of the learning process because they facilitate collective construction of knowledge. Helen Elmendorf and John Ottenhoff stress in their essay, The Importance of Conversation in Learning and the Value of Web-based Discussion Tools,

“We know, usually on an intuitive level, how social dialogue can allow students to explore the shape of knowledge and its construction, ask questions and experiment with answers, and build complexity from a broadened foundation of perspectives contributed by their peers.”

The value of discussions can hardly be overstated. They allow students to:

  • Articulate their ideas;
  • Ask questions;
  • Hear different perspectives;
  • Make sense of new information;
  • Make connections;
  • Learn to interact with new knowledge.

The act of telling or explaining what they know cements students’ understanding of concepts. Conversely, struggling students benefit from hearing their peers’ ideas, opinions, and explanations.  Even the opportunity to ask questions can help students to begin to deconstruct challenging ideas or concepts.

The old adage that “there is no such thing as a dumb question” applies absolutely. Hammering home the idea that all questions are welcomed and encouraged will make students less reticent about asking for clarification on points they do not understand. Doing so in a safe Internet space, where they don’t have to fear feeling foolish in front of a whole class, makes it even easier.

I wholeheartedly believe that the potential of the group far exceeds the intellect of any one individual in the classroom- myself included. Despite my passionate belief that discussions are an integral part of the learning process, I repeatedly failed at generating successful discussions in class. I asked follow up questions, gave students “wait time” and employed a variety of other strategies to lure students into discussions.

Despite the reality that most teachers believe in the value of discussions, they are often neglected in secondary classrooms. There are a variety of impediments to real time discussions that result in excluding a majority of students from participating. This lack of equity in entering discussions creates an imbalance that can be corrected when discussions take place asynchronously online. This asynchronous environment provides something in-class discussion can’t: time.

Most students need time to process information before responding to a question.  Yet in traditional classrooms, time is a luxury most teachers do not have. With pressure to “close the achievement gap,” differentiate instruction, raise test scores and prepare kids for college, discussions seem extravagant and time consuming.

In her article “Effective Classroom Discussions,” Selma Wasserman describes the common teacher experience:

“So much to be done! So little time!  The pressure on teachers to get everything done by the end of the school day is formidable. That race with the clock often forces teachers to speed up lessons and makes them lose patience with students who need more time to say what’s on their minds.”

Wassermann identifies a key conflict in the classroom: the race against the clock to cover curriculum versus the desire to give students a voice in class discussions.  She accurately depicts the frustration, impatience and fear that many teachers face when attempting to incorporate dynamic discussions into their classrooms.

When teachers introduce an online avenue where students are able to express their thoughts outside the time crunch of a normal school day, all students can have a voice in the class. This equity of voice fosters relationship building, increases participation and encourages deeper engagement with the subject area in question…

I welcome any feedback or questions! This book is taking shape, but I would love input from educators or anyone interested in blended learning models.

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