Discussion can be a powerful tool for learning yet engaging all students in equitable discussions can be challenging. When I began teaching, I was frustrated because in-class discussions were dominated by a small group of vocal students while the rest of the class sat quietly avoiding eye contact. It wasn’t until I incorporated online discussions into my traditional class that I was able to engage every voice in our class dialog.

Starting with Online Discussions

I use Schoology for our online discussions. My students begin the year developing and practicing their online communication skills with online icebreakers. Online icebreakers give students an opportunity get to know one another and build a community online.

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Note: For educators interested in incorporating online discussions into their curriculum, my first book Blended Learning in Grades 4-12 provides resources and strategies to support this shift. It includes my dos and don’t for online communication, strategies students can use to ensure they are saying something substantial online, a collection of online icebreakers, and tips for weaving online work back into the classroom! 

Weaving Online Discussions Into the Classroom

Each day we weave our online discussions back into the classroom with an activity I call “Four Corner Conversations.” I count students off by 4, and each group goes to one of the four corners of our classroom to engage in a smaller group conversation. Groups revisit the points made in our online conversations and discuss the reading. These smaller group discussions give every student an opportunity to participate and have a voice in the conversation. This is much harder to do in a whole class conversation with 25 or 30 students competing for air time.

IMG_7142During first semester, I provide groups with questions, quotes and information to fuel these small group discussions. I want students to get comfortable sharing their ideas in real time. What I find amazing is how fluidly the skills honed in our online discussions transfer into our classroom conversations. Students, who are naturally shy or reluctant to talk in class, are more confident after having an opportunity to engage online. Online discussions allow them to think about a question, articulate a response, respond thoughtfully to peers, and receive validation from their peers.

Shifting to Students Designed, Facilitated & Assessed Discussions

By second semester, students to take over our in-class conversations. Each night they design a dynamic discussion question and submit their question via the Google Form I have embedded in our class website. Then I review the submissions, select strong questions, and ask those students to facilitate the in-class discussions.

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Group facilitators lead the conversations. They know it’s their responsibility to engage every voice in their group. This is an important life skill. To be “college and career ready” students must “Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

In preparation for student-led discussions, we spend time reviewing what it looks like to lead a discussion. We crowdsource a list of strategies facilitators can use to include every group member in the conversation.

As students engage in their groups, they complete a facilitation form pictured below. This form asks them to track the participation of their group members. After the conversation is over, they evaluate their facilitation skills. I also like to find out who they felt was the strongest member of their group and why.

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Note: For educators using Google Apps, click here to view a copy of the student-led facilitation form. If you sign into your Google Account, you can go to “File,” click “Make a copy,” and it will automatically save to your Google Drive.

Each class a new set of facilitators assume the role of designing, leading and assessing the in-class conversations. It’s amazing to watch them develop as both facilitators and as active participants in a student-led discussion. They must negotiate challenging topics, consider different perspectives and think critically about a range of issues. It’s in these moments when I feel we are capitalizing on the collective intelligence in our classroom!

If you have a great discussion strategy that works in your classroom, please post a comment and share it!

6 Responses

  1. Great idea! I have struggled with discussions as well and can’t wait to try this. I was also wondering how do you integrate Schoology and a class website? I tried using both but students claimed it was too confusing. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Kevin,

      I have not encountered that issue. I use a TON of different tools with my students. We have a Google site website and class blog, we use Schoology exclusively for online discussions and we do digital reading and writing using StudySync. My philosophy is that I want to use the best tool for the given job. I explain that to my students. Ultimately, if I want them to be technology fluent, then they need experience with a variety of tools so they can begin to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each tool.

      I actually wrote a blog about building my technology tool belt. http://cluttered-record.flywheelsites.com/2013/03/my-technology-philosophy-lms-vs-tool-belt/


  2. I like how you are able to get all students talking either online or in the classroom. What other strategies do you have for students posting comments on schoology? because sometimes I feel the online comments are not genuine at times or seem to forced because students are just commenting because it is part of their homework and not because they have something to say or are genuinely interested in the topic.

    • Hi Nataly,

      I spend the first few chapters of my book Blended Learning in Grades 4-12 talking about the importance of teaching students how to communicate online and how add substantively to an online discussion to ensure students are driving the conversations forward. It’s key to make sure they know how to engage in a meaningful way online so that the quality of online discussions stay high.


  3. […] Discussion can be a powerful tool for learning yet engaging all students in equitable discussions can be challenging. When I began teaching, I was frustrated because in-class discussions were dominated by a small group of vocal students while the rest of the class sat quietly avoiding eye contact.  […]

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