Classroom Conversation: The Use Of Discussion-Based Strategy In The History Classroom, pp. 2 of 10

Discussion Strategy As Challenging But Necessary

Tony Wagner (2014), founder of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said in his book The Global Achievement Gap that in the world today, people “have to be able to take in all sorts of new information, new situations, and be able to operate in ambiguous and unpredictable ways.” To do well in the future, the ability to read, analyze and synthesize information becomes very important. Wagner questioned if the American school system is preparing students for such a future. Similarly, in 5 Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner (2007) talked about the importance of having five different “minds” to deal with both the expected and the unexpected. He defined the synthesizing “mind” as one that takes information from separate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that makes sense to everyone. Both Wagner and Gardner stressed that the ability to read, analyze and synthesize information is critical for the future world and students in school must be given opportunities to develop and hone these skills.

Discussion and critical conversation in the classroom can help students to rethink assumptions, and to subject their assumptions to continuous rounds of questioning, argument and counter-argument. Typically, the skills that are developed through such processes should be in line with what Wagner and Gardner stressed, that is, the ability to read, analyze and synthesize information into a new idea that can then be communicated. Students will first be asked to make their own assumptions about what they have read, to objectively analyze the information, and then be made to take a stance. Thereafter, they will be expected to communicate their points of view to their classmates, and to review their thinking should their classmates provide an effective counter-argument. These sets of skills are likely to turn students into better history learners as they would have to use information from various sources to create knowledge about the past events. In the process, they will make decisions about the reliability of sources in relation to each other, and develop understandings as to how and why interpretations of history may change with/over time. Discussions in the classroom should facilitate the process of analysis and synthesis, and students must be given adequate time develop and talk about interpretations, and make sense of the evidence.

While the use of discussion as a strategy is an effective means to facilitate student learning, it is often difficult to practice in the classroom. First, classroom management is a reality that teachers grapple with on a daily basis, and a potential challenge that must first be addressed when deciding to use discussion-based pedagogies in the classroom. Second, to ensure that the strategy will meet the targeted learning outcomes, appropriate time and space must be given so that students can come to their own realizations about the materials they are given. The realization often takes place after students have interpreted the source materials and are guided to make logical conclusions based on the available evidence. Finally, even as teachers take on the role of facilitators, they also will need to develop their competencies, such as the ability to design a discussion-based methodology within an inquiry framework, to develop facilitation skills to support or guide discussions, and to develop competence to summarize the discussion so that learning can take place. For discussion to be successful, teachers will need to plan an inquiry question that is pitched at the students’ level, provide scaffolds and guidance for students to prepare for the discussion, and constantly remind students about the process of discussion, such as listening to their peers and considering alternative viewpoints. All these will require a mindset change in terms of history teachers’ understanding of what the classroom should look like, and how lessons should be conducted in order for discussion-based pedagogies to take place.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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