Classroom Conversation: The Use Of Discussion-Based Strategy In The History Classroom, pp. 5 of 10

When embarking on the use of discussion-based strategy for the first time, the agreement on ground rules is important because it can help keep discussions positive, open and relevant. The ground rules should encourage students to take responsibility for the discussion, be respectful of different perspectives and to also understand that discussions are not about winning arguments. Discussions can bring together collective wisdom which allows for issues to be discussed more broadly and deeply. Ground rules help students to work in teams and develop a more democratic disposition. They dictate areas like respecting each other’s viewpoints, taking turns, and how students craft their arguments and counter arguments These rules, however, will change with the nature of the class. If students are too aggressive in defending their arguments, then the ground rules will need to establish the tone and words used in the discussion. The objective is for students to come out of the discussion wiser than before, and not to create tensions between classmates.

A strategy to help students engage in constructive discussions is the use of sentence stems. In one of my history classes, I introduced the use of sentence stems to help my students communicate their ideas or questions to the rest of their group members. The class was to discuss if Stalin was a great leader. In one particular group, a student gave a very convincing argument as to why Stalin was a visionary and was too advanced for his time. While this student was able to convince his group members that Stalin was a great leader because he was forward-looking and had a great vision for Russia’s future, his argument disregarded how Stalin’s actions had devastating effects on the Russian society. One of his group members asked, “I’ve got a question about Stalin and how he purged people who objected to his idea. Would that still make him a good leader because he was not open to suggestions? He only wanted to do it his way.” Here, the sentence stem “I want to raise a question…” helped to move their discussion forward or to switch direction when they needed to. Sentence stems can be a range of questions or beginning statements to scaffold students to help further their discussion. It allowed students to consider another perspective so that their learning can deepen.

As mentioned, discussions can be a powerful and effective tool to enhance learning in the classroom if planned well. The class grouping structure, for example, based on academic strength, ability levels, or differing points of view, can enhance learning as students can gain deeper insights and acquire diverse perspectives as they learn from each other. Students’ personality should also be part of the consideration to ensure that the group is able to build consensus successfully at the end of the discussion. Some amount of intentional pairing will need to be done to ensure that there is a good mix of thinkers and speakers in each group. This will allow some dissonance to be created among the group members, which can lead to greater learning. 

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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