Assessing Historical Discussion, pp. 4 of 6

Teaching discussion skills

Most teachers would recognize the skills above as characteristics of students’ contributions to good discussions, but it is tempting to simply hope that students already possess these skills—a wish that usually disappoints us. Once we have identified elements of discussion we hope to see from our students, we have to teach these to them—not just tell students what we are looking for, but actually teach them. In the field of cooperative learning, there is a fairly well-developed method for teaching social skills (D. Johnson, R. Johnson, & Holubec, 1994), and this method applies equally well to discussion. In teaching each skill, teachers should

  1. Establish a need for the skill. Explain to students what the skill is and why it is neeeded. Students need to understand what each skill means and why it is an important part of a historical discussion. What does it mean to acknowledge others’ positions, for example, and why is this important? This is the most traditional, “teacher-directed” part of this process, but it can be further supported with posters, wall charts, and other materials. 
  2. Ensure that students understand the skill. Just because the teacher has explained something does not mean that students understand it or can apply it in concrete situations. For this step, teachers have to break the skill down by providing examples (and asking students for examples) of exactly what it would sound like in practice—the specific words or phrases involved in “responding to the statements of others,” for example, such as, “I disagree because this is only based on one source…” or “I agree because of another example that shows the same thing….” Having students model the skill in front of their peers (and model what it does not sound like) is an important—and interactive—way of driving this point home.
  3. Provide time to practice. This is the heart of the method: giving students time to try out the skill in practice, as they’re engaged in a historical discussion (whether in a small group or as a whole class). It is important, however, that skills not be forgotten or subsumed once taught, and so for a given discussion, students must have a chance to practice one specific skill (even though they’ll be using many others at the same time). This means that teachers will need to monitor students’ use of that skill, for example by keeping track of instances when students are “defining one’s own position” to see how well they are applying the skill.
  4. Create opportunities for reflection. It is not enough that students practice a skill; they need to think about how well they are doing and receive feedback on their performance. After observing students’ use of a skill such as asking questions of others, for example, teachers should comment on how these instances have (or have not) contributed to the conversation, as well as have the class consider how such questions could be improved. Ultimately, students should be able to engage in self-reflection, with limited teacher input; they should have internalized the skills well enough that they can identify what they have done well and how they can improve. Importantly, this means that teachers must set aside time for reflection at the end of each discussion (at least 5-10 minutes, and sometimes longer); otherwise students will not fully master or retain the skills.

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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