Discussion groups are an integral part of most classes that are above the basic level in middle school and beyond.
Students are expected to discuss the course material, wrestle with it, and bring different opinions to it, arriving at some shared consensus or at least understanding of the different perspectives on the topic. Is this an easy task that comes “naturally”? Absolutely not, and in fact, such communication skills must be explicitly taught, modeled, and practiced.
So what are the skills needed for effective and courteous discussion and how might they be taught?
9 Clever Tips for Teaching Discussion Etiquette
Recognition of One’s Peers and Their Differences
To begin, students need to know their fellow group members, their names, something about them. A beginning “getting to know you” exercise is important to set the foundation for working together.
Some Ground Rules
These rules are very basic: no ad hominem, or “to the person,” attacks. No abusive language such “shut up.” No childish behavior such as throwing things, yelling, threatening others, or stalking out of the room. These seem very basic, and I’ve never had a class where students from the outset did not agree that these are appropriate standards. There are students in class, however, who may have psychological or other problems and will violate these standards. It is therefore important to set these ground rules from the beginning with clear penalties, such as being asked to leave class for the day.
Language of Discussion
Often a discussion stalls because students at a very elementary level don’t know what to say. Teaching some phrases to begin, introduce a position, seek other’s ideas, interject an opinion or opposition, and drawing in a quiet peer is important.
How to Listen
Another problem with discussion is that students really don’t know how to listen. Rather, we wait our turn to speak while pretending to listen. Really getting students to engage with their peers is hard. Asking for clarification of what the speaker is saying is one technique for active listening that works well. Some other techniques might be to take notes as a peer speaks (on what she is saying, not what the student will say in response) to focus on listening to others, which is actually challenging.
How to Respond and Build off of Another’s Ideas
Another reason a discussion might stall is the belief that “we’ve said everything we have to on this topic.” But there’s almost always something more to say, on any topic besides their mere factual. At this point, when it seems a discussion might run out of steam, it becomes important to build on ideas already presented. Some methods to do this might be to review a previous point of interest that may have not be examined extensively, “Well, I remember Scott raised this point awhile back that I found interesting, and I’d like to address that more extensively…” Especially if someone has been taking notes, this will be easy enough to do by reviewing the notes.
How to Communicate One’s Ideas and Position
Returning to the point that often listening is seen as an opportunity to sit and plan one’s own response, really posing one’s own ideas may be secondary in the process. Generally speaking, we know our own ideas already, and the point of the discussion is learning other’s perspectives. In fact, we may very well find our own positions modified and developed on hearing other’s “voices.” Waiting to hear other opinions and being flexible in one’s own position is also basic discussion etiquette.
Logistics: How to Draw in the Quieter Group Members
There is invariably a disparity in a group in the amount of participation between group members. Often one or two will dominate the discussion because they have more experience and comfort levels in speaking in public settings; others lacking such experience will sit quietly. The challenge then is achieving some balance by drawing out the quieter members by saying something like “We haven’t heard from Sylvia in awhile. Sylvia, what are your ideas on this?” Sylvia may very well demure on contributing, stating that she really doesn’t have anything novel to contribute. This should be respected as it may be true, or she may really need more time to feel comfortable speaking out. Or she might immediately launch into her ideas. Usually the more verbose groups will respect her and give her a chance to speak. If they don’t, a gentle reminder to let Sylvia finish is usually all that is needed.
What is the teacher doing during the group discussion? Again, this really isn’t a chance to correct papers or lesson plan. The teacher should be circulating the room, sitting in on various groups, and modeling language and behavior: extending a conversation with “Could you say more about that topic, Sean?” or active listening with “What I’m hearing you saying is…Am I correct in that?” or final extension of a conversation before wrapping up “I want to revisit this point that was raised earlier before we decide we really are finished…” Later in the term, after students have internalized the process more, the teacher can step back, taking on more an observer role, perhaps taking notes on problem areas of the discussion process that may be addressed during instruction, and intervening when necessary.
How to Conclude
All good things come to an end. Eventually the discussion will run its course—or the class session may be ending. At this point, the group members may begin checking in with each other about any last points. They may also set a time for further discussion in class if they didn’t finish up and the class session is ending—or they may arrange a way to talk to each other outside of class. This actually does happen, especially on topics that are of personal interest, such as the value of alternates to a four-year college degree.
Class discussion is very valuable, giving students communication skills they will take through college and beyond. Discussion with peers also expands their knowledge base and perspectives on topics. However, valuable discussion does not happen “naturally”; it must be taught and practiced. It is difficult to set up, but the rewards reaped are equally huge.