Class discussion can often evoke groans from students.
It is often rife with pitfalls: difficulties getting along with peers, students feeling they have little in common with their classmates, is one. Not knowing how to engage with and respond to one another secondary on an academic topic is secondary to that. But a third, not often raised, issue is simply not having anything to say because the topic itself is boring and/or inappropriate for discussion in the first place. This can affect the whole group dynamics as students struggle to find things to say, tune each other out as they expound on some elementary point, react in frustration to what seems to be a largely engineered and artificial exercise, and ultimately abandon the discussion. Most of this can be avoided by choosing topics that are worthwhile to discuss and that most students are willing to engage in.
The problem is how to find topics for discussion agreeable to most students. There will probably never be a topic that all students find worthwhile to discuss, but there are methods to achieve a consensus for engaging most of the students most of the time.
6 Engaging Ideas for Picking the Right Discussion Topics
Brainstorm a List with the Class for the Entire Semester
Creating a list of about ten topics which the class has contributed to and may be drawn on over the course of the term is valuable as students can take out their list at discussion time and with their group select a topic and be prepared to go. The instructor can initiate the discussion on the list by asking students for some issues that they would really like to discuss. It’s not unusual for only a couple of students to volunteer topics. It is important then for the instructor to have a couple of appropriate topics to contribute. This will then get students ready to contribute. A list with student “buy-in” or support has then been established as the core curriculum for discussion.
Choose Broad Topics That Allow Multiple Perspectives
Some topics, frankly, are not worth much effort and discussion: e.g., should we have the lunch hour at eleven am or noon? While it’s possible, it’s unlikely that students will feel strongly enough about the topic to engage in it for any length of time and may quickly come to consensus out of sheer boredom. Other topics are so “common sensical” that almost no one would argue them: e.g., that a stop sign be put in at the corner near the school where a student recently narrowly missed being hit will probably draw unanimous agreement—especially if the city council has also reached such a conclusion. Other topics may seem, to the instructor, coming from a different cultural perspective, slightly controversial: e.g., while the wisdom of vaccinating children had been generally accepted in U.S. culture as a whole for many years, some controversy has developed around the practice recently, and students with knowledge of the debate may be able to engage in some extended discussion on the topic. Other students unfamiliar with the controversy may still hold to the position of the general wisdom of vaccinations and have little further to say on the matter.
Choose Topics That Students Have at Least Some Familiarity and Understanding Of
Topics with some novelty are desirable, especially necessary, to provoke interest in the topic. However, carefully consider including topics that students have no familiarity with as an excessive amount of time will need to be spent on instructing students on extremely cultural issues and what they involve—e.g., the value of college internships, “helicopter parenting” style—rather than the opposite, desired outcome of student discussion. Again, there are few “rights” and “wrongs” of discussion topics. The instructor and students may find it a valuable expenditure of class time to do some reading first on the topic of college internships, with students educating themselves before arriving at a position. This is especially true on topics like unpaid internships that actually impact students.
Don’t Be Afraid of “Controversial” Topics
Indeed, almost anything worth discussing is “controversial.” (See above.) There are also those individuals who seem to be able to see “controversy” in anything (“Hot enough for you?” “Oh, I really don’t want to talk about global warming, please!”) This avoidance of controversial topics is probably a symptom of not being used to, or not liking engaging with others on anything beyond the superficial and from their own experience and perspective.
Reconsider Including Topics Based on Matters of Faith/Religion
The abortion issue and its legality is an example of such an issue. Many instructors avoid discussion on this topic because a position on abortion is based on an understanding of when human life begins, and this understanding is largely a matter of faith: e.g., my position may be that life begins at birth and that the mother’s life takes precedence at any point before that; others might have a completing opposing perspective of human life beginning at conception, and the child’s life as always the priority. It becomes then difficult or impossible to support my position without drawing on my spiritual/religious beliefs, which can’t be proven for the very reason they are matters of faith. This also opens the possibility of proselytizing in the classroom. This is not to say it isn’t possible to avoid these concerns and have a rational and courteous debate on the topic, but it is full of problem areas that must be orchestrated by the instructor.
Teach and Model Accepting and Valuing a Variety of Perspectives
Finally, it is very important for the instructor to listen to all perspectives carefully, acknowledging student’s strong arguments while also examining and asking questions about perceived weaknesses. Students will then adopt this behavior with each other, sometimes going so far as to engage in more “Rogerian” style argument, where the focus becomes not “winning” but arriving at some common group agreement on what is “true” or valid. In class debate, in fact, I’ve seen students approach other students on the opposite “side” of the debate with information that they saw as supporting the other side, as winning had lost importance to them. Other students sometimes still support their own position at the end while recognizing that the other side made a better argument.
In our fast-paced society, where discussion is often kept to a minimum, it may be counterintuitive to students that it might be desirable to extend a discussion and actually seem to invite disagreement by entertaining different perspectives. However, through careful choice of topics and modeling the language of acceptance of different perspectives, teachers can communicate the value of extending a discussion.