Not All Responses Are Equal: Teaching Students to Wrap Up Unproductive Discussions (and Move Forward)

Not All Responses Are Equal
Teaching Students to Wrap Up Unproductive Discussions (and Move Forward)

Stacia Levy
by Stacia Levy 4,263 views |

Some classes are so quiet and unresponsive to each other that the teacher will greet any form of interaction with relief and encouragement.

Certainly when students begin to open up with each other and exchange ideas, they should be encouraged. In a democratic culture with a value of freedom of expression, the tradition also is to treat everyone’s speech as sacred and insightful. This is not to say that all or any discussion is good, however. Generally speaking, any discussion is better than none. But there are times that it becomes desirable or even necessary to end an unproductive or damaging discussion and go forward.

4 Cases When a Discussion Is Unproductive or Negative

  1. 1

    The Same Points Keep Getting Repeated

    This is a roadblock students run into with deeply held cultural beliefs or universal values. “All people are created equal” or some variant thereof gets repeated a lot in discussions about a democratic society. One way to move the discussion forward is to ask students to expand on the idea: e.g., “How are they equal?” or define terms “What exactly do you mean by ‘equality’?”

    Another reason the same points keep getting repeated is that simple lack of information: students might repeat the point above about equality but have little understanding of where the notion of equality comes from in U.S. culture, for example. Students often actually wrongly attribute the value of equality to the Bible, for example, while in the United States the principle of equality is located in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Because this vague or lack of understanding of where the principle comes from, and therefore the language and context of the source, students can’t move beyond a vague and limited discussion. Directing students to the correct source of concepts will assist in addressing this problem.

  2. 2

    The Discussion Is Based on Misinformation

    Further research or reading is required for students to inform themselves before beginning to discuss the issue. Students often have a misunderstanding of First Amendment Rights in the United States, particularly free speech rights. Rather than stopping the discussion to explain to them the limitations on free speech, consider having students do some research on the topic to inform themselves and then continue the discussion or bring in some readings to help students more thoroughly understand the issue before continuing the conversation.

  3. 3

    The Discussion Is Related to the Topic Only Tangentially

    It can be very easy to veer off-topic in discussion; even adults and professionals can become distracted by concerns that are, to them, more immediate and personal than abstract issues of societal responsibility versus individualism. When students begin complaining about getting their roommates to do their share of the housework, it’s best to try to tie this personal example back to the topic of shared communal responsibility, or if that can’t be done, work toward wrapping up the conversation.

  4. 4

    The Students Are Engaging in Ad Hominem Attacks

    When either the members of the group as individuals, or their ideas, are being help up for ridicule, it really is time for the instructor to begin moving toward closure. This can become a “teachable moment”—you may disagree with someone’s ideas politely, but you may not make fun of them or another person.

4 Methods for Ending a “Bad” Discussion (Yet End on a Positive Note)

  1. As stated, sometimes the instructor may determine the conversation is so unproductive and potentially damaging that it is time to break it off. There are several ways to do this without creating further hard feelings in students discussed below.

  2. 1

    Set a Time Limit

    A first method of bringing discussion to a graceful close is to simply set a time limit: e.g., “It looks like most groups are finishing up; let’s work toward ending in five minutes.” This accomplishes several things: it does give warning that it’s time to finish while allowing some final comments: also, “work toward ending” is open to interpretation enough that students who really do have important final comments have time now to make them.

  3. 2

    Guide the Students toward Closure by Modeling the Language of Ending a Conversation

    This is also an opportunity for the students to practice courteous ways to end a conversation, which is helpful outside of the classroom as well: “We are running out of time. Does anyone have further comments they would like to make?” “Stephanie, sorry, did we ever get back to you on that point made earlier?” and so forth

  4. 3

    Ask for Final Thoughts and Comments

    Finally, the teacher should model how to end a discussion by asking for final comments that students might want to share with the class as a whole. This also gives final closure by bringing the class back together. If no one speaks up, the teacher might elaborate on a particular point that was shared in one of the groups or reviewing themes common to all groups.

  5. 4

    Give a Take-away

    A “take-away” task might be further reading or writing on the topic, particularly if students’ information base seemed lacking. A rescheduled time for finishing the discussion might be called for. Often, at the end of the debate, if has been thoroughly exhausted by that time, at least from the students’ perspective, I might then give my position on the topic, which I usually refrain from doing. This is helpful especially if my perspective has not been one that has been deeply considered or popular, just to give some extra understanding of the topic.

It is difficult to know when and how to break off a discussion because there is the interest of giving all students a chance to speak and feel heard. However, sometimes a discussion can become unproductive or even damaging. At that point, the instructor can take measures to wrap up the discussion while still ending on a positive note.

What are some methods you use to wrap up unproductive conversations?

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