In the book, Discussion As a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, Brookfield and Preskill suggest that establishing expectations for classroom discussion can begin by having students reflect on their own experiences. So, I asked my sixth graders to identify characteristics of negative and positive discussions based upon conversations that they have experienced in the classroom, at home, or with friends. Here is the list they created:
Factors that negatively impact discussions:
- Lack of flexibility
- Lack of preparation
- Difficult (sensitive)topics
- Side conversations
- Judgment of people
- Facial expressions
- Attention Seeking
Factors that positively impact discussions
- Engaging topic
- Everyone talks
- Feels natural
- Everyone pays attention
- Everyone’s opinion heard
- Possible to change your mind
- Many possible answers
- Everyone treats others with respect
We discussed these lists and what we could do as a class to keep our discussions positive. Treat each other respectfully, give all students a chance to speak, and refrain from side conversations are examples of the norms that we established.
As I reflected upon this lesson, I realized that approaching discussion with a child-like honesty and a quest for the truth was not “starting small” in any sense.
Even at a young age, these children had already noticed, experienced, and/or internalized sometimes subtle inhibitors to meaningful discussions—facial expressions and judgment of others—that can silence meaningful dialogue. They understood that people may hesitate to discuss sensitive or difficult topics for fear of what others might think.
Yet, these sixth graders also embraced the idea that positive discussions are those that can potentially lead us to change our minds.
Classroom discussions belong to the students, and we continue to reflect on their quality and impact throughout the year. Also, we refer back to this list as our discussions continue, deepen, or sometimes wander off course. Reflecting on personal experiences and understanding my students’ perspectives was essential groundwork for productive classroom discussion and continues to be well worth the class time.
 Brookfield, S.D. & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. 2nd Ed. San Francisco, CA Jossey-Bass.