Promoting Structured Classroom Discussion


The 15 Minute Forum tonight was led by Andy Tharby. Andy was sharing a technique that he uses a great deal to promote a structured classroom dialogue and discussion.  It involves students thinking about and then justifying where their viewpoint on something, along a continuum.

Why do it?

  • It creates structured dialogue that builds synergy between talk and writing.
  • It helps students to realise that truth is inherently ‘slippery’. There are indeed ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.
  • It helps students to structure thought and argument.
  • It helps the teacher to create structured and disciplined discussion.
  • With probing questioning, it develops verbal reasoning skills.
  • There is no ‘get out clause’. Students are compelled to participate.
  • It challenges us to develop our questioning skills.

How to do it?

Andy started with the following slide, that posed a question:

tharby line

The students (us teachers in this case) were then given a post-it that we had to put our name on.  We were then asked to come and place our post-it on the ‘continuum line’ depending on our viewpoint.

We were then given some instructions.  The green box told us how we had to engage with the discussion, by either putting up a hand, two fingers (caution needed!) or a fist.  We were also told that we had to consider, when responding to a point that someone else had made, whether we were going to agree, build upon or challenge their response (thanks to Alex Quigley for this idea). The beauty of this is that it makes students think carefully about the purpose of their response.

Andy then went on to make the point, that if we are going to have a purposeful discussion, we need knowledge to be able to do it effectively.  This is where the yellow box comes in.  It gives students prompts and ideas to support their argument.

oracy2So having set the scene, Andy started the discussion, by picking a post-it to the far right of the continuum and asking that person to explain the reasons that led them to this judgement.  He then developed this by asking the same question to someone on the far left of the contiuum.  So, immediately we had heard two different viewpoints, which was a stimulus for people to contribute by sticking their hands/fists/two fingers up – In the nicest possible way of course!

As this was going on, Andy was monitoring who was and who wasn’t contributing.  He noticed that one of the group hadn’t contributed to the discussion yet, so asked her why she had placed her post it where she had – in the middle.  Her response was ‘Dunno Sir!

Now, what she was expecting was to be let off the hook, by the teacher moving swiftly on to someone else. But this didn’t happen.  Andy’s response was:

“That’s fine.  What I’d like you to do is think about it for a minute, then I’ll come back to you and you can tell me your thoughts.”

He then carried on asking other people, but eventually came back to the reticent student.  Having realised she wasn’t going to get away with ‘dunno sir’, she now came up with a great response.

During the discussion, Andy demonstrated that the skill of the teacher, in terms of keeping the discussion going, was to maintain the right balance between students responding (by hands/fists/two fingers up) and choosing names on post-its from the continuum, to ensure a wide involvement in the discussion. His questions also maintained a great level of challenge:

  • Why do you think that?
  • What do you think of X’s response?
  • How does that relate to what X has just said?
  • Can you develop that answer more by giving some examples?
  • Are you still in the middle?

Doug Lemov makes a great point in his blog about ‘disciplined discussions’ – if students start to get the discussion off topic, don’t allow them to.  Often we indulge students with this, as we don’t want to make them feel bad. But actually what it does is wastes time and detracts from the purpose of the discussion.  The best approach here, is to acknowledge the positive aspects of what they’ve said, but then remind them to keep the discussion focused on the key questions.  More here.

Developing the idea

  • Praise students when they use words/ terms from the yellow box – this shows they are supporting their point with good knowledge.
  • Give students the opportunity to move their post-it during the discussion…but they have to explain why.
  • Give some students a piece of evidence, e.g. a historical source, if discussing a historical question, and ask them to use this when making their judgement. This is a good way of challenging their views and demonstraing that judgements should be based on evidence.
  • It’s a great introductory task to a piece of a balance writing – if they can say it, they can write it.
  • Encourage students to link to other other topics that have been studied in other lessons, when justifying their judgement.
  • Do the activity at the beginning and end of the lesson – and then discuss any change of viewpoints.
  • Great potential for tutor time discussions.

walk the line

Further Reading

On Disciplined Discussions Doug Lemov

Probing the continuum Andy Tharby

Disciplined Discussions – as easy as ABC Alex Quigley

#15mfAnd it was the first outing of the new #15mf biscuit tin….which was very well received!

This entry was posted in 15 Minute Forums. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s