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April 23, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 16

Direction Correction: Getting the Discussions You Want

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Instructional Strategies
The classroom bursts with energy as the teacher says, "Turn and talk with your partner." Let's listen to a common student discussion.
Jasmine: "How about if you go first?"
Andi: Silently shrugs
Jasmine: "Are you ready?"
Andi: "For what?"
Jasmine: "We are talking about the pictures."
Andi: "OK, who goes first?"
Following the "turn and talk" directions, most students engage in casual, surface-level conversations. However, if teachers change how they give directions, entirely different discussions take place. Three keys in teacher directions guarantee opportunities and provide access for diverse learners to engage in meaningful deep discussions.

Three Keys to Unlocking Deeper Discussions

Some 30 years of classroom teaching has shown me that discussion directions do much more than articulate tasks and manage behavior. Key elements in teacher directions engage students as leaders and listeners, build academic language, further subject understanding, and support students in learning to value their peers' contributions as well as their own.

Key 1: Identify the thinking product produced through discussion.

Instead of instructing students to "turn and talk," shift the directions from "talking" to producing a product of thinking such as questions, inferences, comparisons, and evidence. Teachers simply change the directions—"turn and talk" to "turn and compare" or "turn and generate questions" —to prompt students with a clear discussion goal that deepens learning.

Key 2: Prepare, discuss, evaluate, and reflect.

Students use a four-step, iterative process to develop the thinking product (from Key 1) through discussion: 1) students prepare initial thinking, 2) peers discuss, 3) teacher and students evaluate discussion products, and 4) students revise their initial thinking, while the teacher considers how to adjust the next part of instruction based on student responses (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Four-Step Process for Deeper Academic Discussions. Process repeats as needed to refine ideas.

Direction Correction: Getting the Discussions You Want-table

Students build a thinking product through discussion (e.g., questions, elaborations, comparisons, inferences).

1. Prepare initial ideas.

2. Discuss with peers.

3. Evaluate thinking products from discussion.

4. Revise initial ideas.


Figure 1. Four-Step Process for Deeper Academic Discussions. Process repeats as needed to refine ideas.
For example, students may prepare for discussion by annotating a text or picture, writing a response, ranking a list, or drawing a picture. Then, students transition into assigned groups for a discussion. Next, the teacher gathers responses from each group via written responses or verbal share-outs. Once gathered, the teacher and students evaluate the responses looking for patterns; missing information; misunderstandings; and other high-quality criteria such as connections, vocabulary, and evidence. Students return to their initial idea to add information or make revisions based on learning from the discussion and then reflect on how their revised response demonstrates growth from the initial response. While students complete their reflection, the teacher plans adjustments to instruction that build on student responses and challenge misconceptions.

Key 3: Adjust roles, rules, turns, and time.

Teachers adjust four elements (roles, rules, turns, and time) in their discussion directions in order to ensure that every student has meaningful access to the task and a guaranteed opportunity for speaking, thinking, and receiving feedback.
Roles. Teachers rarely provide students with an explicit purpose for the essential roles of speaker and listener. For example, the speaker isn't just talking; the speaker may articulate a perspective, read a written response, repeat and build on an idea, or challenge a previous statement. The listener needs a compelling reason for listening, such as identifying the speaker's perspective or reasoning, noticing how the speaker makes connections, or recognizing the use of vocabulary words. Assigning a purpose to the roles of speaker and listener pushes students from casual conversations to rigorous academic discussions.
Rules. Rules for engagement ensure access and equity for all students. For example, a rule might be that students either contribute a new response or confirm a response of a previous student. This rule allows a student to simply repeat a previous response, ensuring access for students who were absent. English learners may be supported with a rule of point and repeat, where students point to someone and they will repeat their response, or show and share, where responses are shown through drawing or writing instead of spoken out loud. Rules deliberately provide a wide range of students with greater capital in the academic conversation.
Turns. Turns enable teachers to choose the student response that launches small-group discussions. Controlling at least who begins the discussion ensures that more reserved students are sometimes in leadership roles. Teachers may state, "the person nearest the window speaks first" or "each person offers feedback before the next speaker." By controlling who speaks first and how turns are taken, the teacher provides opportunities for students to practice new discussion habits and reduces time used for negotiating turn-taking.
Time. Unlike casual conversations where one speaker is immediately followed by the next, in an academic discussion, active listening is promoted by holding quiet thinking time after each speaker. The discussion completely stops while the listener and the speaker both think about what was just said. Then there is additional thinking time to prepare a response before the next speaker begins. This approach, very different from fast daily interactions, provides time to think, values each response, and allows students who need additional time for language processing (such as English learners) the opportunity to understand the conversation. Explicit attention to roles, rules, turns, and time in teacher directions increases access for students with specific learning needs. In addition, these four elements enable teachers to adjust discussion directions in order to increase student engagement and active learning during lessons.

Developing Deeper Discussions in Daily Lessons

The three keys to equitable discussions free teachers from primarily managing student participation during discussions to listening, thus providing teachers with a real-time window into student understanding. The three keys require no special materials, only deliberate attention to the elements in teacher directions. With the three keys, daily casual conversations can easily be adjusted to rigorous equitable academic discussions that engage all students in deeper learning.

Applying the Three Keys to Online Discussions

Online peer discussions promote deeper learning and equitable student engagement when teachers apply the three keys. For example, during small-group online breakout rooms, students can use a common Google doc, also called a note catcher, to be reminded of Key 1: the thinking product and the high-quality criteria. During small-group online discussions, when students may be distracted by other things happening in their different physical environments, clear outcomes and criteria encourage students to stay focused on achieving the goal of the discussion. When teaching online, Key 2, the design for deeper learning, should not be overlooked. Teachers can ask students to jot their ideas on a paper and show and share their thinking into the web camera so that the teacher can see that students are prepared to enter the breakout rooms for peer discussions. After a discussion, students can be directed to take a moment to return to their initial thinking and reflect on how their thinking has changed as a result of the discussion. Key 3, the direction elements of roles, rules, turns, and time, helps teachers foster equity in virtual peer discussions. This is particularly important in online breakout rooms or asynchronous discussion boards where students are working with greater independence and thus need supports from the teacher, such as clarity in how turns will be taken and rules for productive engagement. (See "Practical Tips for Teaching Online Small Group Discussions" for more details.)
Most important, practicing the three keys now while teaching online will make using the three keys to promote equity in face-to-face classrooms even easier in the future. Peer discussions play a vital role in fostering student belonging and deeper learning. Whether learning online or in face-to-face environments, the three keys ensure that every voice is heard and valued.

Rhonda Bondie teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is co-author (with Akane Zusho) of Differentiated Instruction Made Practical (Routledge).

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