Developing Collaborative Discussion Practices

BCW teamInquiry, learning

Collaborative Discussion Techniques

Post collaboratively written by Carla and Mary-Dense Holmes

Summary of the big ideas in this blog

  • Students need to have the language of learning in order to  participate in inquiry
  • Using collaborative discussion strategies enables students to become active participants in the inquiry process
  • Conceptual understanding grows when students develop strategies for connecting ideas, working collaboratively and asking questions
  • Students need the chance to understand how different questions function and guide thinking
  • Teachers need to support the flow of classroom conversation, not control it
  • Learning spaces are political, social and cultural and as such teachers need to reflect on their own practices to invite in new possibilities. 

One of the things I am interested in is how teachers engage students in collaborative conversation and develop collaborative discussion techniques. When we work with adult learners, we do not ask them to put up their hands, and yet it is an expectation often required of younger learners.

It might be of interest to ask yourself next time you call for a show of hands:

  • What does this strategy make possible for the kids?
  • What does this strategy limit or inhibit?
  • Who does this strategy serve?
  • Whose voice disappears when this strategy is constantly used?
  • Whose voice does it reify or give dominance to?
  • How does this help collaborative practices or idea building thinking?
  • Would I like this strategy imposed on me?

Hand raising has held little interest for me, it seems counterproductive to the development of rich discussion. One of the first things I develop with a class are some interactive practices that support lively discussion and collaboration.

By using the IB PYP learner profile we explore different ways of positioning ourselves when  sharing ideas. A learning community we look at group and peer discussions though the conceptual lenses of responsibility, causation and form.

From an early point in the academic year, students are encouraged to develop routines and practices that are inclusive and respectful of different communication styles. There is time and room given to children who prefer to think before sharing, and an exploration that acknowledges how enthusiastic sharers can give others a starting point to build ideas from.

When leading a class discussion I invite children to join in in a fluid way rather than waiting for a show of hands. The aim is to support and develop collaborative discussion techniques. For those children who are reluctant to answer, I give them a heads-up that a question might be coming their way before I ask them. This gives them time to focus and prepare an idea for sharing; this leads to experiences of success and confidence building. Asking children to put hands up can be a daunting experience for some , they might be worried that the answer is not on track, they might be worried that their English is not good enough, they might not like sharing in front of everyone or they might need more process time. I have seen hands-up inhibit or hinder more students than it helps.

I am committed to making visible to the younger learners what sort of question I am asking them. I will let the students know I am asking a “right there question” or a “think and search” question.  It helps develop confidence in approaching a shared conversation and collaborating on ideas. These questions helps the students frame their thinking and search for ideas to share.

The use of the “Think-Pair-Share” strategy is not one I’ve found to be particularly useful. It seems to me to leave kids still focusing on ‘right’ answers and the more confident kids continuing to lead the discussion. I have seen it used to generate answers but not to enliven thinking or collaboration. I have developed a different system of sharing and building ideas.

A lot of my teaching strategies have developed as a result of reflecting on students’ experiences and having shared collegiate discussions about post-structuralist ways of engaging students in conversations. I think it is the notion of engagement that has me most interested. As a teacher I focus on the ‘engaging’ with an idea, rather than the ‘answering’ of it; thus I engage in practices that engage students in conversation rather than have the conversation and discussion become a means to an end in itself, or directed by a leader.

“Check-In” listeners, is a useful strategy for those students who are great at repeating or restating what they have already heard. It gives these students a chance to share their ideas without having to  ‘come up with something new’. By providing students with the opportunity to take on a given role in a group conversation, students can develop practices that allow them to position themselves carefully and thoughtfully in a conversation. Some students become the ‘Check-iner’s” who reflect back what was shared by other students. This enables all in the conversation to clarify ideas. Often the students who are the ‘check-iners’ are students that benefit from more process time to develop connections with an idea in a group discussion. By being a check-iner, students get to participate in ways that are valuing of them of learners, while giving them the process time needed to develop their own thinking. By being called upon to use their skill of restating or repeating, it can help others in the conversation clarify, rethink and possibly re-share ideas.

The above strategy was developed from my understanding of outsider witness practices used in narrative therapy. I will usually nominate 3 or 4 “check –in” people before a conversation develops. These students quickly prepare themselves in ways that suit them. Some students choose to get paper or white boards to make pictorial or key word notes, some students move to the outer edges of a group and sit on chairs, almost in an over-seeing position, others remain centered in a space where they will share ideas. Once ready, the communities of learners begin conversations and ideas flow and grow. It is not stilted or jammed by hands in the air. The teacher does not manage this conversation.

The kids become skilled participants in collaborative discussions. Every now and then the check-in people are called upon to recall and share what they heard, this helps keep track and clarify where the ideas are going. It also reduces the teacher talk time. More often than not, my role becomes that of prompter with new questions or by becoming the scribe.  All ideas generated are those of the students. They have voice and choice in what is shared and clarified. They own the ideas because they constructed them. The teacher’s agenda or influence is minimized.  It takes time to build the trust in which these collaborative practices can flourish, however the time given to this trust building is a wise investment.

During collaborative discussions students learn how to debate, to connect ideas, to clarify and reason. In the year two class the 7 and 8 year olds will often start their sharing with “ Well, from my perspective…” or “I think…” or “ “I  heard… and I think it connects to … ideas because…”. They no longer hold ‘expert positions’ in conversations; they now see conversations as a means of engaging with ideas and possibilities.

In these sorts of conversations the teacher doesn’t run or manage the situation by deciding what ideas get heard as a result of hands-up practices. up. The students become collaborators and co-researchers while the teacher has become the witness and scribe of ideas. The teacher is once again required to position her/himself not as the leader or the director, but as the facilitator.