Bring Class Discussions to Life

“Beuller? Beuller?”

Look in on class discussions today and what you’ll see (I hope) is a far cry from the classroom of gaping-mouthed, drooling, blank-faced students in the John Hughes 1986 film Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.

One great way to get students to think critically and move information into long-term memory is through dynamic class discussions. However, ensuring these discussions are effective requires clear principles and strategies.

Whoever asks the questions does the learning. If I ask a student about a topic and listen to his answer, especially if I’m interested in the topic and the student, I’m learning a lot, but the rest of the class is sitting passively. Do you see something wrong with this picture? I am the teacher; I already know the material. My goal is for students to learn it. Students, therefore, need to be asking the questions.

Students learn the most when they ask the questions themselves. To make this happen, teachers have to make question-asking compelling and habitual. As often as possible, ask students to brainstorm questions, queries, and investigate starting points for as many topics as time allows to get them in the habit.

  • Create 10 questions to which “colloquialism” is a good answer.
  • What are all the possible things we’d want to know about cuneiform writing?
  • What do you wonder about your future?
  • What questions might a visitor from another planet ask after observing our election process?
  • Pretend you’re a radicand (the number under the radical sign in a square root). What would concern you as this math algorithm progresses?
  • Create all the “Why … ?” questions you can about light and the way it behaves.
  • Skim the whole chapter and list at least eight questions the chapter seems to answer.

Making question-asking compelling is another issue, however. Here, we’re trying to make students so curious that they form their own questions: “Why does it do that?” “What will the effect be?” “What are the exceptions to this rule?” “Why do you believe that?” “How is this false?” “Where’s my mistake?” and “What would happen if … ?”

We can create curiosity by presenting students with puzzling phenomena, surprising facts, challenges to accepted opinions, appeals to imagination, playful situations with manipulatives, connections among seemingly disparate concepts, moral dilemmas, and personal dramas when facing struggle.

Another way to involve more students in active question-asking is to get your students to ask the follow-up questions. If one student answers the initial question you pose, ask a second student to offer evidence to support or refute the first student’s response; then ask a third student to critique the second student’s evidence. Go back to the first student who provided the initial response and ask her to respond to what the other two students said. This creates positive anxiety in the classroom. We want students so concerned that they will be called upon to say something intelligent that they remain on their toes mentally. To be effective, we have to make a habit of this redirection so that students know it’s going to happen. This keeps the entire class thinking of answers and questions to ask.

Another tip for keeping the whole class engaged is to always pose questions to the entire class before calling on a specific student to respond. This invites percolation, which builds those neural pathways. Wait time is important as well. Research shows that waiting 10 seconds or more before calling on a student to respond leads to more depth, thinking, and investment in the conversation. It takes practice, but it’s worth promoting this expectant silence so that students know you’re counting on them to come up with a quality response.

This article was excerpted from the AMLE book The Collected Writings (so far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I’ve Learned about Teaching Along the Way. For more great teaching advice from this beloved speaker and author, pick up the book in the AMLE Store.

Copyright © 2013 Association for Middle Level Education