Student-to-Student Discourse in an Online Environment

Online learning has quickly assumed a front-and-center position in high schools and colleges, having already been predicted to transform higher education forever. For younger students, its potential is less clear. Remote learning may be all or most of what students are left with in the academic year that is now upon us.

The paradox of the present situation is that educators have largely come to agree that listening passively to a talking head—electronic or in-person—is not how children (or adults for that matter) learn best. Young children especially need to engage with a small set of adults who come to know them well and commit to guiding their learning efforts and styles. Older children need such guides as well. In addition, by their early teens the need becomes more crucial for students to engage their intellects with peers by sharing and thinking through important ideas. These should include ideas about the authentic issues of today that they can appreciate as worthy of thinking and talking about. Such exchanges serve as practice for the intellectual interchanges that will increasingly figure in their lives as young people assume the professional and personal demands of adulthood.

A further paradox is this. A context to gain just such practice is what modern technology can now provide electronically when physical togetherness is restricted. Reports indicate that despite recognizing its benefit, teachers have been hesitant about introducing genuine student-to-student discourse into their classrooms, fearing they lack skills to manage it adequately. Why not, then, take advantage of the present unimagined opportunity, with business-as-usual school threatening to be mostly unavailable and few alternative educational opportunities in place?

Rather than being resigned to putting their intellectual development on hold, we can nurture students intellectually with more than talking heads on screens by affording them the opportunity to engage intellectually with their peers in a cognitively and interpersonally enriching way. Solid evidence exists that they can and will do so given the opportunity and, most important, that the intellectual skills that are exercised will further develop with practice. And the virtual meeting technology that adults have quickly taken hold of to conduct their work and social lives is now fine-tuned and readily available for flexible use by all.

We are seeking to exploit just this opportunity at Columbia University’s Teachers College, by designing and offering no-cost online discussion forums in which young teens can debate pressing issues of the day. They do so in electronic dialogs conducted between rotating pairs of peers, all of whom are provided access to a website containing pertinent Q&A information on the topic and a human facilitator to help them navigate. The information students access about the topic thus has a purpose. It’s there for them to use, not to memorize. Groups engage deeply with the topics, each student discussing the topic at least once with each of their classmates, as they all generate more ideas and access more information.

A set of several dozen topics we make available range from the personal (Should I work harder on my strong subject or my weak subject?), to the community, national, and international levels (Is our first responsibility to our own nation or to other nations in peril?) And students do have plenty of ideas to share on these challenging topics, we have found, and enjoy the opportunity to have their views listened to.

Next, they need only the practice that will increasingly enhance their ability to bring diverse ideas into contact and to coordinate them with one another. The facilitator at intervals offers broad feedback to the group on their discourse skills, but students direct their own conversations and soon develop group-imposed norms as to accepted and productive ways of responding to a classmate’s assertion.

The approach of having students talk directly to one another transfers a greater share of management of the discourse to students, relieving teachers of the burden of feeling that they must remain at the center of the conversation. Meanwhile, students gain an increasing sense of responsibility to one another and they come to embrace and uphold norms of discourse that this responsibility entails. The electronic mode allows students time to reflect on the accumulating exchanges that appear on the screen before them and plan their next move, promoting deeper discussion. The mechanics are entirely doable, we’ve found, with a small bit of organization and technology support, and students are keen to join and very positive in reports of their experience.

The current global pandemic has led to our adapting this activity from what has been an in-person workshop approach to fit new restrictions of online-only contact. One benefit that comes with this modification is that students adopt screen names and their personal identities remain anonymous, according them a freedom that their social media exchanges outside of school don’t provide. We instruct them to not share personal information and to focus their exchanges on the topic at hand. Several have given us the feedback that this anonymity has made them feel freer to express ideas they might otherwise not have. At the same time, they are reminded to criticize only ideas, not persons.

Research reports are available that document the gains in discourse skills and argumentative writing observed in middle school participants in our programs. The dialogic structure of the activity frequently makes its way into final essays students write on the topic, in the form, for example “Others might say that…” Their discourse comes to embrace self-imposed group norms of what Lauren Resnick has termed “accountable talk,” most notably “How do we know that?” or “It doesn’t follow that…”

Shouldn’t young teens devote school hours to mastering all they need to learn, many would ask, and peer talk be relegated to abundant after-school social platforms they flock to for this purpose? Another view is that rather than regard discussions of contemporary issues as “optional enrichment,” discourse with peers about significant, challenging real-world issues should be an educational core and necessity, preparing students for futures that will depend on it. How else can they envision future selves as informed, thoughtful contributors to debating solutions, especially today with as many poor public role models as good ones?

The world is in deep trouble, by most accounts. Barack Obama in a commencement address this year emphasized to graduates that the future is in their hands to make right. If they are to have any hope of doing so, our youth must become involved as early as possible in contemplating the many issues their society faces. Young people’s civic engagement has lately become a topic of considerable interest—not only how to encourage it but devising appropriate assessment tools to measure it. Before worrying overly about how to assess and promote civic engagement, perhaps a first step is to engage students in deep thinking and talking about the issues they might take action with regard to.

The online version of the program is available from the authors free of charge to teachers wishing to use it.

Deanna Kuhn is professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Mariel Halpern is a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Published in AMLE Newsletter, September 2020.