The Power of Habits of Discussion

What makes a discussion a good discussion? Darren Leslie explores the complexities of oracy and offers tactical advice on how to improve the quality of your teaching with Habits of Discussion.

Discussions in my classroom were often a form of disjointed verbal interactions. You could compare them to verbal tennis. I would ask a question, a pupil would respond, I’d ask another, another pupil would respond, and it would go on like that until I was satisfied that we had concluded. Over time, I came to realise that this didn’t qualify as a discussion in its fullest sense. Mainly because the ideas presented were not connected to each other.

To dig a little deeper, a hallmark of a discussion is listening, really listening to one another and this key feature was also missing. You could say we were talking past one another as opposed to talking to one another. The comments would have been slightly related but would not really constitute a discussion, rather a set of statements grouped together to make it look like a discussion, mediated by me, the teacher.

So, I resolved to make discussions in my classroom better and this is when I came across “Habits of Discussion” as outlined by Doug Lemov in Teach Like a Champion 3.0. In his book, Lemov writes that ‘a discussion is supposed to be a mutual endeavour by a group of people to develop, refine, or contextualise an idea or set of ideas, and that’s different from a series of loosely related comments’.

To make the discussions in my classroom stronger I needed to implement a set of tools and behaviours that build belonging, ensure psychological safety, and maximise the potential of my pupils so that they would feel comfortable contributing.

Our pupils often provide us with the most profound thinking, if only we take the steps necessary to allow them to shine.

“Our pupils often provide us with the most profound thinking, if only we take the steps necessary to allow them to shine.”

Build belonging first

Habits of Discussion are a powerful set of tools but to set it up requires developing a series of ‘nearly invisible behaviours that are displayed by participants that signal the importance of the endeavour’. These behaviours such as establishing and maintaining eye contact and subtle prosocial behaviours including nodding to show appreciation and understanding are key to building a strong scholarly classroom culture where pupils feel comfortable to both participate and listen attentively.

Listening carefully to the speaker is a fundamental action that participants need to take. Listening with the intent to “follow on” encourages pupils to show the speaker that they care about what they have said.

No one makes profound contributions or shares razor-sharp thinking with their peers, if the signals in the room tell them that nobody cares.

“No one makes profound contributions or shares razor-sharp thinking with their peers, if the signals in the room tell them that nobody cares.”

Another fundamental action that links directly to listening carefully is maintaining eye contact with the speaker. Not only does this show the speaker that you are keen to hear what they have to say, looking at them while they do and giving them your full concentration will help you to hear more of what they are saying. By looking at the speaker you can also pick up on gestures and facial expressions that add meaning and context to what they are saying.

This is extremely useful, especially if you are the one called upon next to contribute. I recognise that maintaining eye contact is not suitable for some pupils and it isn’t a guarantee that pupils will listen to one another, but it is a behaviour worth developing for the majority.

These behaviours are important because pupils, and most of society, seek affirmation that their words matter. If after you share an insight no one builds on it or recognises your contribution you soon begin to conclude that it isn’t worth speaking.

Encouraging these behaviours begins slowly but they compound to encourage pupils to share their thoughts safe in the knowledge that their peers will listen to them and demonstrate this through sending signals of belonging. This is akin to the same young people who post pictures on Instagram and wait desperately for ‘likes’. This affirmation is powerful and we crave it just as much when we speak, as we do online.

By showing that you ‘like’ what a peer has to say through simple hidden cues, it makes it more likely that they will share a first-thought or even a half-developed thought, necessary for a high-quality emerging classroom discussion.

Provide the tools

Once the behaviours are in place that signal belonging and pupils feel that they are safe to contribute their thoughts to discussions we now need to provide them with the tools necessary, a framework you could say, for talking to, not past, each other.

First, it is vital that the pupils are armed with the necessary knowledge to take part in a discussion. It is of no use to start a discussion if the pupils lack the prior knowledge necessary to take part in a fact-based and connected discussion. Without being well-informed, discussions could easily result in emotive and argumentative contributions. We want discussions to be rich and connected, this requires a well-informed group of participants.

Pupils need a framework to help get them started, to teach them how to take part in an academic discussion. To start, I gave them sentence starters that they could use such as ‘I think that…’, ‘I agree with…’ and ‘I disagree with…’. This encouraged the pupils to begin by recognising the previous speaker before offering their own contributions. It also allows for the teacher to ask questions that don’t demand a correct response immediately.

By asking a pupil what they think you are ensuring that they can kick start a discussion without the fear of wanting to be right. This allows them to start by offering their thoughts on the matter in hand.

The next pupil that is called upon then as a choice, do they agree or disagree with the previous speaker. This recognition is not only affirming that what you said matters it encourages you to want to speak again.

By beginning your contribution with ‘I agree with Kieran because’ or ‘I disagree with Kieran because’ shows that you were listening. The third pupil that contributes has even more choice, they can agree or disagree with the previous speakers.

This adds even more layers to our fundamental behaviours. The pupils are now looking at one another, using each other’s names in their responses and building on each other contributions. Making it much more of a discussion than the tennis matches we previous embarked upon.

Building momentum

Once the initial framework is being utilised and perhaps even changed by the pupils. You can build momentum in discussions by adding in a simple question, ‘agree, disagree or build’.

After calling upon a student to provide their thoughts you could say ‘agree, disagree or build’. This does a few things for us. It keeps the correct answer from being revealed and encourages participation and leaves the space open for anyone to contribute.

A pupil may want to agree with Vanessa or disagree with James or build upon what Angus had to say. When the conditions are ripe it is such a powerful question to ask. Three words from the teacher and a series of hands shoot up.

The real power, however, is hearing the students use and build upon the initial framework. Now, when called upon, a pupil could say ‘I’d like to build on what Jessica said because they said this, and I think that they are right, but they missed out this key point’.

This technique builds a strong classroom culture because it involves pupils making a habit of referring to or revising a previous comment and referencing by name the peer who made the previous point. By doing this we are building belonging and raising the standards of our discussions.

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