On Friday, Maggie Johnson and I led a workshop for teachers (whom we love) at our Uncommon Schools in Rochester (which we love). The focus was building Ratio through discussion. The idea was to talk about ways to get more substantive thinking and participation from students through better discussions.
One of our key topics was the power of staying inside the box during discussion—that is, by defining a topic and staying on it: developing and reflecting ideas with focus rather than jumping from idea to idea. As we discussed on Friday, we’ve seen classrooms where teachers confuse kids talking a lot with a discussion. To us, a discussion involves listening as much as talking, and a successful discussion involves the participants making a series of smart and relatively challenging decisions about what to talk about.
It means asking yourself—or in the case of teachers, socializing your students to ask—“Is my comment germane to the topic?” “Am I building on what the group is talking about or going off on a tangent that’s really only relevant to me?” Without those questions you can get a series of disconnected opinions voiced in a sequence, masquerading as discussion.
At the workshop we focused on two ideas: 1) Follow-on Questioning and Prompting and 2) Managing the Meta. First I’ll describe them. Then we’ll see them in Julie Miller’s class at Uncommon Collegiate High School.
Follow-on Questioning and Prompting: The idea here is pretty simple. When you manage a discussion, you want to make it a habit for students to listen carefully to the person who spoke before them and to build off their comment. Follow-ons ask students explicitly to do those things, and doing them regularly makes them a habit. So if you were reading the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web and a student argued: “I don’t think Mr. Arable is mean for wanting to kill the pig. I just think he’s a farmer, and that’s what farmers do,” a follow-on question might go like this:
- Interesting. What do people think of D’Andre’s interpretation?
- Did others of you interpret Mr. Arable’s actions similarly to the way D’Andre did or differently?”
A follow-on prompt might go like this:
- “Who can develop that idea?”
- “Develop that…” and then you would either take a hand or Cold Call a student.
A question, in other words, steers the next student to respond to the first in a specific way while a prompt asks the second student to “develop,” “add to,” or “respond” to the previous student in whatever way they want. Both reinforce the expectation that a comment builds off of the previous comment, and that skill is the major muscle group of a good discussion.
The second topic we focused on was Managing the Meta: That’s when the teacher participates in discussion not so much to make points about the content, but to make points about the process. To remind a student who goes off topic, “Just a minute, I don’t think we’ve quite finished with D’Andre’s point,” for example. Managing the Meta can also involve actions a teacher takes to keep a discussion focused. One common example which you can see in the clip below is merely writing the discussion topic on the board so students can reference it and self-manage.
All of which brings me to that video of Uncommon Collegiate Charter High School’s Julie Miller. She and her students are discussing The Bluest Eye. Joaquin and John cut a series of small moments, from what was a rich and deep fifty-minute discussion (broken up by several short writing prompts), to show how Julie both reinforces a culture of disciplined thought among her students.
The first thing to note is how critical preparation is to a good discussion. As Julie points out, at the beginning their discussion of Pauline Breedlove isn’t off-the-cuff. It’s deeply informed and the culmination of careful preparation. “On Monday we close read her, on Tuesday we wrote …about her and finally in your prep work reading you’ve gotten her full back story…” Then before the full class discussion students prepare ideas in writing and rehearse them in a Turn and Talk.
When the discussion gets underway, Julie usually steps in just to make meta-comments:
“Let’s linger on that for a moment…” she says at one point, signaling that they were on a crucial topic and should give it significant energy and attention.
Later when a student moves from one topic to another, Julie steps in to ask if there are more comments on the initial question: “Hold on. Any other examples of her needing fantasy in her life?” As you can tell, students in fact have plenty more to say here, so Julie’s move emphasizes the depth of the conversation. It says, ‘Let’s develop our ideas before we move on.”
You can see the culture Julie has built among her students and how much they value it when one of her scholars begins her comment: “To get back on topic…”
Later another student checks with her peers: “Are we finished summarizing before I bring up an interesting point?”
Finally, you’ll notice students routinely turn and look at the board, where the discussion focus is written. This is a sign that they are self-managing their participation.