Great Debates: Tips for Generating Healthy Classroom Discussions
As a teacher, making sure your learners are in an environment where healthy classroom discussions can happen is important to their development as problem-solvers and creative thinkers. Your class can become a place for lively discussions and a beneficial sharing of opinions anytime.
Holding open discussions about interesting topics that are relevant to your learners is a great way to hone their critical thinking skills, as well as review important class content and assess understanding. When peer discussions are happening harmoniously, students become both teachers and learners. In the process of sharing their views and knowledge, they’re introduced to different perspectives that can both enlighten and inspire them. It’s also a terrific platform for learners to develop and practice persuasive argument techniques.
No matter what, healthy classroom discussions are about harmony and understanding. The question is how do we do this in our own classrooms in the best way for our learners? Here are some quick and dirty tips on how you can make it happen easily.
What Healthy Classroom Discussions Look Like
First of all, let’s talk about what we mean when we say “healthy classroom discussions?” Here are some defining characteristics:
- They are open to all opinions and points of view
- They are based on open-mindedness and constructive feedback
- Everyone has an ample opportunity to express themselves
- Discussions are meaningful and relevant to learners
- Plenty of space is given for reflection on all input received
- The primary goal is attaining mutual understanding more than mutual agreement
A note on opinions: the teacher should set parameters for input that ensure everyone is being respectful either on or off the debate floor. Follow these three Cs to guide the sharing of opinions for healthy classroom discussions:
- Courteous: Input should be carefully worded and considerate of the inherent diversities between all parties involved.
- Considered: Opinions should be well thought-out and based on issues, information, or facts that are relevant to the debate.
- Constructive: Anything offered into the discussion should be for the purpose of moving everyone forward in a positive direction.
By ensuring that your learners know these concepts early on (for example, at the beginning of a new semester or school year), it sets the groundwork for them to develop good habits of mind for class discussions. Once they internalize the guidelines, healthy classroom discussions can be staged effectively as well as occur spontaneously, and all with the best possible results.
Some Tips for Healthy Classroom Discussions
- Keep it slow: It takes time to research topics or to formulate thoughtful answers. Also, everyone learns and processes things at a different pace. Our learners need to know it’s not a race in the beginning. The more interactions like these that happen in the classroom, the better they will get at articulating their ideas and responding off the cuff.
- Encourage and guide input: It’s okay to let questions stand while students consider their responses, but if the silences get too long nothing will get learned or resolved. Try reframing questions and adding relevance to them to get learners engaged and willing to respond.
- Explore Learners’ Assumptions: This is a preliminary examination that can serve as an official launchpad for the discussion to begin. What do students already know (or think they know) about the topic or issue at hand? Which sources did they get their information from? How do they know what they believe is true? What opposing viewpoints have they heard about what they know about the topic?
- Connect to Thier Interests: As Richard Saul Wurman correctly advised, interest precedes learning. Wurman goes on to say that content without interest is like having only one side of a piece of Velcro—it just doesn’t stick. The task of educators is to create the missing side of that Velcro so the information will stick in the minds of our students. Applying this strategy to classroom discussions will ensure that effective learning happens in the midst of lively debate.
- Coax Them Creatively: Often a student’s response or input will be clear but not necessarily coherent. A teacher’s immediate response can often be to correct them and fill in the blanks. Try approaching this differently, and ask them gently to expand on a particular point or clarify it further. If they can’t—and they may not be able to—you can ask if they have anything else to add, or if they have any questions they’d like to ask themselves about what they’re commenting on. In this way, they know it’s safe to explore and to learn what they didn’t know before, or simply couldn’t articulate.
Topic Ideas for Discussions
The following scenarios can be found in our Critical Thinking Teacher’s Companion guide. Use them to teach your learners the importance of being able to take a stance on an issue and defend that stance with logic, reasoning, knowledge, and common sense. This is at the heart of all healthy classroom discussions.
All the topics that follow are based primarily on ethics and morality. They will encourage students to take a stand and defend their viewpoint. These can be done in pairs, but are much more compelling in larger class discussions where views are divided.
Copying and pasting them into a document, printing them off, and turning them into a worksheet is also an option. Learners can work individually by circling an answer and then explaining their choice in writing.
Richard finds an expensive looking ring in the school hallway one day. It has no name on it, and it’s not near anyone’s locker. Should he:
A) Give it to lost and found
B) Ask if it belongs to anyone there
C) Keep it and not say anything
Judy’s friend is stressed about an upcoming test. Judy already took the test and got 100%, so she knows all the answers already. Should she:
A) Just give the answers to her friend
B) Use her knowledge to coach her friend
C) Not get involved at all
Coach Nelson has caught two of his star basketball players vandalizing school property. The rule is that they must be suspended. If that happens their team loses the upcoming semi-finals. If the coach keeps quiet they’ll surely win, but he could lose his job. Should the coach:
A) Suspend the two players and obey the rules
B) Pretend he never saw them
Nick overhears two students bragging about having posted some inappropriate images of a female student online for a joke. Should he:
A) Mind his own business
B) Report the incident to the school principal
C) Confront the boys and defend the student
You witness a bank robbery and follow the perpetrator down an alleyway. He stops at an orphanage and gives them all the money. Would you:
A) Report the man to police since he committed a crime
B) Leave him alone because you saw him do a good deed
A friend tells you that he/she has been receiving anonymous bullying messages online. You suspect that certain people are guilty. Would you:
A) Tell your friend just to ignore them
B) Encourage them to report the abuse
C) Risk confronting the ones you suspect
Other References and Topics
- 163 Questions to Write or Talk About
- Over 100 Essential Questions Organized by Subject
- 10 Classroom Discussion Techniques
- Teaching Global Digital Citizenship? Use These 10 Essential Questions
- TED-Ed: 10 tips for talking about news, politics and current events in schools
- Ignite Discussions in the Classroom