Having A Good Class Discussion – Challenging!

A few months ago I was watching ‘Question Time’ in the Australian House of Representatives. I was instantly reminded why most people switch off. One person would give a pre-written speech, another would reply and around a hundred people were yelling at each other throughout the process.


I hope that students in my classroom will be able to have better discussions than our politicians do. However, the reality is that structuring a good classroom discussion is very difficult!

When I imagine a good discussion I picture a group of individuals engaging in a calm and measured exchange of ideas. Participants would draw from the thoughts of others and expand upon what they have to say, building greater knowledge amongst the group.

Schools are rightly focused on literacy and numeracy. However, I believe a key pillar of education must be verbal literacy or communication skills. Students have incredible thoughts and ideas but can find it difficult to express those in a logical order or with the emphasis where it is needed. Presenting them in an essay is important but being able to explain things verbally is equally, if not more important.

During my study at Deakin University I have been researching how to have a “good discussion” in the classroom. Some papers I read argued that many classroom discussions don’t allow for students to develop their ideas or enhance learning. A key issue that was raised was not allowing students to have independent thinking time, or as Doug Lemov describes it ‘wait time’, in class discussions.

Last week I started to structure discussions into my lessons, hoping that ideas would be exchanged and developed. It was more challenging than I could have imagined. We first discussed what students believed were good elements of a discussion. The answers were spot on and we came up with a way for our class to engage in this activity. Students also spoke of the techniques of speaking.


Our main focus was on letting all students have a say, giving students the opportunity to think and share with a friend, and then with the group. We agreed it was important to listen but also to respond to what others were saying and try to add another brick onto the wall of knowledge we were creating during our discussion. It was 100% okay to disagree, but we need to be respectful.

While I enabled students to have quiet ‘wait time’ to think about their ideas throughout the discussion, paired sharing time, to boost confidence in speaking about a subject and a structured open forum with an ideas, many students found it difficult to listen or engage with the discussion even if they were being quiet.

Some students performed exceptionally and I can see a few great debaters emerging from the school in the next few years. However, many identified that they struggle with communicating through words. It made me reflect on the importance of understanding different learning styles and empowering students to communicate to me and the other students in different ways.

Students are full of amazing ideas, thoughts and questions. However, in a class where students have varying engagement levels and respect it, is challenging to have all students participating. I hope to get better at this.

I wanted to see students expressing ideas and then responding to each other, allowing them to gain a deeper understanding through conversation. While this occurred in some small groups, it was challenging to get the whole class on board.

The times where students were most engaged was when one of our class members said something controversial. This engaged other students and raised energy levels. While many students would call out during this time, with better classroom management skills I am confident that this type of discussion can be useful for students learning.

Sometimes, I needed to remind the students that our words are a powerful weapon… like a lightsaber, and that this was not the time for “aggressive negotiations”.


One positive technique I used was with my younger students. I ensured that after each person spoke the class would clap and then one student would give the speaker a compliment. It kept energy levels high and ensured there was a positive energy in the class.

This experience has not deterred me. I strongly believe that students need to develop the power to communicate effectively with words as a crucial life skill. I aim to continue working to help students jump over the individual and group hurdles that are currently preventing them from engaging in “good discussion”.

If you have any ideas or interesting articles on the topic to link me, please comment below or tweet me @ben_duggan! 🙂 Thanks.


9 thoughts on “Having A Good Class Discussion – Challenging!

  1. Great post Ben. Whole class discussions can be problematic for many reasons. One issue is that the loud students dominate the conversation. At RPS we implement both cooperative learning and formative assessment principles. At the core of both of these is individual accountability for learning. One strategy we use across our school to promote these principles is a ‘no hands up-except to ask a question’ policy. Instead of the same kids dominating whole class discussions we encourage teachers to use random selection methods to identify the next student to respond. This ensures all students are accountable for engaging in the conversation and avoids dominance from the over enthusiastic members who always have their hands up. It is expected that all students contribute and there’s no opting out which can very easily happen in most traditional classrooms. Just some food for thought Ben.

    • Thanks Jason! Much appreciated. I think I’m going to get a jar with names in it and trial the random selection method from now on. I saw that last year but had forgotten about it. Looking forward to being able to visit in a few weeks. Cheers, Ben

    • I think that’s a great tip. But I also like to give them warning so I pull out one ahead, so they aren’t ever put on the spot. Many students get experience high anxiety in this type of situation and panic they’ll be called. So instead of listening they spend the time stressing that their name might be called. Pulling out a name ahead each time, enables the other students to relax and truly listen to the person currently speaking, instead of worrying if they’ll be called on next. (I hope I’ve explained that properly)

  2. People will give you all sorts of tips for class discussions, mostly good. I like Phil Beadle’s “argument tennis” approach. One tip that a mentor gave me is about where to stand if a student is addressing their comment to you. Make sure you move to the opposite end of the room, and the student willspeak louder so that you can hear, and so can everyone else. They won’t even know they’re doing it.

  3. So great to see that you’ve already got so many strategies under your belt! I agree, learning how to articulte your ideas is one of the most useful things students will need to learn. I’m enjoying reading about your learning journey as a teacher. Yesterday I had to teach a demo lesson for a job interview and I was judged primarily on two things – how I connected with the students and the quality of the discussion I drew out of them. Teaching is a lot easier when you get to a stage where you can draw knowledge out, rather than telling them. Something that you already seem to be getting the knack of. I love how you are approaching your teaching with such a critical and inquisitive mind.

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