Expanding Discussions & Empowering Engagement

Classroom discussion helps students develop critical thinking skills, strengthen language, improve listening strategies, and solidify concepts. This type of interaction is powerful because it provides students time to process information, compare thinking, and articulate their understanding.

Teachers employ proven discussion techniques to increase the numbers of students actively participating in academic discussion. We use strategies like partner and small group sharing or repetitive sharing like mingle sharing, parallel lines and inside-outside circles*. Instructors get a feel for the discussion by noticing a healthy buzz of conversation in the room, walk by observations, and drop-in conversations. They capture and share some of that conversation through exit-slips, journal writing, fish-bowl observations, and anecdotal records.

*10 Alternatives to Think-Pair-Share for Classroom Discussion, by Mulvahill – http://www.weareteachers.com/blogs/post/2015/08/28/5-fun-alternatives-to-think-pair-share

Why Use Technology?

As I go into classrooms to work closely with teachers, occasionally I’m asked: “If we can do this without a computer, then why would I use a computer?”

Beyond considerations given toward building 21st century skills, technology can be a game changer when it comes to discussions. The following is a brief overview of ways technology enhances instruction and can empower students in ways not possible without it.

Crowd Sourcing Communication

The use of online tools broadens the scope of community knowledge that students can tap into. Tools like Padlet, Linoit, VoiceThread, Formative, Flipgrid and other types of virtual walls make thinking public, displayable in real time, and accessible asynchronously to a larger audience than small group or partner-talk alone.

Used prior to a group discussion, these tools help students compose and rehearse responses adding to their think time in a way that is not only documented, but immediately shared to a much larger group than a sticky note. It can be posted asynchronously and used to drive a face to face discussion at another time. The collective knowledge will be available at their fingertips, and if it is needed later—accessible outside of school hours.

When used live or in real time, the tools let students post and discuss their ideas. They may add to their statements if they notice something that they have forgotten, thus creating a richer understanding. They may completely revise their statements based on the feedback they receive from viewing the group’s thinking, creating a disequilibrium that causes them to evaluate their initial thinking.

Finally, if students are posting their understanding after a classroom discussion, the record of the discussion is visible to all. Students have access to a larger pool of responses and can use those responses to drive deeper discussions around agreement, consensus, and thinking processes. Teachers can support further discussions through questioning that encourages students to compare and examine the statements of their peers with their own statements.

Independent Practice Made Visible

Regardless of the pedagogy through which you teach your students, the goal of any instruction is to get students to independence. However, it can be tricky to figure out ways to document and authentically assess independent practices that are metacognitive.

For example, as we engage in guided reading instruction and independent reading conferences with students, teachers use checklists to look for key indicators of behaviors that show students’ development toward deeper comprehension of texts. We may ask students to “try on” a targeted strategy during guided reading and then encourage them to use the strategy in their independent reading. Then, we may notice a student using that reading strategy when we conduct independent reading conferences and check off that the strategy was demonstrated. But, important questions may arise. How often is that student truly using the target strategy? Have they really internalized the strategy and find it useful, or are they only using it because the teacher is present and they want to comply with what they think the teacher is looking for? If you are not seeing the strategy being used, does that indicate that the student never uses it? How can you collect more concrete examples of student thinking?

To help answer these questions, I have seen teachers use reading journals and sticky notes to collect evidence of student thinking during independent reading to answer questions like: “What connections are they making across texts, media, and to their own lives?”, “What they are wondering?”,  “What questions they are asking as the read?”, and “What depth of meaning they are making on their own?”

These journals and sticky notes are used to drive partner and/or small group discussions: “Turn to a partner and describe what reading work you did today that helped you make meaning from the text.”  They may also be used by students during conferences with the teacher to remind them of their thinking at various stopping points within text. Through these kinds of discussions the teacher may capture anecdotal records, but probably only for a very few number of students each day. Additionally, partners may or may not be fully engaged in sharing, it can be a bit hard to tell.

Not only can technology help capture and document student’s trying on strategies independently, but it can also remove barriers that may exist for some students. For example, the asynchronous ability to video or audio record at any time, can allow  students to capture their thinking right in the moment, while they are reading, with or more preferably without the teacher present. ePortfolio platforms like Seesaw or EasyBlog provide a convenient collection and curation of student work and reflection. Choice of video, or audio recordings, or pictures/images with audio overlay and/or image annotation provide students choice for how they want to demonstrate their understanding. It gives English Language Learners (ELLs), shy students, students who struggle with writing, students who like to rehearse, students who LOVE to share, students who don’t like to share, and others an even greater opportunity to show what they know.  It allows students the opportunity to reflect in an authentic way, when they use the strategy and recognize that they have used it. Through purposeful reflection, it can empower and it can celebrate student growth.

Best of all, in my opinion, it is an example of technology integration that takes the focus off the tool and lands it squarely on the student behaviors being captured and more importantly, gives teachers information about their students’ thinking, strengths, and understanding so that teachers can better understand how to build on them.




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