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Discussion strategies so good, your kids won’t be able to shut up (And a few that even work long-distance. Cause . . . coronavirus.)

I can’t find it now but I ran across some research a year or so ago that suggested that 70-80% of all conversations in K-12 classrooms is teacher to student. As in . . . we can’t stop talking long enough to let our kids get a word in edgewise.

Since I can’t find the research, I’m not going to include it in this quick post on ways to encourage student conversation and discussion. If I had found it, I would say that teachers talk too much and that we need to find more ways to support student to student and student to teacher and student to content conversations. But I haven’t be able to find that research so I wouldn’t think of suggesting that probably 70% of the time, we talk too much. 70-80%. Can you believe it? It must be hard as a student to sit through a whole class period when the teacher is really the only one who gets to talk and who is the only one who gets to explore the primary sources and to solve the problem that they started the class with and then the bell rings.

So. What can we do to increase student conversation and encourage discussion? There are a few ideas out there.

I love this idea of using Uno cards from Sara Schmidt-Kost, high school teacher in Minneapolis, MN. Recently she shared about what she calls Discussion Uno. Same idea as the actual card game but with scaffolding questions on each card. There would be several ways you could have kids play this. I’ve attached one of Sara’s templates that include her cards and instructions. Several of us were talking about how you could also insert these cards into an actual Uno card deck and a have kids actually draw them as part of a real Uno game.

The Uno strategy goes well with a Structured Academic Controversy activity. I’ve written about it before and it is a bit more of a full blown teaching lesson but I think you can adapt it to make it as long or short as you want. Go here to get the full meal deal on how it works but it’s really pretty basic. It’s designed to engage small groups of students in the discussion of controversial issues. Through a series of steps, students add to their understanding of an issue or question. After students have fully explored and analyzed the pro and con arguments on an issue or question, they work as a group to reach a consensus on the issue. No winners like with a typical class debate. But no losers either. I like that. Learn how to do it here.

You might try using what I call Four Corners. Give the class a prompt or document to work with and divide the class into groups of four. Give each group a large piece of poster paper and some markers. Each kids is responsible for addressing the prompt (or sourcing the document or closing reading the document or whatever) in their corner of the paper. Kids then explain their corner and have to come to a consensus about how to write a summary statement or paragraph in the center of the paper. You might ask kids to draw a graphic or image in their corner instead of text. Ask the others in the group to make sense of the images drawn by their group members and then create a consensus graphic with textual explanation.

Most kids love sticky notes and markers. Adapt the idea of Sticky Note Avalanche, a great strategy for brainstorming, reviewing, and adapting ideas. Put small groups of two to four around a table or wall that accepts sticky notes. Give them markers and a boatload of stickies. Give your class the prompt or problem, i.e. what are the best ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus, set a time limit, give the groups 30 seconds of reflection time, and turn them loose.

Kids write down as many answers as they can, one idea per stick note, and paste it to the middle of the table or wall. At the end of the time period, review / evaluate / rank the answers. Have groups rotate from table to table to review the work of other groups. Back at their original table, ask groups to develop an argument with evidence to support their best answer.

Try this with 3M’s Post-It Note mobile app. You’ll need to adapt it a bit but doable. Great way to capture and edit student work with sticky notes!

Book Bits is a strategy that I learned about from an elementary ELA teacher but I think it works just as great for social studies. The basic idea? You select multiple sentences or phrases (the bits) from a book or text selection. It might be a trade book, textbook chapter, or a primary source like a diary, letter, or newspaper article. Each student gets one bit. You set a timer or better, play some music, as the kids roam the room. Their task is to share their bit with as many others as possible, simply reading their bit and listening to the other read theirs.

At the end of the time, students partner with one or two others and attempt to figure out the details of the whole just from the different shared bits. So if it was a trade book? Characters. Plot. Setting. Story Arc. Primary source? Creator. Context. Time period. Intended audience. You get the idea. You can then have each group share out whole group or post their ideas on a big sticky note and have groups do a gallery walk. Get some idea of the process here. And practice the strategy by trying to figure out plot, setting, characters of the bits below:

As more schools are closing due to concerns about Covid-19, you might want to try throwing in some technology bits to enable long-distance conversations. Even if your school has not been affected yet, play with some of these tools in your face-to-face classroom. You might eventually have to use them and better to be at least a little familiar with them sooner than later. All of the discussion strategies listed above could be modified to include the following tools in a distance learning situation.

You can get a free account and use it as part of quick conversations. But to get the full effect you’ll need to get the premium version. Talk to your tech people.

Designed as a back-channel conversation tool, YoTeach would also work well for same time, different place conversations. Learn more about about back channels from Edutopia.

Voxer gives you and students the chance to have recorded voice conversations at whatever time is most convenient for each participant. So, maybe assign student groups to address a prompt or topic anytime from 8:00 am to midnight with each kid contributing to the conversation whenever they get to it or “live” at the same time. Think almost like each person in the conversation is talking on a walkie talkie that transmits at the end of each reply with each reply recorded and able to be replayed whenever. Put yourself in the group and you can lurk in the background to monitor and interject as needed. Get more ideas here.

Voxer is also great for project collaboration and for having feedback conversations discussions with individual students, parents, and other teachers. (Perfect if the teaching staff is also not allowed back in the building because of the virus.)

Google Classroom and Google Tools
This one is pretty obvious. Even if your school doesn’t have a G Suite account, your personal account can be pretty handy for video conferencing and connecting with kids. This Google Tip Sheet is helpful. As is Google’s blog.

Flipgrid is a free and powerful way for you to share information with your students and for them to respond. The tools also allows kids to respond to one another in textual and video formats allowing for discussions to happen both synchronously and asynchronously. Have kids practice their historical thinking skills by having them source and contextualize a document, photo, political cartoon, or painting. Be sure to turn on the Moderation setting before sharing the URL with your students. This requires that they all post their thinking without being able to view other student thinking. Once all students have posted, moderate their posts so they can view and respond to each other. Or post two or more primary sources and ask kids to rank them and explain their rankings with evidence. Maybe exchange topic URLs with another social studies teachers. Students from other places then respond to your prompt and vice versa. Perfect for learning about other states or locations.

Get more Flipgrid ideas and some step by step stuff here.

We all want our kids to talk more – in the right way, about the right stuff. Adapt these strategies and tools to fit your needs, your kids, and your content. Do it right and you won’t be able to shut them up.

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Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Work with Me page.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great timing and really valuable as teachers will need to think about how to moderate online discussions since GA’s governor closed our schools for the next 2 weeks.

    March 17, 2020
    • glennw #

      I think we’re all going to be in the same boat soon! The more we can help each other, the better we’ll all be.

      Good luck as you start your new e-learning adventure!


      March 17, 2020
  2. Greg C. #

    Thank you for sharing these resources as they can come in handy in the classroom. Increasing student discussion is critical as we teachers do indeed talk too much. Pardon the informal reference, but quoted in Sam Wineburg’s Why Learn History, is a 2015 survey where over 3,000 high school students said it was their history teacher that lectured more than any other. Aside from creating a more engaging atmosphere, increasing student communication is vital for building language development and building students’ critical thinking skills.

    I appreciate your sharing of Discussion Uno, which has potential for use in class.

    My favorite method is called the response group. This is a strategy I highly recommend to build participation and engagement. This can be used with any age group and in content areas aside from history. A short analysis of this strategy can be found here

    As we transition so many of our classes to online learning, I have noticed before the shutdown, how effective online discussion boards can be. Students in 2020 spend so much time communicating with each other, sharing opinions through electronic devices; online discussions come naturally to them. I use Canvas, which is the learning management software adopted by my school division. Of course, like in a classroom discussion, parameters and expectations must be set for students. I have noticed that online Canvas discussions also allow students who may be shy in the classroom, to participate freely online. Any fear they may have to articulate their opinion in a classroom can be remedied online since they do not need to speak in front of others. While oral speaking skills are essential to build in our students, it is helpful to offer a safe platform for students to share and “discuss”.

    Thank you again for posting the strategies and resources.

    March 18, 2020
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the comment, reference, and additional suggestions! Response Groups look great. And I had forgotten all about Sam Wineburg’s survey – thanks for reminding all of us! And couldn’t agree more on the power of online discussion tools like Canvas.

      They will all become more important in this new normal of e-learning that’s now happening around the country.

      Good luck as you finish the year! Stay healthy!


      March 18, 2020

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