How to Effectively Encourage Quality Whole-Class Discussions

I had an instructor once tell me that as a teacher, I shouldn't be the "sage on the stage" but rather the "guide on the side." I've never forgotten this analogy and think of him often as I work to encourage quality whole-class discussions with my students. 

Photo of student selector sticks with text, "How to Effectively Encourage Quality Whole-Class Discussions."

Whole-class conversations are valuable learning opportunities when managed correctly. These should not be teacher-directed but instead teacher-facilitated. Any class discussion's goal should be learning, but that should be by students working through their thinking, not the teacher dumping it into their laps.

Goals of Whole-Class Discussion

Effective whole-class discussions should do several things. They should:

  • Engage all students in the learning.
  • Encourage students to ask questions.
  • Spark interest in the topic.
  • Include as many voices as possible.
  • Generate a sense of safety and environment that supports risk-taking.

Start With Ground Rules

I like to start the school year by setting some ground rules for collaboration of any kind. This includes our whole-class discussions and small-group activities.

Photo of collaboration bulletin board with anchor charts showing what collaboration does and does not look like.

We do this together by discussing what the students like about group work and what turns them off when working in groups. Using the students' thinking makes the ground rules much more powerful. They have ownership, and because of that, they are more likely to follow these rules.

Strategies for Encouraging Quality Discussion

There is no one perfect way to get students talking during your lessons, but I have a few favorite strategies.

Random Pickers

One great way to get all of your students engaged in class discussions is by choosing them to share their thinking randomly. You do need to be sensitive to the topic when using random name pickers, though. Be sure that the content is accessible to everyone and not of a sensitive nature. I wouldn't necessarily use this one when teaching about puberty!

Photo of student selector sticks in a cup that says, "Teachers Keep Us Sharp."

Hand Signals

There's nothing more disruptive to a great whole-class discussion for me than the student with their hand up who wants to use the washroom and has nothing to contribute to the conversation at all. 

To avoid these interruptions in the flow of a great class discussion, I've implemented hand signals in my classroom. There is a signal for sharing a comment or thought, asking a question, using the washroom, getting a drink, or getting a tissue. If my students use the hand signal during a lesson or whole-class discussion, I can give a quick nod or shake of the head without stopping the entire class.

Image of FREE hand signals display.

#TeacherWin

Grab a copy of these free right here:

Offer of FREE hand signals display with text, "Click here to get this free hand signals display."

Turn and Talk

I've mentioned before that turning and talking about a topic makes students more inclined to share their thinking in a whole-class setting. It is like a test-run of their ideas and a great way to warm them up before starting a whole-class discussion.

Accountable Talk

It is important to remember that sometimes our students don't know how to participate in a discussion appropriately. For this reason, I also love to have examples of accountable talk starters posted in the classroom for them to refer to during conversations.

Photo of accountable talk bulletin board with speech bubbles containing conversation starters.

You can grab these posters here if you'd like to try them out in your classroom:

Cover of Accountable Talk Conversation Starters resource.

Having these posted is a great way to place the responsibility for a quality whole-class discussion back on the students. 

Don't be the sage on the stage!

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Image of hand signals display with text, "How to Effectively Encourage Quality Whole-Class Discussions."


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