Talk about it
Language: The Key to Learning – The Importance of Discussion
In the third of three articles on the development of language in schools, Orla Redmond examines the value of discussion as a learning tool.
The value of talking
At a time when the need to develop 21st century excellent communicators has never been more in focus, concerns about language and literacy attainment still abound. The fact is, good thinkers ask good questions. To support pupils to become good thinkers, they must have lots of opportunities to talk and pose good questions. Discussions provide an excellent means of facilitating this.
What is a discussion?
To qualify as a discussion, parties must be willing to listen to and learn from one another: discussions are not a forum for sharing entrenched views with no willingness to understand the thoughts of others. As such, true participation in a real discussion demonstrates significant levels of maturity, critical thinking, and self-awareness.
Preparing for discussions
Discussion is a powerful engagement tool with a range of benefits. At the outset, significant teacher input will be required to explore the purpose and benefits of discussions and to support pupils as they develop the skills to take part. Guidance may be needed to prevent one or two pupils dominating the discussion and to encourage participation by pupils who may be anxious about speaking aloud. Teachers may need to model ways to register agreement / disagreement appropriately (I disagree because…, I would like to add…). Cultivating an atmosphere of respect for difference and tolerance of the opinions of others is critical.
Benefits of Discussions
Once established as a means of working, discussions are an effective tool for promoting the development of collaborative working, speaking and listening skills, and critical thinking. Through encouraging active participation in learning (particularly when students are asked to prepare in advance), discussions put the onus on pupils to generate information and thus support the co-construction of knowledge. Discussions can be used to enhance pupils’ sense of autonomy by allowing them to have a voice, boosting their overall sense of ‘belonging’ to the school (a factor associated with academic success).
By providing opportunities for students to question themselves, and to ask questions of one another, discussions can add interest by exposing pupils to a range of views. Using subject-specific vocabulary, and the language of the discipline, reinforces taught content and enables pupils to make connections with previous learning, supporting deeper understanding of the topic. Pupils learn the importance of articulating clearly and have opportunities to practise this beneficial skill. Moreover, as discussions challenge pupils to consider their assumptions (as well as those of others’) and justify their opinions, they highlight the importance of reflection. More broadly, as an important facet of citizenship, pupils may reflect on those whose voices are often unheard – even in discussions about them – e.g. homeless people or refugees.
Discussions promote the development of cognitive agility as students must be able to think on their feet, holding information in their working memory while they wait for a turn to speak. They also provide an excellent means of facilitating critical thinking by having learners analyse issues, evaluate evidence, distinguish between relevant / irrelevant information, consider the validity of information, question the credibility of sources, explore contradictions, identify missing viewpoints, and evaluate the interpretations of themselves and others.
By facilitating receipt of peer and teacher feedback, discussions provide a good means for students to self-check their levels of understanding and knowledge. Teachers can also gauge who has grasped the topic / concept and use this assessment information to plan accordingly.
Introducing Discussion to the Classroom
Having open class discussions promotes language and thinking skills, collaboration and participation, and autonomy and self-confidence. Start simply by asking a question and giving pupils a few minutes to gather their thoughts and formulate a response. Ask a pupil to share their thinking before inviting others to join in and discuss that response. Once pupils become confident in sharing their thoughts aloud, offering their rationale, and responding to the views of others, more controversial topics (i.e. topics on which contrary opinions exist) can be discussed, creating a genuine inquiry community within the classroom and affording all within it an opportunity to adapt their thinking in response to new learning.
Orla Redmond MA (Ed.) is an experienced educator who has worked in teaching, managerial and advisory capacities in both independent and government schools, in Ireland, the UK, and other regions worldwide. Her specialist interests include supporting disadvantaged pupils and pupils with SEN.
Great Teaching Made Easy: How to Use Discussion in the Classroom
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