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Discussion Methods

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Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Discussion methods are a variety of forums for open-ended, collaborative exchange of ideas among a teacher and students or among students for the purpose of furthering students thinking, learning, problem solving, understanding, or literary appreciation. Participants present multiple points of view, respond to the ideas of others, and reflect on their own ideas in an effort to build their knowledge, understanding, or interpretation of the matter at hand. Discussions may occur among members of a dyad, small group, or whole class and be teacher-led or student-led. They frequently involve discussion of a written text, though discussion can also focus on a problem, issue, or topic that has its basis in a “text” in the larger sense of the term (e.g., a discipline, the media, a societal norm). Other terms for discussions used for pedagogical purposes are instructional conversations (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988) and substantive conversations (Newmann, 1990).

A defining feature of discussion is that students have considerable agency in the construction of knowledge, understanding, or interpretation. In other words, they have considerable “interpretive authority” for evaluating the plausibility or validity of participants responses. To illustrate, the following excerpt is taken from a discussion between a teacher and a small-group of second-grade students (from Eeds & Wells, 1989). They are discussing the short story, “Me and Neesie,” by Eloise Greenfield. The story is about a girl, Janell, and her imaginary friend, Neesie, and the teacher and students are trying to understand why Neesie is at school with Janell for the day.

Austin: But nobody knew about her but Janell. And how could the teacher put her name down on the thing outside for her to be in the classroom if she didnt know about her?

Ashley: Well, actually, if only Janell could see her, why would Neesie be in the other classroom if Janell was the only one that could see her?

Austin: But what if she didnt go to school when Janell did?

Beth: But she did go to school when Janell did.

Chad: And nobody can see her, only Janell.

Ashley: Yeah, but why would they be in different classes if Janells the only one that can see her? Why would she be in a different class?

Austin: I know.

Teacher: I think youre all agreeing, really, that the question doesnt make sense.

Justin: But the one who put her in the class cant see her.

Ashley: Yeah, but just Janell can.

Austin: The teacher wouldnt know about her.

Justin: I know! She would have snuck inif shes invisible.

The discourse is marked by many contributions from students and frequent student-to-student exchanges without interruption by the teacher. In this example, the only contribution from the teacher is to summarize the students contributions. For the most part, students are responsible for constructing an understanding of why the imaginary friend, Neesie, is in school with Janell and why the fictional teacher allows Neesie to attend class for the day. The students ask questions they are genuinely interested in exploring and that evoke a variety of responses (“authentic questions”), they build on each others responses by incorporating previous responses into their questions (“uptake”), and they challenge each others views in a collective effort to make sense of the text. Students contributions largely shape the discourse.

DISCUSSION VERSUS RECITATION

Discussions stand in contrast to a more traditional classroom event called recitation, so called because it provides a forum for the students and/or the teacher to recite what is known, usually from the reading of a written text. The defining feature of recitations is that the teacher controls the talk and has complete interpretive authority. To illustrate, the following excerpt comes from an 11th-grade English classroom (adapted from Langer, 1993, pp. 3637). The teacher and the students have read the short story, “Tularecito,” by John Steinbeck and they are talking about the character Pancho.

Teacher: Whos Pancho?

Mario: The employee.

Teacher: An employee, okay. Do you know anything else about Pancho?

Mariloo: Hes a Mexican Indian.

Teacher: Hes a Mexican Indian.

Tarek: Hes always sober.

Teacher: What else?

Rock: When hes not in jail.

Teacher: When hes not in jail, okay.

Matt: He doesnt drive when drunk.

Teacher: All right. Thats good.

John: When he arrives at work hes always sleepy.

Teacher: Yeah, and thats important. Do you think he fools around? What gives you that impression?

In this case, the teacher contributed most to the talk. Indeed, in recitations, teachers typically talk about two-thirds of the time (Cazden, 2001). The discourse is marked by a pattern called the IRE (Mehan, 1979) or IRF (Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975): the teacher initiates a topic by asking a question (e.g., “Whos Pancho?”); students respond to the question with an answer (e.g., “The employee”); and the teacher evaluates the students response or gives feedback (e.g., “An employee, okay”). The questions are intended to test or stimulate recall of what had been read (“known answer” or “test questions”). The teacher determines the nature of the questions, the order of the questions, and the correctness of students responses. Although the students offer their own responses, the teacher does not allow them to explain what they mean about the character Pancho. Instead, she steers the talk in the direction she wants the students to take. The teacher has the ultimate interpretive authority and controls the discourse.

A criticism of recitation and the IRE/IRF pattern of discourse is that they can restrict student talk in ways that are counter-productive to the collaborative construction of knowledge, understanding, and interpretation. Students responses are typically no longer than two- or three- word phrases and teachers rarely acknowledge the value of students contributions by incorporating their responses into subsequent questions. Recitation can play a useful role in classroom pedagogy (Mercer, 1995) and there are ways of using the IRE/IRF to good effect (see Hicks, 1995; O'Connor & Michaels, 1996; Wells, 1993). Nevertheless, the oft-cited concern is that this traditional interactional cycle constrains students contributions and gives them little responsibility for shaping their own learning.

The relative incidence of discussion versus recitation is difficult to determine as there are few surveys of these classroom events that draw from nationally representative samples of classes, at least in the United States. Moreover, most of the research on recitation has been conducted at the secondary level. The best available reports indicate the discussions are rare in classrooms. A 1998 study by Commeyras and Degroff surveyed the pedagogical practices of a random sample of 1,519 K-12 literacy teachers and related professionals in the United States. They found that only 33% of respondents reported that they frequently or very frequently had students meet in small groups to discuss literature in their classrooms. They also found that such discussions were more common in elementary and middle school classes than they were in high school classes. Nystrand (1997) observed the instructional practices in 58 eighth-grade and 54 ninth-grade language arts and English classes in eight Midwestern communities in the United States. He found that open-ended, whole-class discussion averaged only 52 seconds per class in eighth grade and only 14 seconds per class in ninth grade. By contrast to these figures, recitation has a long and well-established history in U.S. classrooms (see Nystrand, 2006) and anecdotal reports suggest that it is still a pervasive phenomenon (Almasi, 1994; Cazden, 2001; Goldenberg, 1992; Tharp & Galli-more, 1988; Worthy & Beck, 1995).

METHODS AND DIMENSIONS

Discussion methods vary on a number of dimensions. Roby (1988) classifies types of discussions primarily on a continuum that relates to whether the teacher or students, or both, have interpretive authority. A secondary dimension is the content of the discussion. Using these dimensions, he identifies three types of discussion. Problematical discussions focus on the solutions to either complex or simple problems in which the teacher is dominant in the discussions. Dialectical discussions focus on expressing, comparing, and refining students (and the teachers) points of view, and the students play a dominant role in the discussions. Informational discussions focus on controversial issues within an accepting atmosphere, and students have considerable freedom to bring up issues they wish to discuss. At the extremes are two types of what Roby calls “quasi-discussions”: Quiz Shows and Bull Sessions. In the former, the teacher determines the questions to be asked and has almost all the interpretive authority; in the latter, the students have control over the topic and almost all the interpretive authority. In their 1949 study, Axelrod, Bloom, Ginsburg, O'Meara, and Williams, which was one of the first empirical investigations of discussion, also placed discussions on a continuum that related to whether the teacher or students had interpretive authority.

Gall and Gall (1976) classify discussions according to the instructional objectives: to achieve subject mastery, to bring about a change in attitude or opinion about an issue, or to solve a problem. An example of a subject-mastery discussion method is Manzo and Casales (1985) Listen-Read-Discuss Strategy. In this method, the students listen to the teacher give a short lecture on the material to be learned, they read the pages of the text on which the lecture was based, and they then discuss questions raised by the text. An example of an issue-oriented discussion method is found in Roby (1983): Devils Advocate Strategy. In this method, students articulate their positions on an issue and then take an opposing position and argue against themselves. An example of a problem-solving discussion method is Maiers (1963) Developmental Discussion Strategy. In this method, the teacher and students identify a problem, break it into manageable parts, and work on the parts in small groups. The small groups then reconvene as a whole class to discuss their solutions with the teacher.

Discussions about and around texts vary on a large number of dimensions. These approaches serve various purposes depending on the goals teachers set for their students, defined in terms of the stance towards the text: to acquire and retrieve information (an efferent stance), to make spontaneous, emotive connection to the text (an aesthetic or expressive stance), or to interrogate or query the text in search of the underlying arguments, assumptions, worldviews, or beliefs (a critical-analytic stance). Each approach comprises some type of instructional frame that describes the role of the teacher, the nature of the group, type of text, and so forth. Although the goals of these approaches are not identical, all have the potential to help students develop high-level thinking and comprehension of text.

Most variation across text-based discussion approaches is in the degree of control exerted by the teacher versus the students in terms of who has control of topic, who has interpretive authority, who controls turns, who chooses the text, and the relative standing on the three stances. Moreover, there is a relationship between degree of control exercised by teachers versus students and the stance toward the text. Discussions in which students have the greatest control tend to be those that give prominence to an aesthetic or expressive stance. These approaches are Book Club (Raphael & McMahon, 1994), Grand Conversations (Eeds & Wells, 1989), and Literature Circles (Short & Pierce, 1990). These discussions are often peer-led. Conversely, discussions in which teachers have the greatest control tend to be those that give prominence to an efferent stance. These approaches are Instructional Conversations (Goldenberg, 1992), Questioning the Author (Beck & McKeown, 2006; Beck, McKeown, Hamilton, & Kucan, 1997), and Junior Great Books shared inquiry (Great Books Foundation, 1987). It should be noted that Questioning the Author is the only discussion approach that was designed specifically to help students grapple with the meaning of informational text. Finally, discussions in which students and teachers share control tend to give prominence to a critical-analytic stance. In these approaches, the teacher has considerable control over text and topic, but students have considerable interpretive authority and control of turns. The approaches that fall into this category are Collaborative Reasoning (Anderson, Chinn, Waggoner, & Nguyen, 1998), Paideia Seminars (Billings & Fitzgerald, 2002), and Philosophy for Children (Sharp, 1995).

Other approaches to text-based discussion, not included in the above, are less easy to classify and there is less research on them. These are Conversational Discussion Groups (O'Flahavan, 1989), Dialogical-Reading Thinking Lesson (Commeyras, 1993), Idea Circles (Guthrie & McCann, 1996, and Point-Counterpoint (Rogers, 1990). There are also text-based discussions that have less consistency of application, so they cannot be readily labeled. These include the general class of literature discussion groups based on reader-response theory (see Gambrell & Almasi, 1996), discussion-based envision-ments of literature (Langer, 1993, 1995, 2001), and instructional integrations of writing, reading, and talk (Nystrand, Gamoran, & Carbonaro, 2001; Sperling & Woodlief, 1997). Accountable talk is another approach to conducting intellectually stimulating discussions that, although not specifically designed for discussions about text, has applicability for promoting reading comprehension (Wolf, Crosson, & Resnick, 2004). It comprises a set of standards for productive conversation in academic contexts and forms part of the New Standards Project developed by Lauren Resnick and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh.

Another dimension on which discussions vary is small-group versus whole-class discussions. In a 1991 study of 58 12th grade students, Sweigart found that student-led small-group discussions produced greater effects on students recall and understanding of essays they had read than did lecture or whole-class discussion. Morrow and Smith, in a 1990 study of kindergarten students who engaged in discussions of stories that were read aloud, reported similar benefits of small-group discussions compared to one-on-one discussions with the teacher or whole-class discussions. Smaller groups provided more opportunities for students to speak, interact, and exchange points of view. Taking into account all available evidence, the best generalization that can be made is that smaller groups are better but they should not be so small as to limit the diversity of ideas necessary for productive discussions (Wiencek & O'Flahavan, 1994).

Yet another dimension is teacher-led versus studentled discussions. The relative merits of these formats have been the subject of debate and some research. On the one hand, the teacher can play an important role in discussion by keeping students on topic and modeling and scaffolding the talk to enhance the quality of their learning opportunities (O'Flahavan, Stein, Wiencek, & Marks, 1992; see also Wells, 1989). On the other hand, student-led discussions can enable students to collectively explore topics more fully and to have more control and interpretive authority (Almasi, 1994). Most probably the question as to who should lead the group is the wrong question. The issue is not so much who leads the group but how much structure and focus is provided while giving students the flexibility and responsibility for thinking and reasoning together (Mercer, 1995). Productive discussions need to be structured and focused, but flexible enough to foster generative learning—and these can be teacher-led or student-led.

DISCUSSION AND STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT

Nystrand and Gamoran conducted possibly the largest study ever of the relationship between discussion and student achievement (Gamoran & Nystrand, 1991; Nystrand, 1997; Nystrand & Gamoran (1991). As described earlier, they observed the practices used in 58 eighth-grade and 54 ninth-grade language arts and English classes in eight Midwestern communities in the United States. They observed each class four times per year and assessed students' understanding and interpretation of literature at the end of each year, collecting data on over 1,895 students. Their results indicated that the features of open-ended, whole-class discussion were positively associated with students' reading comprehension, as measured by both recall and depth of understanding, as well as response to aesthetic aspects of literature.

These results were largely replicated in a 2003 follow-up study by Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, & Gamo-ran of 974 students in 64 middle- and high-school English classrooms. Results showed that discussion-based practices, used in the context of academically challenging tasks, were positively related to students' reading comprehension and literature achievement.

Other correlational studies have shown similar benefits of discussion. A 2001 study by Langer, for example, studied the characteristics of instruction that accompanied student achievement in 25 schools, involving 44 teachers and 88 classes. She found that whole-class and small-group discussion was one of the characteristics of instruction in schools that showed higher than expected achievement in reading, writing, and English.

In a quasi-experimental study, Fall, Webb, and Chu-dowsky (2000) analyzed 10th-grade students' performance on language arts tests in which students either discussed or did not discuss a story they were required to read and interpret. Results showed that allowing students to engage in a 10-minute discussion of the story in three-person groups was positively related to students' understanding of the story.

Murphy, Wilkinson, Soter, Hennessey, and Alexander (2007) conducted a meta-analysis of quantitative studies that provided evidence of the effects of different approaches to text-based discussions on measures of teacher and student talk and/or of individual student comprehension and reasoning outcomes. Included were single-group pretest-posttest design studies and multiple-group studies. Three major findings emerged from the meta-analysis. One major finding was that the approaches to discussion differentially promoted high-level comprehension of text. Many of the approaches were highly effective at promoting students' comprehension, especially those that were more efferent in nature, namely Questioning the Author, Instructional Conversations, and Junior Great Books shared inquiry. Moreover, some of the approaches were effective at promoting students' critical-thinking, reasoning, argumentation, and metacognition about and around text, especially Collaborative Reasoning and Junior Great Books.

A second major finding was that increases in student talk did not necessarily result in concomitant increases in student comprehension. Rather, it seemed that a particular kind of talk was necessary to promote comprehension. This is consistent with observations from other research that the success of discussion hinges not on increasing the amount of student talk per se, but in enhancing the quality of the talk (Wells, 1989). A third major finding was that effects varied by students' academic ability. Results showed that the approaches exhibited greater effects when employed with below-average and average ability students and weaker effects with above-average students. It appears that above-average ability students could understand a text and think independently about the nuances of meaning even without participating in discussion.

Possibly the most stringent test of the benefits of discussions come from experimental and quasi-experimental studies that have examined the effects of a discussion approach, relative to a control condition, on commercially available, standardized measures (rather than researcher-developed measures). Murphy and colleagues (2007) found only five such studies: Mizerka's 1999 study of the effects of Literature Circles; Bird's (1984) study of the effects of Junior Great Books; and Banks (1987), Chamberlain (1993), and Lipman's (1975) studies of the effects of Philosophy for Children. Among these studies, the strongest effect was found by Lipman for Philosophy for Children, as measured by students' comprehension scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, with an effect size of 0.55. The effect sizes for the other studies averaged approximately 0.20.

An important finding from research on discussion methods is that they can benefit both fluent and limited-English-proficient (LEP) students. Saunders and Goldenberg (1999) conducted an experimental study of the effects of Instructional Conversations, in combination with literature logs, on 116 fourth and fifth grade LEP and English-proficient students. Results showed both fluent and LEP students who participated in the Instructional Conversations + literature logs condition scored significantly higher on factual and interpretive comprehension than did students in other conditions. Other studies of Instructional Conversations have reported similar benefits for LEP students. Nystrand (2006) noted a number of studies that provided evidence of the benefits of discussions for L2 as well as L1 speakers.

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