I’m reading Questions for Classroom Discussion by Jackie Acree Walsh and Beth Dankert Sattes. The authors report that “questions and discussion work in tandem to move students from passive participants to active meaning makers” and that “these skills support critical thinking and collaborative problem solving.” Having identified the importance of questioning and discussion, they share the lack of true discussions in most classrooms. One cited study of 112 eighth and ninth grade language arts classrooms found that students engaged in true discussion for less than one minute per hour of class.
Questions that teachers use to support discussion differ from the recitation questions that are most common in classrooms. In recitation teachers ask questions for which there are correct answers, then call on individual students to answer, and evaluate the response. Questions for discussion are divergent and create cognitive dissonance or present an authentic challenge or issue.
As I explored the authors’ thinking about discussion in student learning, I was struck by the mirroring of the same issues in teacher learning and productivity in PLCs. Here are a few of the areas that sparked my thinking:
The authors wrote (pg 34 and 35): many teachers have not experienced as students, teachers posing questions that prompted interaction rather than evaluate answers and having student voice dominate the discourse and listening to others leading to new perspectives. Often teachers have not experienced student-to-student talk sparking energy, excitement and flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). Absent these experiences teachers may have beliefs about control and time that suggests discussion is an inefficient approach to teaching and learning.
My thinking: Few teachers and administrators have experiences with teams of teachers using discussion to create new ways to impact student learning. Their experiences have rather been that organized (leader directed) meetings save time and accomplish more. Administrators are often uncomfortable not setting agendas and desired outcomes for PLC sessions. Many teachers sense they could accomplish more, faster, working alone back in their classrooms. These beliefs and experiences may block initial PLC implementation.
The authors wrote (pg. 40-42) Collaboration is critical to effective discussions. They list skills that students need to practice and develop for building collaboration: elaborating on other’s ideas, seeking to include non-participants, responding to others nondefensively, remaining open to and seeking to understand different views, and disagreeing respectfully.
My thinking: Most PLCs initially need identified (sometimes outside) facilitators exactly because teachers have had insufficient practice with these skills. The authors provided stem starters for students to use as they practice the skills. I believe most of the stems could be a guide for conscious practice in PLCs: “I’ve been talking a lot. I wonder what others are thinking.” “Can you tell me more about your point of view?” “I hear what you are saying. I want to offer a different interpretation.”
Authors wrote (pg. 57-62): In teacher-guided discussions teachers have the opportunity to intentionally and explicitly model the skills and dispositions to be effective participants in discussions. They can provide scaffolding and coaching to students as the students refine their skills. Teachers’ beliefs in the value of discussion must be modeled in four habits of mind: appreciative listening, valuing contributions, focused thinking, and fair-mindedness.
My thinking: To maximize the value of time and resources invested in PLCs, professional development should address the questioning and discussion skills that support teachers as collaborative problem solvers. Administrators, instructional coaches, and teacher leaders working with PLCs can model appreciative listening, examining teachers’ comments especially when they challenge leadership’s thinking. As facilitators they can model fair-mindedness by keeping conflicting views and ideas “on the table” while the leaders’ feedback is withheld.
I encourage you to spend some time observing PLCs in your school and assessing the quality of questioning and discussion that is occurring. Could your investment in building teachers’ capacity is these skills lead to increased student learning?