So how do you give students the opportunity to share their ideas with each other, while ensuring they are actually discussing the topic at hand? If a fail-safe way exists, I haven’t found it yet. However, I have found a number of strategies that help to keep students on-task.
I had a craft stick revelation when my instructional coach pointed out that, if I held them the right way, my students could not read which name I drew. Since I primarily used craft sticks to ensure I was randomly calling on students, not inadvertently favoring some or ignoring others, I rarely “cheated” this way. But during accountability checks, it sometimes paid to intentionally call on students who seemed distracted, with or without the craft stick ruse. It sent a message to the rest of the class that they needed to stay on task.
I found that the trick with using scribes is to make sure that each student takes notes at some point during the period. If there is only one assigned scribe, that poor student is likely to end up doing most of the work, while the other group members sit around and chat about whatever was on TV the night before. Typically, I divided my students into groups of four, and had one student in each group take out a piece of paper. That student then divided the paper into quadrants, labeling each with the name of a group member. Once every group was ready, I would ask a question, and give the students five minutes to discuss, while one student in the group took notes, writing in their assigned quadrant. After five minutes, we would stop, each group would share out to the class, and then the initial scribe would hand the paper off to another student. After twenty minutes, every student in the class would have had a chance to take notes, but I would only have a handful of papers to look over.
This method works best when combined with randomizers, as described above. At the beginning of every discussion, I would remind students that, no matter who their group’s scribe was, anyone could get chosen to report back to the class, so they all needed to be contributing and paying attention. Two degrees of accountability, combined with teacher proximity, seemed to work fairly well to keep my students engaged in the discussion.
In my own classroom, I would have small groups of students sit in circles and have each student to take out a piece of paper. Then I would tell them to think of a discussion question and write it on top of the paper. I used Costa’s Levels of Inquiry a lot with my students to make sure they were asking open-ended questions that relied on higher-order thinking skills. At the beginning of the year, when they were still learning this process, I provided question stems to scaffold the activity.
Once everybody had a discussion question, each student passed his or her paper to the person on the right. That student would then have three minutes to formulate an answer to the original question. After three minutes, students signed their names below their replies and passed their papers again. This time, students had a choice of replying to the original question, or to the initial response.
The first time students do this activity (or any discussion), I found it was helpful to have a few sentence prompts on the board to help students respond to each other’s arguments constructively. For example:
- I agree/disagree with _____ because _____.
- _____ made a good point when s/he said ______. However, _____.
- To add to what ___ said, ____.
- To look at this from another perspective, _____.
- Which question was hardest to answer, and why?
- Which question generated the most discussion? Why do you think that is?
- Which response used the most detail from the text?
- Which response best connected the question to the real world?
- Which response made you think the most?
Small group discussions require some work to be effective, but in my own experience, they are great ways to build student collaboration and critical thinking.