Successful classroom discussions begin long before anyone speaks

Classroom discussions help engagement and learning so find out how instructors can get started in facilitating respectful debate among students using a simple framework


Constructive Dialogue Institute
18 Nov 2022
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Group of students taking part in a classroom debate

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Planning and facilitating quality discussions
How to plan and facilitate student discussions via online classes

For many students, speaking up in class was never easy, and it seems even harder after learning in isolation or via screens for many terms. Add to that the pressures of a hyper-polarised political climate, where students and faculty fear censure and tread lightly to avoid offending others, and the result is an environment in which facilitating classroom discussion can feel like pulling teeth.

While classroom discussions have never been easy, they seem especially important for students’ academic learning and social development following the pandemic lockdowns. Since the 1970s, research has accumulated showing that engaging people in classroom discussions about important issues grows their critical thinking and communication skills, civic knowledge and interest, comfort with conflict, and commitment to democratic values such as tolerance, diversity and equality. Such discussions don’t undermine or take away from content teaching but enhance it, studies show, by placing it in broader contexts and demanding that students make meaning out of what they have learned.

It’s easy to agree that classroom discussion is valuable. The hard part is facilitating discussions successfully. A helpful framework for doing so is the PSI (Prepare, Support and Intervene) model. Remember when PSI stood for pounds per square inch? This pressure metaphor is an apt one for classroom discussions.

Pressure makes engines work – if there is not enough pressure, an engine misfires and won’t start. If there is too much, an engine can deteriorate quickly. Classroom discussions work the same. Without enough pressure, discussions never get off the ground, or a few outspoken students create a false sense of consensus. With too much pressure, discussions can lead to conflict and participants may get overheated and offended. PSI helps educators find the right amount of pressure for participants to honestly express and receive new ideas.

It is easy for tutors to become hyper-focused on intervening in moments of high tension. While this matters, we tend to under-emphasise the proactive routines and structures that facilitate classroom dialogue and make high-tension moments less likely. Interventions serve to restore a collaborative space, but instructors should build that collaboration by preparing and supporting students. Much of the work of facilitating discussions is done in the first two phases of PSI.

Prepare: set students (and yourself) up for success

  • Invest time to foster a positive climate. Get to know your students as students and as people. Use paired and small-group activities to create a sense of community within the class. Try incorporating research-backed tools that can foster mindsets ripe for dialogue and openness to diverse viewpoints. The Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI) has a free online learning program called Perspectives, which provides psychology-based insight into how our ideas, beliefs and values form so that learners can approach dialogue from a place of understanding and empathy.
  • Establish ground rules, norms or shared agreements for discussions. Whatever you call them, it’s more effective to co-create these norms with your students rather than simply telling students what they are. Engage your students in a discussion about what they need from you, from others and from themselves, to feel confident and safe to fully participate in discussions.
  • Plan discussions. Meaningful exchanges rarely happen spontaneously. Planning for discussions means two things. First, think about the goals you have for your students. Develop discussion protocols to help students focus on learning goals. Second, let students know the discussion is coming up and give them a chance to prepare. Assign a reading or activity that prepares your students for the conversation. For example, you could ask your students what they want to achieve from the conversation, what dialogue-related skill they want to work on during the discussion, and what worries them about having the discussion.
  • Think through what role you want to play during the discussion. Is your stance one of intentional neutrality? Will you challenge a student’s point of view if you don’t agree? What if you find the point of view offensive? Will you play devil’s advocate? Under what circumstances, if any, will you as facilitator express your own stance on an issue?

Support: start slow and increase pressure

Give students time and opportunity to develop skills and psychological safety before introducing more contentious or challenging discussions.

  • Begin with structured discussions before moving to free-form ones. Discussion structures such as Circle of Viewpoints, Town Meeting, and Structured Academic Controversy provide ground rules, enforce turn-taking, and provide guard rails so that students have the time to think through their position and slow down any heat-of-the-moment reactions.
  • Move from small to large groups. This helps students develop listening and speaking skills gradually and gives them an opportunity to experiment with taking interpersonal risks.
  • Practise with less heated issues rather than jumping into controversial or highly emotive topics.
  • Ask students to analyse positions rather than share their own views. Issues can be framed in public rather than personal terms. Instead of, “how do you feel about abortion?” you can say let’s look at the arguments around abortion.

Intervene: step in to de-escalate if discussions start to get too heated

When controversial statements are made, or you sense that a student is upset, use the following de-escalation strategies to bring down the pressure.

  • Begin by asking questions. Start from a place of genuine curiosity: “Can you tell me more about what you mean?” This gives the students a chance to clarify their thinking and reduces the likelihood of misunderstanding.
  • Ask the group for their reaction. “What is it like to hear this?” This gives students a chance to slow down, reflect and label their emotional reactions in the moment.
  • Point out shared values. “I can see that many folks in this room care about democracy and truth.”
  • Take a break for a written reflection. Giving students the opportunity to collect their thoughts and focus on a solo writing task before resuming the discussion can help to slow reactions, calm tensions and get discussions back on track.

The PSI framework can act as an instructor’s map for facilitating dialogue, guiding you through the winding and exciting roads conversations can take. Hold on to the map and remember that those tutors who do the prep work before thoughts form and are shared by students find that the learning outcomes at the end of the road are invaluable.

Mylien Duong, senior director of research, and Jacob Fay, director of education, at the Constructive Dialogue Institute.

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