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Toward Democratic Discourse: Scaffolding Student-Led Discussions in the Social Studies

by Nora K. Flynn - 2009

Background/Context: Discussion in classrooms has been cited as an activity integral to active participation in a democracy. Much research into classroom practice reveals that recitation, not discussion, is the most common form of classroom discourse. How teachers conceive of discussion, what they actually do when they attempt discussion with students, and how they are taught to implement discussions are all inquiries that uncover the actual workings of discussion within classrooms. This article addresses students’ experiences in discussion and how one teacher scaffolds instruction in discussion in order to achieve a more democratic discourse in her classroom.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article traces one teacher’s research into what students experience during class discussions and how their responses led her to inquire into her own practice of implementing discussion-based activities in a content-area course. She seeks a more “democratic” classroom in which genuine discussion among equal peers is possible because the skills underlying discussion are taught. Scaffolding the teaching of discussion skills throughout a year of a world studies class allowed for students to take a more active and engaged role in discussion and expand their vision of active participation and a “good” discussion while grounding their discussion in historical content.

Setting: A public selective enrollment secondary school in Chicago was the site of this action research.

Population/Participants/Subjects: Eighty-eight students enrolled in ninth-grade Honors World Studies took part in this study.

Research Design: This study uses action research, or teacher inquiry into classroom practices and instructional responses to findings. Its data are qualitative in nature.

Data Collection and Analysis: Data were collected in the form of student reflections after discussions with peers, teacher observations during student-led discussions, and student–teacher debriefings after discussion activities.

Well-formed classroom discussions can create connections, challenge conceptions, and force reconsiderations. Perhaps more relevant to students, poorly executed discussions can hurt. Teachers may witness this hurt as disengagement by adolescents, disruptive discussants, or even students who do everything possible to disappear from discussion, creating a disappointing climate for discourse. Students are more likely to view how they behave or the roles they play in discussion as an effect of what they have experienced in past poor conversations in their classrooms. As students ourselves, weve all experienced discussions in which some of our peers were paralyzed in silence, other classmates overpowered discussion, and at least a few students intentionally attempted to derail the activity. Perhaps students in these unproductive roles did not realize that various forms of participationagreeing with a peer, offering examples for support, rephrasing a statement for clarification, or asking a questionwere valued in discussion. Perhaps they did not know how to engage in productive roles for participation. As teachers, we care deeply about the students who are silent, but also those who dominate discussion and dont yet listen well. Neither party is open to the enlarged and changed experience that communication can provide (Dewey, 1926, p. 6). The norms of traditional classroom discussionsdominant speakers and a limited view of active participationare far from benign; their lasting effects can be detrimental to both individual students and wider society.


Effectively participating in productive discussions is not a practice confined to the classroom, but discussing is an essential skill in itself; the processes of critically analyzing, considering, and communicating are the basis of human interactions. More particularly, productive discussion and debate create a cornerstone of democratic society. Dewey (1926) simply stated that [a] democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience (p. 101), thereby linking the act of discussion to the maintenance of democracy. Parker (2006) focused on the practice in individual school rooms, adding, Competent classroom discussion in public schools, then, is fundamentally a democratic practice because democracy requires the sort of political friendship that allows, indeed educates children for . . . a culture of listening and speaking to similar and different others, publicly, about ideas, conflicts and public policy (p. 12). Because civic education is an enterprise of the social studies, viewing discussion as a democratic act must be a primary perspective and practice of teachers: If the promise of democracy as a school for citizens is finally to be realized, then educators must provide frequent opportunities for students to exchange ideas in a variety of settings with diverse groups of participants (Preskill, 1997, p. 317). Orally communicating ones ideas in a coherent way and respectfully considering others ideas are skills that students must acquire for negotiating and enhancing a diverse and democratic society, so it is essential that discussions in classrooms work well, leaving all parties empowered and none paralyzed.

Although discussion is an imperative of social studies classes development of young citizens, this instructional method is difficult to implement. Larson (1997) offers five areas that influence teachers conceptions of discussion, including when they might implement the practice at all or abandon it as a productive strategy. In my own experience, three primary considerations drive my planning of discussions. Like the teachers in Larsons (1997) study, constraints of time related to covering required content can make carving out instructional minutes for preparation, discussion, and debriefing seem daunting. In addition, discussions never have a determined outcome, so many other strategies compete with discussions when matching practice to a standards-based lesson objective. Finally, discussion strategies, from wait time to deliberative silence (Dillon, 1984, p. 54), ask the teacher to perform an intense and methodical practiceall while keeping students engaged, assessing their understanding of content, and challenging them to consider, listen, offer, support, question, and apply the many ideas brought forth in class.

I believe that good discussions in the social studies are essential for both tackling content and practicing an essential democratic and human process, but I also know that a good classroom discussion is difficult to produce. Turning to sources of professional development, such as Paideia seminars or leading workshops on Socratic discussions, has helped me become aware of my own teaching role as a facilitator of discussion and has helped me empower my students to practice techniques of effective discussion. Turning to educational research has enabled me to conceptualize how I define discussion and consider how to inquire about discussion in my own classroom. Turning to my students through the process of action research has given me insight into what works in discussion from a students perspective and inspires me to ensure that it keeps working.

I seek to understand how discussions workor dontin my content-area classroom. For 1 year, I tracked my three ninth-grade world history classes discussions and individual students reactions to various discussions in my class.1 I reflected on my own definition of a good discussion: Students would all be actively engaged in discussion, whether offering new ideas, asking questions, or listening, thinking, and responding; students would use and cite a common text as support for their ideas, interpretations, and inquiries; and students would feel challenged by discussion but not daunted or overwhelmed by it. My research also looks to students perspectives of class discussions, particularly those activities in which the teacher is not an authority or a visible facilitator. Student perspectives on discussion drive my considerations for instructional practice in this research; what they say about discussion helps me scaffold skill building to improve discussion in further activities. Thus, I wonder how my students feel as they navigate discussions with their peers, and I seek to understand how I can best prepare students to create successful peer discussions by responding to their reflections on the discussion process.

Two primary questions guided my inquiry into both my classroom practice and its effects on my students: (1) What do students experience in classroom discussions with peers? (2) How can student reflections on their experiences in these discussions help me better prepare students for more successful peer discussion?

Underlying these two questions is my belief that, although an organic art, conversing is also a discipline that can and should be taught. Along with utilizing discussion as an instructional means to understanding content, I also prioritize discussion itself as a curricular objective, teaching for discussion as well as with it (Parker & Hess, 2001, p. 274). In addition, my inquiries reflect movements that I believe can make discussions better. First, the kind of discussion I track in this study shifts from a traditional view of classroom discussion; in many classroom discussions and studies of them, the interaction between teacher and students is the focal point. These studies reveal much about the teachers role in discussion, from how teachers conceive of discussion (Larson, 1997), through what teachers actually do when they say they are having a discussion (Alvermann, OBrien, & Dillon, 1990), to how closely actual teacher roles in discussion approach the ideal (Billings & Fitzgerald, 2002). However, rather than focus on direct studentteacher interaction, instead I seek to understand what students experience while discussing with one another in peer groups. Peer discussions are student-led as students together direct the entirety of discussionfrom content to procedureafter a single guiding question is posed. The movement from discussionwhich is student centered but facilitated by a teacherto student-led discussion allows students to take control of how they learn, while directing, debating, and reconsidering ideas. Even when discussion truly centers on the student, it is the teachers perspective that is referenced; however, student-led activities have a different agent in charge, as read in the very term itself. Teachers often note that students should talk to each other, not to the teacher, in a class discussion; but if students are not taught how to effectively discuss, many exercise the most comfortable option for all involvedresponding to the authority figure in the classroom, if they respond at all. Thus, one objective of my course is to teach students to become the authority figures in discussion activities and take charge of their discourse with their peers.

While my first question moves students to the forefront of discussions in class, the second question shifts teachers away from a highly visible role in discussion. Training in classroom discussion technique emphasizes that teachers should be facilitators of rather than authorities in class discussions. Meaningful discussion with peers forces students to become both authorities of content and facilitators of discussion, large but important tasks. To be sure, such discussions retain the teacher as an authority, but optimally not within the act of discussing. The selection of discussion as an instructional strategy itself reveals the teachers presence, and students do indeed notice the teacher observing student discussions; yet in a discussion with peers, students must rely on themselves and each other to make meaning of content and to maintain a productive process of discussion. Whereas the teachers role in discussion is an imperative concern of research on classroom discussions, focusing on students discussions with peers looks at what a teacher can do after the discussion, reflecting and planning strategies before the next discussion to improve both student understanding of content and maintenance of the discussion process.

With these questions driving my research, I hope to understand how student responses to discussions in class can help me chart an instructional path that improves classroom discussions among peers without a noticeable teacher-authority or teacher-facilitator. My ultimate goal is to make peer discussions enterprises that build a democratic classroom, a citizenship laboratory in which students of different race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and ability groups learn how to engage in discussions with one another on matters of common concern (Larson, 1997, p. 116). I approach this goal by beginning a conversation of another sort, listening and responding to what students have to say about the discussions they are having in class. I ask students to help supply direction, if not answers, about how to improve discussion by revealing what they experience in discussion with their peers. In their language, How can my teacher use my reflections to ensure that a discussion does not hurt?


Classroom discussions sit at the crux of contentious political and pedagogical debates: For what does discussion prepare students? Is such discussion democratic or an authoritarian activity at its roots? Is what students should know or how they come to know more important? Most often, teachers feel the most pressing tension rising from the pragmatic question facing them in a discussion-based activity: What is going to happen? Classroom discussions do not have a prescribed path or outcome. By choosing to implement discussion, teachers can feel that they cede control of both the classroom and of the content they need to convey. Both the macro-level view of discussions and the micro-level practice in classrooms are essential for a panoramic perspective of what classroom discussions mean and how they work. The questions posed and the answers revealed by educational philosophy and research can help teachers understand the potential for classroom discussion, the realities of discussion, and how to guide practice as they embark on an activity with an unknown outcome.

Architects of educational thought define discussion as a foundation for democratic living and situate schooling, particularly in the social studies, as a conveyer of the content and processes of democratic citizenship. Dewey (1926) cited communication, along with community and experience, as a definitional entity of democracy. Likewise, Habermas (1989) contends that communicative action, or people attempting to understand one another, can reform a broken democratic society. Whether as building blocks or rebuilding tools, discussion and democracy are inextricably intertwined, yet this connection between discussion and democracy has engendered two primary divides in contemporary educational discourse.

First, how should democratic citizenship education in the social studies be fostered? This debate is often characterized as a war, pitting the teaching of civics content against the process, or civic habits of mind. Traditionalists may decry students lack of content knowledge about our nations past while constructivists diagnose students lack of investment in content material as the reason for waning civic engagement (see discussion in Parker, 2006). This debate may itself destroy democratic discussion, because it appears to have come to a viciously pitched battle; as Whelan (2001) suggested, discourse about civic education has become so adversarial as to threaten the field with factionalism, thereby undermining the pluralism from which social studies has frequently benefited (in Ross, 2004, p. 249). Teachers quite often feel the tension between instruction for acquisition and understanding of content, and teaching for skills. We understand the importance of comprehending a print text that has framed a democratic tradition; without an understanding of a common source to which they refer, how do students begin to communicate effectively? Yet we also understand the need for skill development to allow for further acquisition of knowledge; for diverse interpretations to result in individual meaning-making; and for reflection to turn into action. Whether used by conservatives or progressives, Deweys understanding of the relation between content and process bridges the gap that classrooms find themselves in as they embark on classroom discussion. Never is method something outside of the material. . . . Method is not antithetical to subject matter; it is the effective direction of subject matter to desired results (Dewey, 1926, p. 194).

Second, is what happens in classroom discussion even truly democratic? Particularly in a diverse and multicultural society, discussions potential to equalize access is paramount. Yet many challenges to this ideal have been mounted in the postmodern world. As delineated by Brookfield and Preskill (2005), in particular, the role of the teacher as a monitor of norms and as an authority figure lead theorists to wonder if society is replicated rather than transformed by discussion. In addition, others note that discussion has the ability to marginalize a minority view simply by allowing it to be uttered; when the unpopular opinion is revealed, it can be exoticized rather than seriously considered as a challenge (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005). Whom is offered discussion opportunities or when discussion is used in class also illustrates the activitys potentially exclusive nature. When Wilen (2004) endorses the principle that all students, regardless of academic ability, gender or ethnicity should have an equal opportunity to participate in classroom discussions (p. 37), it is clear that the use of discussion may not be democratic at all. In sum, even though discussions are generally acknowledged as instructional activities . . . they are equally important as tools of social control that empower teachers to orchestrate what content will be covered, the pace at which it will be covered, and who will contribute to the discussion (Alvermann et al., 1990, p. 320).

Teachers must examine the purpose and practices of using discussion in classrooms because the links between discussion and democracy are continually challenged. Navigating a multicultural society means that classroom discussion must balance a need for unity and a need for recognizing and resolving societal inequalities that block unification (Banks, 1997). Or perhaps the idea of unity may be misguided; striving for civic oneness might be replaced with a quest for civic wholeness, with its emphasis on talking, listening, and political trust among strangers (Allen, in Parker, 2006, p. 10). To approach the potential for discussion to become a tool for democracy, classroom teachers must be aware of what can underlie discussion, including hierarchies of power and means of exclusion. Awareness that discussion involves risk, challenge, and trust in a project of continual community-building is an essential aspect of practice for democratic discussion.

Classrooms are caught in the middle of the debate surrounding the role of the social studies, the nature of citizenship education, and the use of discussion as a teaching tool. Inquiry into the practical workings of a classroom discussion reveals trends that can inform the practice of teachers as they navigate class discussion.

Understanding what genuine classroom discussion entails is a first step toward a teacher reflecting on her own practice. Discussion is group address to a question in common (Dillon, 1994, p. 8). Discussion desires competing perspectives because only with all sides of the question revealed can an adequate answer be sought (Dillon, 1994). Teachers definitions of a good discussion almost always involve ideas of open exchanges, questions [that] stimulate thought, and questions [that] come from students as well as teachers (Alvermann et al., 1990, p. 319). However, a planned classroom discussion in a K12 setting is an extraordinary event. Recitation is the norm; discussion is the exception (Parker, 2006, p. 17). The instructional strategy of discussion may seem to have a straightforward definition and be well within our reach (Dillon, 1994, p. 4), yet the meaning of discussion is ambiguous when put into practice in a classroom. Larson (1997) identified six distinct ways that teachers conceive of discussion, including recitation. Because content forms the basis of discussion, teachers can coach students through a thorough understanding of content knowledge by raising questions and eliciting answers. Rather than using the knowledge foundation that students share toward consideration of, and deliberation on, subtleties of meaning, competing historical interpretations, or alternative outcomes, teachers may curtail the opportunity for further conversation among students. Why might teachers miss fulfilling the greater intention of discussion?

Various factors have been revealed to influence why and when teachers utilize or abandon discussion. A lessons objectives might make discussion an improper or less expedient strategy toward those goals (Larson, 1997). In addition, teachers look to their students when determining whether to utilize discussion; student diversity, the age and maturity level of students, the climate of community in the classroom, and student interest level all help influence a teachers use of discussion (Larson, 1997). Facing students who are reluctant to discuss or who seem unprepared to support their ideas with required reading can make for intensely frustrating experiences for teachers. The task of preparing students for deliberation beyond recitation requires long-term effort in teaching discussion skills as well as content. The simplest reason that genuine discussions dont often appear in classrooms is clear: Discussion is difficult. Far from coming naturally, it has to be learned (Dillon, 1994, p. 105). So how does one teach to achieve genuine discussion?

Discussion is not only an instructional strategy but also an outcome of instruction (Larson, 1997), and thus it is essential to understand how discussion is both taught and learned. Because leading discussions is difficult for any of us, we are only barely in a position to teach it to others. Attempting to do so is an exemplar of what Floden calls, teaching more than you understand (Parker & Hess, 2001, p. 274). Dillon (1994) detailed teacher and student behavior throughout five phases of discussion that help ensure that engaged and productive discourse prevails. Most important to my own focus on student discussions with peers, he related strategies that allow students to perform the roles of facilitator and moderator that the teacher models. The potential for students to become the generators, facilitators, and authorities of discussion is present in his work, particularly in his recommendation that teachers practice nonquestioning strategies that enhance student discussion with peers. In this practice, teachers are present in discussion, yet train their oral and body language to support student ventures into using their own voices in discussion. Training students to reenvision traditional aspects of discussion also is a key part of producing genuine discussion. While teachers assume that questions are a natural part of the process of coming to understand new material, rather than an indication of failure to learn, and that questions provide productive starting points for discussion (Applebee & Langer, 2003, p. 691), students need to understand questioning as a positive behavior that they can exhibit in discussion. Student questions both build the questioners own thinking, relating, and expressing processes, and inspire further questioning and expression from other students (Dillon, 1994). Research has revealed the intricacies of the relationship between teacher and student in classroom discourses and the practices that both parties must be taught in order to move toward productive discussion beyond recitation.

Classroom discussions can be viewed from political, pedagogical, and practical perspectives. Educational philosophy and research outline both the potential and the realities of classroom discussion. The following inquiry adds a teachers practical perspective and attempts to reveal student views as well on this framework of the politics and pedagogy surrounding classroom discussions.


Whereas others have questioned the use of discussion in social studies classrooms in a variety of contexts, my questions were researched in their own distinct environment: my world studies classes at a selective-enrollment public high school in Chicago. My practices and inquiry into these questions arise from this particular setting, yet many of the scaffolding strategies for discussion that I employ here may be (and have been) applied to other classrooms. Discussion skills are not mandated or tested against national norms, but provide a valuable skill set for any student.

The schools foci are technology, math and science, and world languages; students have access to laptop computers throughout their classrooms, often use a distance learning lab, and can choose among five languages for study. Opportunities for international exchanges were being built as the school refined its focus and graduated its first senior class in 2004. In many ways, this environment is not a typical Chicago public school; it has enviable facilities and opportunities available for its selected student population.

Students standardized test scores are a primary criterion for admission, and the approximately 800 students enrolled were aware that their high school is one of the most competitive in the state for admission. Students arrive at this centrally located Chicago school from the farthest corners of the city. They come from public, private, and parochial elementary schools. The schools student body is racially and ethnically diverse, with African Americans, Hispanics, and Whites all hovering just above and below 30% of the school population in 2004. Asian students composed the remaining 10% or so of the student body in the same year. When talking with students, one realizes that they are indeed a gifted group with a diversity of experiences and a variety of backgrounds. Entering their freshman year, they arrive with a wide range of high school readiness skills, but what unites these students is their eagerness to learn.

Credit for world studies is a graduation requirement; therefore, in addition to my ninth-grade students, two 11th graders and two 12th graders were enrolled in these classes. The course is an introduction to world history and culture and moves in an area studies format, treating each region as a distinct entity in an increasingly global environment.2 The three teachers of world studies follow a general scope and sequence but develop their own objectives and assessments throughout their course. In my own course syllabus, the following broad objectives are defined:

Students of history must be able to understand how cultural, political, and economic forces of the past have shaped and continue to influence our contemporary world. To meet this general objective, you will be able to identify, describe, and contextualize key events in world history; to employ effectively various methods of historical analysis; to evaluate critically differing interpretations of historical events.

Along with the expectation that students be punctual and prepared for class, the other two expectations of students in world studies are to actively participate in class discussion and activities, and respectfully consider interpretations and opinions different from their own. Constructive and critical thinking, as well as expression of ideas, is emphasized in the initial outline of this course. In addition, according to my syllabus, students can expect thorough explanation and analysis of content covered in the course; an interactive learning environment where thoughtful questions are welcomed; and a respectful and considerate treatment of differing interpretations.

The content covered in my course is linked to the methods invoked. Without a coherent knowledge base, the processes of social science are rudderless. However, exposing students to a variety of tools to tackle history is a propelling component of my practice in this introductory  honors-level course.


Over the course of 1 year, I tracked the implementation of six discussion-based activities in three ninth-grade world studies courses. These discussions were selected from a variety of discussion-based activities that I typically use throughout the course of a school year. Some of the activities, such as the salon or the simulation, are stalwarts of any social studies department, and early in my career, I constructed the role-play (and have refined it every year since its inception) that lays the foundations of discussion for the year. The activities were scaffolded to teach discrete skills of discussion, including playing various roles in discussion, referring to sources, responding to others, and offering novel ideas. Because world studies is a content-area course, each activity linked to different content, from the Renaissance to the Cold War. A table of the activities, their content, and the discussion skills targeted follows (Table 1).

Table 1. One School Year of Scaffolded Discussion-Based Activities

Discussion Activity


(Date of Coverage in Class)


Target Discussion Skill


Middle Ages


Students practice playing various roles in discussion, using target vocabulary

Identifying value of, and practice, various roles in discussion




Students assume the character of a historical figure and follow a particular agenda within their conversation with other historical figures

Engaging another in respectful discourse; listening and response


Global empire-building and colonization


Students use primary sources to prepare for a discussion; particular students join an inner circle of discussion while the other students monitor the content and the form of the conversation, with an opportunity to join the inner circle as well

Referring to a source in discussion; listening and response; evaluating peer discussion


World Wars


Students role-play particular leaders and their topics of discussion at a historic conference without knowing the true outcome of the conference

Setting guidelines for peer discussion; listening and response

Online Forum

PostCold War


Students use online resources to discuss in threaded discussions within an Internet classroom

Referring to sources for support; utilizing new medium for discussion; participating in various roles


Current Events


Students choose and construct a current events crisis facing the United Nations and then attempt to solve the crisis via negotiation

Playing various roles in discussion; setting guidelines for peer discussion; listening, response, and resolution

During each activity, I tracked discussion using sociograms, participation charts, or narrative notes. After each activity, student reflections were collected, teacher reflections were recorded, and student interviews were often conducted. In their reflections, students assessed discussion content, format, and their role in discussion. In my reflections, I assessed whether the goals of understanding content and acquiring the target skill for the discussion were met during the activity. During student interviews, students described the activity from their individual perspectives and analyzed the effectiveness of class discussion for meeting the goals of the particular class.

The data presented next will address a baseline activity in which students participated, and three discussion activities in detail: the salon, the online forum, and the simulation. Findings from the other activities will be summarized as they appeared in the chronology of scaffolding. The salon and the online forum in particular were most informative for me in providing data and directing my unfolding inquiry, whereas the simulation helped me understand how students had grown and changed in their understanding of the dual goals of discussion in a content-area course: acquiring and analyzing content knowledge, and practicing an important skill. The honesty in student responses and the findings in comparing teacher and student reflections during these three highlighted activities are striking as they pertain to answering the question, What do students experience in discussions with peers? The data I gathered from this primary question allowed me to use student experiences to inform my instruction and chart a course toward better peer discussions.


Before embarking on content-related student discussion activities, I explained an overview of my action research project to the students, explaining my own successes and failures as a student in discussions and my desire to understand how students can be best prepared for a class discussion in terms of the dual goals of understanding and skill building. Because my inquirys goal was to help improve our classroom communitys discourse, honest answers would be the only helpful data for this study, I explained, and I noted that anonymous answers would prevent me from fully understanding a students perspective because it would not allow for comparison of observations and reflections. I asked students to tackle the first guiding question of my research, What do you experience in discussion? by requesting responses to two more specific questions: What roles do you often play in discussion? and Why do you often play these roles? The purpose of the reflection was to help students analyze their own habits in discussion and allow me, the teacher and researcher, to better understand students various perspectives on discussion.

Students listed the following roles that they observed in discussions:


dominating the discussion, loudmouth




listeners with some input


playing the gamenot actively engaged, but looking as if you are


not paying attention at all


smart person (direct quotes from students are signified by italics)




There is always that student who everyone is surprised to hear a powerful statement from.

When students were asked about their motivation for participating in a particular way in class discussion, trends in their responses were revealed. It was not surprising that interest level in the content, topic, or discussion was the predominant reason students gave for participation in discussion. Many of the students who did not cite interest as their primary motivator seemed to appreciate the process of discussion exercises. As one student explained, [I participate because] I like to get people to understand where everyone is coming from. As in any classroom of adolescents, peer relations or others perceptions influence motivation for student actions. In their reflections, students who cited the influence of their peers as a motivation for the roles they played in discussion all showed that factor to be a limitation on their participation; each of the following explanations from students have negative words or phrases to illustrate why the students didnt play a particular role:


I would never be the one to control or have a negative comment about someone elses opinion/statement, because I wouldnt want anyone to do that to me so I wont do it to them. I dont like controlling people because somehow I think youre taking some of their freedom away.


I tend to only say things when I have a good point to put in or a good argument to start amongst others. Im never the person who always has something to say. I dont want to look [like] an idiot if I havent thought about the subject before I go into it.


[I never play] the big point maker because I could never take all the pressure of having people ask me a lot of questions.


I dont like playing people that have done a major thing cause if I mess up the info or something then Ill be all stupid and stuff.


I sometimes play the one who knows but dont say because others say before I can put it in words.

Interest in content and interest in the process of discussion push students to take on particular roles in formal classroom discussion, whereas interest in what their classmates think pulls students from fuller participation. The five preceding comments illustrate five clear ways that students feel limited: They dont want to make a negative comment about anothers idea, lest the same happen to their idea; they dont want to say too much lest they find themselves without time to consider; they stay silent to avoid the scrutiny of others questions; they dont participate so that their lack of understanding about the information presented will be masked; and they dont speak because someone else utters their idea first. These insights are not earth-shattering for any teacher of adolescents, but their honesty and clarity unearth the current of feelings that motivate students roles in class discussion. The reflections revealed for me an important facet of discussion in the secondary classroom: Discussions dont really unfold gently and organically but are formed through a process of tugging and tearing and forming as students grapple with whats being discussed, how to discuss it, and how to ensure that they can come out of discussion relatively unscathed.

The importance of maintaining their face in discussion makes it interesting that no students responded that their participation in discussion was motivated by grades. Students in my world studies classes certainly care about grades and occasionally ask if discussions are graded or if points will be given for participation. Yet, when reflecting on their motivations for playing particular roles in discussion, they do not address the issue of formal assessment. Students focused solely on themselves and their peers rather than the teacher or grades as an impetus to participate in a particular way.


Student responses to the first guiding question, What do you experience in discussion? helped me plan an instructional response (How can I best prepare students for student-led discussion?). In past years, students had participated in creating rules for discussion that they felt would enhance discussion quality. Along with establishing guidelines, or rules for discussion with students, I refined an activity I created that involves role-playing for a good discussion. The role-play can fit any content but was related to our study of the Middle Ages. This activity forced students to experience different ways to participate in discussion and to understand the roles that others often play in discussion. In each of four rounds of discussion initiated by a guiding question, students were assigned one particular discussion role to practice. Whether the one who ventures an initial response to a guiding question (the risk taker), or the discussant who offers support (the beam), or the one who questions assumptions, definitions, and ideas and provides alternatives (the needler), or the student who cleans up the discussion by summarizing and synthesizing ideas in a new way (the sweeper), students utilized suggested key phrases for approaching discussion in their prescribed role. This activity acknowledged that discussants often play particular, narrow roles in discussion; made clear the value of multiple roles, including listening, in a discussion; and gave students a vocabulary to initiate various roles in a discussion.

Some students were frustrated by the activity. Students to whom leadership in discussion seemed to come easily were uncomfortable being forced to take a supporting role in discussion, whereas those to whom discussion seemed generally daunting were not at ease in being forced to lead off with an original idea. Throughout the activity, some students used the suggested vocabulary for the roles in mocking tones, yet followed with clear content in their assigned role. Although the prescriptive nature of this activity can inspire resistance in adolescent discussants, students adopted the roles used in this activity as a common language to which the class referred throughout the course of discussion-based activities. Over time, many students initiated efforts to challenge themselves to play roles that did not come naturally to them. For example, an innate risk taker who worked on synthesis throughout a later class discussion might be sincerely praised by peers for good sweeping.

Overall, as the first installation of activities for scaffolding discussion, the Role-Play required students to practice foundational skills: All students fully participated as listeners, supporters, and advancers of ideas even when these skills were not yet habits. This activity used student reflections on roles that they had played in past discussions by propelling them toward at least a vocabulary, and perhaps the practice, of productive roles that illustrated the value of various aspects integral to a discussionfrom support to synthesis. Because students shared the frustrations of playing every role and created a common vocabulary for understanding discussion, the Role-Play was likely the first step toward understanding that communication is a process of sharing experience till it becomes a common possession (Dewey, 1926, p. 11).


In the next discussion-based activity, students were assigned figures of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution in order to research and prepare for a salon, a common social studies activity for covering this era. Each student received a card that reported his or her figures name, the page number in the secondary text where the student could find preliminary information, and a prompt that directed the students attention to another figure who would engage in his or her discussion. Thus, though the teacher plays no active role within the discussion itself, this activity is clearly teacher-directed (Larson & Parker, 1996, p. 125). A student assigned to play Henry Fielding would receive a card such as this:

Henry Fielding

(pp. 595596)

As a novelist, you are intrigued by the philosophers, essayists, and musicians in the room. How are these forms of art and communication as effective as a novel?

Watch out for Bach; he seems to have religion on the mind, whereas you depict

everyday affairs with ease.

Although all the students knew how to use an index to find their historical figure, providing the page number for their character allowed for an initial degree of comfort as they confronted the more difficult task: how to understand the figures relationship to another historical personage in the impending discussion and how to engage that other figure in discussion. Students had to perform additional research and then convene in groups of eight for their salon experience. Using graphic organizers to note other figures positions and penchants helped students stay grounded in content while becoming immersed in the process of discussion. One student in each group was assigned the historical role of Marie Therese-Geoffrin, a host of salons. This students job entailed researching each figure, guiding discussion so that it was lively and engaging to all, and maintaining the dignity of discussion among heated parties.

After the salon, students addressed the question, What did you experience in this peer discussion? by answering reflection questions about their particular role as a historical figure. Most striking were the responses of the students hosting the salon as Marie Therese-Geoffrin:

The hardest part was starting and keeping the conversation going.

Unfortunately, because Ms. Flynn didnt control the small salons, our group often got out of control.

I wasnt able to participate in the Salon because I was the host.

In their first experience as moderators of discussion, these students felt the pressure of engaging everyone and keeping order. Some even felt that they were not true participants in discussion because they merely directed its flow. The student-led discussion allowed the various and often competing ideas of the Enlightenment to be enlivened in student discourse for those playing historical figures; however, the leaders of student discussion most keenly reacted to the process, rather than the content, of salon conversation.

This finding afforded me insight into the notion of leadership of peer discussions. I had initially conceived of my research question as What happens when students lead their own discussions? rather than What do students experience in peer discussions? and so had built in a role for a discussion moderator as leader. I also had intended the role of Marie-Therese Geoffrin to allow students to be the skillful questioner in the conversation . . . [who] raises issues that prevent suppression of minority views and provide support for venturing risky or unpopular opinions (Preskill, 1997, p. 320, quoting Gadamer). What I forgot was that this skillful questioner is presumably a role each participant consciously practices (Preskill, p. 320, quoting Gadamer). Part of the purpose of scaffolding discussion-based activities was to allow for all students to be potential leaders of discussion by providing a common set of vocabulary, skills, and understandings of the discussion process. Student leaders emerge at different times, with different content addressed and in various capacities, but this exercise forced some students into a role of authority that upset a conversation of equals and that made many of these leaders of discussion feel constrained. What students were telling me was that Because no one person controls its direction, a genuine conversation . . . is never the one that we wanted to conduct (Preskill, p. 320)

In response to the data from the salon, future activities allowed for more equitable participation rather than a discussion led by a student moderator of presumed equals. In addition to removing the role of a formal moderator of discussion, I ensured that other roles that shifted students from active participation in discussion were never assigned. Timekeepers, note-takers, and reporters are useful devices for moderating the flow of small-group peer discussions, but these roles allow or force students to abdicate active participation. More students speak, support, question, and synthesize when all students bear the responsibility of facilitating the flow of discussion. Without student-leader or student-facilitators of discussions, subsequent discussions among peers made many students who had led this salon feel more involved in discussion. However, without a moderator to ensure that all participants contributions were equally valued in discussion, students had to revisit the foundational roles of the Role-Play to practice skills to find a voice in discussion and encourage their peers to become involved as well.


In the next two activities, a fishbowl based on primary source analysis and a conference of historic leaders, one key idea emerged from student reflections about what they were experiencing in discussion. Students who felt more prepared by source materials reported greater comfort in the discussion activities. Although less than 10% of students in the three classes reported low comfort in discussion, these students did not enter the discussion at all and described problems such as feeling the conversation straying from their understanding of the sources, or always try[ing] to find a meaning in the documents and failing. Sources are the fundamental building block of history discussions, and without an understanding of content, comfort and participation in discussion clearly will not follow. These activities revealed the need to readdress comprehension and analysis for all my students throughout our studies, for some students in an intense way. In response to these data, as a class we developed a procedure for analyzing sourcesprimary and secondary of various mediaand devised acronyms to guide students through this process. After revisiting comprehension practices methodically and through student-direction, discussion participation improved drastically, as seen in the following discussion-based activity, the online forum. The online forum built on using sources as a basis for discussion but used a different medium for conversing: online messaging.

Using tools like http://www.nicenet.org, teachers can create secure classrooms in which students can post responses to questions and virtually speak to each other. Although almost all my students regularly used e-mail and cell phone text messaging, none had participated in this kind of academic forum. Because students, even those who sit right next to each other, are able to post original messages or respond to others ideas without oral discussion, this is the quietest form of discussion, andperhaps because of its noveltyone of the most engaging. In addition, the threaded discussion gives a visual structure to how questions are posed, responses are made, and new questions asked, so that one can envision the skeleton of a discussion as well as its flesh.

Students employed the online forum to tackle their studies of the postCold War world. Before embarking on discussion, they were given time to read and analyze several articles on CubaU.S. relations from http://www.pbs.org/newshour. They then logged on to their discussion accounts and found three topics they could tackle, or they could add a topic of their own.3 At the conclusion of class, every student had participated in discussion at least twice, responding to a guiding question or to a peer.

Although the fishbowl and the online forum both used the same keystone of a good discussionusing a common sourcethe Internet-based classroom yielded improved results in student engagement, participation, and reference to sources. Students crafted arguments with clear support from their sources, seemingly because of their access to their text and think time for their responses. In this exchange, a student ventures an idea with his own support and is applauded for his research with adolescent humor by a peer, who continues to prod the question:

SUBJECT: The Block A.K.A. The Blockade
Havannas top pediactric hospital has a waiting list of operations because they are only able to operate on at the most 500 patients per year. Before the trade embargo, they used to do 500 or more operations per year. They decreased the number of operations to 50 or 60 percent. Even students from Lenin High School want the embargo to be lifted. They blame the trade embargo that has been placed on Cuba for the reason why Cuba hasnt become a richer country. I believe the trade embargo should be lifted for these reasons; when children in a pediatric hospital die from not being able to be operated on, I believe it should be lifted, soon. Another reason to lift it would be the students at Lenin High; when they can see that the embargo is hurting their society, then I believe theyre seeing something were not, evidently. 4 REPLIES

SUBJECT: Rebuttal to the Block
You did your hmwk, little CAB, but if the embargo was hurting Cuba wouldnt they have done something, oh lets say a few years after it. Why wouldnt they have already lifted it???   

Another student illustrates a different role in discussion; he summarizes his point but encourages more dialogue with a slightly different approach that still attacks the overarching question:

i mean yeah the embargo is having a bad effect on Latin America but when you think about it, it has to have a purpose, BUT my opinion is that the united states should also lift this embargo because it would be helping Cuba. but we also have to think about what all of the negative effects are that can come from that&

The latter two postings illustrate ways-of-being in discussion not previously seen from this class: These students show that they have listened by referencing a previous comment, reiterating the overarching question, and redirecting the question to further discussion. The online forum expanded both the roles that students play in discussion and the number of students participating in discussion.

When students reflected on their experience in this kind of discussion, several themes reoccurred throughout the data:


Many students noted that the ability to reference their online articles in multiple windows on their computer screen during the conversation enabled them to feel prepared for discussion.


Many students reflected that the time to think about an answer before responding in writing helped them participate.


Students found that they heard the opinions of many students who do not usually participate orally in class.


Some students found the threaded conversation difficult to follow and felt that they were confused catching up to the conversation as they responded, or that their responses were too late in the conversation flow.

The preceding feedback from students propelled me to consider the use of technology for discussions. Writing, rather than speaking, in discussion slows the process of communication, allowing for time to think and refine. However, the flow of conversation still challenges some students who contend with reading postings from other students while composing their own responses. The Web-based discussion site allows students access to multiple sources for support of their opinions, and student references to sources for support of an opinion multiplied. However, employing multiple sources may have provided too much information for students; text-based support typically did not include a citation for other discussants reference. Limiting the common text to which students refer in discussion seemed to be prudent. Students echoed Larsons (2003) finding that rather than reinforcing perceptions of power and privilege held by particular students, discussion boards could allow typically unheard students to have a voice (p. 350). Yet the online forum also silenced aspects of students voices, including tone and accompanying gesture. Because vital contextual factors that would be present in authentic face-to-face communication are missing in this setting (Larson, 2003, p. 350, quoting Merryfield), I debriefed this activity with a discussion of meaning in print rather than in speech, particularly the ever-present use of sarcasm in adolescent talk. The online forum experience and student reflections forced me to consider the effective use of technology in classroom discussion and challenged me to integrate an online forum with spoken discussion in the final peer discussion.


A current events simulation became the final scaffolded discussion activity in which students participated. In groups of three, students represented different countries negotiating a crisis situation, which was selected by the class from a list of real-world issues. Students participated on a number of levels simultaneously: through an online forum, through written communication, and via an oral group discussion. Participants served as ambassadors and ran their own small-group discussions at intervals throughout the 96-minute block period.

This activity became the culmination of a years worth of discussion-based activities. In my notes, students are independent, rarely seeking assistance from me; they are invested in discussion, trying to resolve their issues; and they are respectful of others, abiding by the guidelines of discussion as determined by the class. Frustrations with discussion remained as well. Tensions between small groups in which one country remained obstinate about its own agenda led students to debate, How much should we compromise? and How can we change their minds? as they tried to reach reasonable consensus. These questions seemed healthy and appropriate for any deliberative discussion to the teacher-observer but also could have been alleviated by teacher guidance before the activity, if not intervention during the simulation.

Relations within the small groups themselves appeared harmonious. Many individuals assumed roles that played to the self-identified strengths from their very first reflection on discussion: Students who valued think time more often handled PR through online messaging, whereas students who found talents in multiple discussion skills became adept negotiators with other ambassadors. In several groups, individuals broke with the roles they had played in prior discussion activities. Students who had earlier reflected that moderating the salon as Marie-Therese Geoffrin was too difficult served their group as ambassadors running small-group discourse and representing their group in a conference. Online press releases were filed by two students who admittedly didnt appreciate the online forum because they felt their ideas got lost, and one particular student whose contributions as a questioner developed soundly over the year shone in oral negotiation as she clarified her position and others so that paths to compromise could be found.

Although the majority of students may not have altered the role with which they most closely identified from the initial role-play activity, more students seemed to be practicing multiple discussion skills simultaneously. Clarifying questions, sweeping multiple ideas in review, and providing additional evidence for anothers statement were skills used by students within their small groups. It seemed that skills that were stiltingly practiced at the beginning of the year had become habits of students engaged in both the content and process of an effective discussion among peers.

Debriefing. Following this activity, a group of 4 students gathered for interviews about the discussion but ended up leading their own discussion guided by my one question: What happened today at the U.N. crisis simulation?

Alison tried to figure out why there was nothing more exciting and posited that people acted like it was real and maybe felt competitive about the process. Briana called it a partial reality and thought it was fun to see how people come together and form a plan. When Jamie started talking, discussion, rather than merely responding, commenced. She loved how in 5 minutes, the countries hated each other, and 5 minutes later, they were allies again. She thought it was not so realistic but, she said, putting in our own ideas makes it more fun. Ali added, its creating our own history, and Briana joined in, Were using our imagination. As James described how information moves fast in the simulation, the students took off again, making eye contact with each other and giving nonverbal cues of assent in nods and smiles. They moved on to how to improve the discussion, naming other reference tools like world maps and noting that online forums are effective for having a record of the proceedings handy. The students unanimously declared the simulation a good activity and the ambassador proceedings a good discussion, while having a good discussion themselves and exploring how they could best prepare for this kind of activity in the future.

The purpose of culminating interviews, like written reflections used after other activities, was to collect information regarding students perceptions of a discussion. Unlike the written reflection, this data tool put students ability to lead their own discussion to the test, adding to the data by the very form of their response. These 4 students, entering high school with an array of academic experiences and skills, built a fine discussion on their own. In addition, without prompting, they sought to explain how they could improve discussion through background content preparation on their particular crisis situation. They intuitively addressed the many facets of the questions that guided my research and the planning of my discussion-based activities.

After reflecting on the data that the simulation and the student reflections that followed provided, I returned to reflecting on my own practice. The most direct criticism from students focused on having more or better resources to guide their discussion. The simulation required significant teacher preparation to ensure a smooth process of discussion, from detailing a time frame for discussion to keep students on task to outlining particular procedures for forms of communication, like press releases or closed-door negotiations. Grounding students in the content that formed the basis of their deliberations was sacrificed for preparing a structure for a sound discussion process. This was not my intention, and students were adept at identifying the need for more content preparation in order to have a more successful discussion.

Another related insight that students offered during reflection guided my future planning. Throughout the simulation, students performed discussion roles and skills comfortably, but I was inexplicably dissatisfied with the discussion. Student reflection comments, particularly their use of the terms partial reality and imagination, enabled me to realize that the simulation, although an engaging activity that exposes student use of multiple discussion skills, sold students short in this instance. Why cannot students be entrusted with a full reality for debate and decision? Hess and Posselt (2002) examined how discussion of controversial public issues (CPI) in classrooms is shown to be linked to democratic action. My own activity started students along this path but did not follow through with an opportunity for real action on the part of students (discussed further in the next section); it merely allowed for a mock decision to be formed while missing the chance for students to take tangible action. In addition, I translated student use of the word fun to mean engaging, but I wondered how to help students view this kind of discussion activity as important as well. Students moved from seminars, discussions that reveal the world, to deliberations, discussions that change the world, throughout this course, but a true opportunity for students to effect change was not achieved (Parker, 2006, p. 12). I had not considered how this culminating discussion activity could create a more democratic classroom through discussion and then take students beyond the classroom into democratic action, employing the discussion skills they acquired and practiced throughout a year of study.


With 88 individuals of diverse backgrounds and academic preparation entering high school, a variety of experiences in and reactions to discussion in a social studies class is not surprising. One struggle in this research was simply framing the study itself; with discussion, there is no constant, no control group, so the research evolved as student reflections provided diverse assessments of discussions. A second issue was determining which would be most useful in terms of framing the summary discussion: emphasizing the distinct experiences of particular individuals in discussion, presenting a student as representative of others experiences, or presenting trends in student reflections on discussion. A combination of these approaches is presented in the preceding data. This choice in presenting data left holes in my study that I continue to address and attempt to fill in my classroom. For example, what happened to the student who initially wrote that she often was the one who everyone is surprised to hear a powerful statement from? How does one measure the degree to which students changed in their discussion skills over the course of the year? How is student comprehension of content affected by student-led discussions? Though my initial research has seemingly provoked more questions than initially posed, important data about student-led discussions has been revealed:

What do students experience in discussion with peers? Five key points emerged from student reflections on the various discussion-based activities in which they participated over the school year.

Awareness of dynamics. Students are keenly observant of the dynamics of class discussion. From productive roles to disruptive ones, student reflections in the role-play readily identify the different ways in which they and their peers typically participate in class discussion. How their peers perceive them most often influences participation in a class discussion, students reported, leading to feelings of constraint for many who are uncomfortable about peer perceptions. They are concerned with appearing critical of another or experiencing anothers criticism, and they worry that their participation will reveal that they do not fully understand the content being covered. Students also reported stress about the timing of discussion: How could they express their idea at the right time, and not after someone else has already uttered his or her own thoughts?

Leadership. Next, students experience leadership in a discussion in a very different way than a teacher might intend. As was strikingly apparent in the salon, students do not view facilitating a discussion as participating in it. Students do not appreciate being in positions of authority in which they must moderate their peers. In one case, a student facilitator did not like the management she felt she should impose to keep peers accountable to discussion and looked to the teacher to fill that role. Students also felt constrained by the role of facilitator because it seemed to silence their own contributions to the content of discussion. What may have appeared as a role of leadership to a teacher felt like a lesser role to students. Students desired a discussion among equal participants to one moderated by a peer.

The importance of content. Even when students seem to focus on the process of discussion in their reflections, they also understand that content provides a foundation for discussion to move forward. Student reflections readily conveyed an understanding of the relationship between awareness of sources and their comfort level in discussion, particularly in a fishbowl conversation and a three-person conference. Perhaps because these kinds of discussions dont allow any space for students to hide (they are closely watched by peers in a fishbowl, and three people a close conversation makes), students sought out assistance with content during and after these activities. Students grapple with sources throughout the discussion process and, within their reflections, highlight their problems with comprehension and analysis as an important factor in their discussion experience.

Being heard. The online forum exposed an important finding from student reflections: Students want to be heard. Students who experienced difficulties with oral participation in peer discussions found the online forum a more accessible resource. Students cited the time to think about what they said or wrote and the ability to refer to sources readily on a computer screen as encouragements to their participation. A corollary to the idea that students want to be heard is that students also hear each other. Peers noticed that discussants who were typically reserved in oral peer discussions offered insightful and important ideas during the online forum. Although students hear and want to be heard, for some, the online forum did not allow their ideas adequate space. Some students experienced frustration with this kind of discussion, noting that the process was too slow or unwieldy to follow. As in any discussion, participants experienced various degrees of satisfaction or frustration with the process and forum.

Student interest. Finally, the simulation revealed that student interest remains a great factor in stimulating a discussion. More particularly, though, students reported that they were interested in discussing what was real. Deliberating about and deciding on urgent issues sparked student interest and discussion. Based on my own observations of the simulation, one can conclude that having multiple platforms for student participation, spoken or posted, and multiple roles, from gathering support to communicating a position, can assist students in participating fully in many productive capacities within a peer discussion. However, as students noted, they need to be conversant about content for the discussion to be most fruitful.

How can student reflections on their experiences in these discussions help me better prepare students for more successful peer discussion? In response to data gathered from student reflections, I revised my instructional strategies to meet student needs as they worked toward better classroom discussions. An infinite number of possibilities exists for how a teacher could respond to the data gathered from these students. My choices for an instructional path were charted and then checked, often being changed again, throughout the course of implementing discussion-based activities over the year.

First, the role-play revealed that, in conjunction with the rules of discussion that teachers and students typically create to guide discussion, roles in discussion can be an effective strategy. The role-play was intended to introduce students to alternatives to the roles they typically play and provide a vocabulary to help prompt discussion in these roles, but it also created an experience that would open students to empathy, or understanding that many roles are essential to productive discussion. Every student experienced frustration in this activity, feeling uncomfortable with roles they were not familiar with practicing. Students felt confined in discussion, but not by peer perceptions this time; rather, they felt circumscribed by a narrow role, yet they played each role throughout several rounds of discussion to understand their affinities and their areas for expansion in their own traditional discussion roles. Students sarcastically co-opted the vocabulary prompts for each role, often in mocking tones, yet they also sincerely adopted the vocabulary of this activity to reference for a years worth of discussion activities.

Student reflections on the salon experience helped me eliminate roles in discussion that altered the dynamic of a conversation among equals. Roles that solely facilitate or moderate discussion were eliminated, and those responsibilities were shared by all participants. In addition, roles such as timekeepers, note takers, and reporters were never assigned for the same reason: They allowed or forced students out of active participation in discussion.

Every discussion or deliberation that we encountered was grounded in sources, yet student reflections forced me to evaluate how and when I taught these skills. The desire to actively participate in discussion motivated students to share their struggles with reading comprehension. In response to data from students, I taught and retaught these skills with particular focus before peer discussions. Using a variety of techniques, from jigsaws to small focus groups on using particular kinds of primary sources, allowed students to encounter content in various ways and make the meaning that founded and propelled their discussion. Teaching and reteaching comprehension and analysis of sources throughout discussion activities became a central focus of my practice.

If students want to be heard, then my fourth finding, derived from the online forum, was let them be heard. Using various modes of discussion allowed students to experience discussion in new ways. Some students who had previously felt silenced found a voice, whereas others who felt successful in traditional oral discussions met with frustration. Both experiences are helpful for students as they work to improve their discussion skills in a variety of forums. Dewey (1926) wrote that formulating an idea requires getting outside of it, seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another so that it may be got into such form that he can appreciate its meaning (p. 6). Exposing students to discussion devices that challenge them to improve allows them to get outside of discussion and have an experience of empathy for their peers as well, perhaps allowing discussion itself to become an opportunity to acquire the skills of humility, caution, and reciprocity (Parker, 2006, p. 16) that encourage genuine classroom discussion.

Finally, offering opportunities for actionbased on discussion and deliberationguided my future planning of peer discussions following the crisis simulation. If fostering skills in students to effectively participate in a democracy is an objective of using classroom discussion, students should have the opportunity to put their skills toward important and real practice.


Students at my selective enrollment high school have achieved academically in their past experiences but arrive in high school with various levels of skills preparation. They are all equally able to hide their confusion about content in a class discussion through eloquent articulation or aloof silence, both of which can fool a teacher because they are not particularly disruptive forms of behavior. However, talking and silence (Parker, 2006, p. 16) is not just poor classroom practice, it is a habit that has the potential to undermine the expression of and the listening to diverse opinionsconversation that fosters democratic living. Delving into student reflections about what they experience in discussion with peers enabled me to more effectively plan how best to scaffold activities to ensure that all students develop the ability to participate and to value the diverse contributions of their peers.

The particular selective enrollment setting of my school may make many of my findings about class discussion seem less generalizable to other settings, but the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity of this school, as well as the wide range of high school readiness skills, may mitigate this concern. For example, the year following this study, 4 students with autism were mainstreamed into my world studies classes. Discussion-based activities have been essential for incorporating these students into groups that value their particular means of expression. One student in particular is a natural sweeper of ideas in discussion. He takes the time to paraphrase or quote each discussants contributions and has often led his peers to understand the subtleties of seemingly competing arguments, resolving heated debates with a deeper appreciation for analysis because of this strategy he employs. Because they have experienced activities such as the role-play, all students in these world studies classes have the frame of reference to appreciate the contributions of a sweeper, autistic or not. What is remarkable about the democratic project in a diverse society is that struggles for and against access to participation, and therein to competence, are a constant fixture. For this reason, political education is always necessary and never complete (Parker, 2006, p. 10). Teaching for discussion can provide access that may have been traditionally unavailable.

For social studies classrooms in general, guidelines for discussion are not enough. Teaching discussion skills is essential in order to allow every student access to active participation. For teachers, there are several points to consider, based on data collected from students and my own instructional responses to student reflections vis-à-vis the activities listed after each recommendation:


Teachers must appreciate and show appreciation for the value of various forms of active participation, including questioning, clarifying, offering support for an interpretation, and summarizing discussion. (role-play)


Teaching roles for productive discussion, and not just setting rules, can empower students to assume new roles for discussion and use a common vocabulary related to the discussion skills they are acquiring and practicing. (role-play)


Activities for discussion can be scaffolded so that discrete skills are practiced and mastered, and students have the opportunity to assume new roles of discussion. (role-play)


Vocabulary used in good discussions should be introduced to students even if they are competent practitioners of discussion; it can only enhance their competence. (role-play)


Teachers must be prepared with content, using primary sources, materials that allow for interpretation, and ongoing debates. They must be prepared to use technology in gaining access to these sources, and they must be willing to find content that is real and pertinent to student interest in order to foster student curiosity and continued growth. (fishbowl, online forum, simulation)


Comprehension of sources used in discussion should be at the forefront of ones teaching, but not at the expense of curtailing student opportunities to make meaning of the content covered through their own analysis in discussion. (fishbowl)


Offering various forums for participation, from online classrooms to graffiti boards, or written discussions, can enhance student participation by allowing students who feel constrained by oral participation to find a voice. Relating the skills exhibited in an alternative forum to oral discussion itself is essential for improving a students skills in the most frequently used form of conversation in classrooms and in a democracy. (online forum)


Teachers should select content that is interesting, accessible, and important to students for their discussions with peers but should also incorporate an element of meaningful action for students. Problem-based learning exercises are an entry into this movement from ideas to action. Student choice of action projects is also essential for active engagement. (simulation)

Following this action research, I became cochair of my department and helped facilitate curricular reform. The content of Honors World Studies was assessed and restructured to span early and modern world history over 2 years. In addition, student habits of mind and skills essential to the social studies were identified and initially aligned to both content of courses and developmental level of students. Discussion-based activities became a central focus of our departments benchmark activities. To support classroom efforts at developing student-led discussions, social studies departments must:


Uncover how discussion is used as a strategy in class and taught to students as a curricular goal. (role-play)


Actively use an array of primary sources of various media with students and consistently teach how to interpret these sources. (fishbowl, online forum)


Promote the use of technology for activities as basic as discussion. (online forum)


Find real and important activities around which students can deliberate but also act in a meaningful way. (simulation)

If classroom discussions are an entry to wider democratic society, then schoolwide opportunities might be a further stepping stone for student practice of democratic principles. Schools can offer various forums for student deliberation, debate, and leadership beyond the walls of a classroom. Best practices recommend increasing student decision making and participation in wider social, political, and economic affairs, so that they share a sense of responsibility for the welfare of their school and community (Daniels, Zemelman, & Hyde, 1998, p. 155). My own school values student voice in various ways, honoring recent alumni as speakers at graduation, linking students to peers in videoconferences that lead to international exchanges, and placing great priority on student representation for the local school council. Just as teachers face the tension between conveying content and laboring over skill development, my school also can neglect productive discussion when pressed; town hall meetings are still being developed as forums for active student participation rather than a corral for disseminating information at students, which can be tempting for expediency. Overall, however, the culture at this school seeks to hear students. Notably, the school will use the role-play activity highlighted here for all ninth graders during an academic and social orientation prior to the start of the school year, with the goal that all students will obtain and practice skills useful to discussion in any content discipline and share a vocabulary across courses for discussion with their peers. Further inquiry into the effects of teaching discussion skills across disciplines, to all students, with one anchoring activity will be necessary to reveal further problems and potentials for student-led discussions.

Discussion in the social studies classroom has the ability to explore the content covered in class and reinforce the lessons of democratic life as the process of discussion itself unfolds. Even though discussion and debate are integral to our vision of democratic life, the art of discussion needs to be taught, practiced, and refined so that all students can engage each other as respectful equals along a collaborative and active path to understanding. When I entered a discussion of sorts with students, hearing their reflections on their own learning in discussions with their peers, I became better informed about planning instruction directed toward enhancing classroom discussions led by students. This kind of inquiry that values student voice as a productive partner in learning has the potential to create a microcosm of democratic living for young citizens as they embark on discussion with their peers.


1 This action research project was short in time frame, lasting the course of 1 school year, in part because its impact was great. Following this study, the course curriculum itself was changed, making it more difficult to continue the study because of the constraints of time and resources. The action research study also led to a systemwide study group, which built on the findings and found additional questions for inquiry.

2 After this action research project, the curriculum of Honors World Studies was revised to approach study of world history from a chronological yet global perspective rather than an area-studies format.

3 This activity was framed by several guidelines for the online medium. Postings could not be anonymous or sent to personal e-mail accounts, but had to use names by which students are called in class and be posted only to the public forum. An administrator with an interest in both the topic and medium was invited to join the discussion; students were aware of her interest and involvement. Proper spelling and punctuation, as seen in these examples, was not of paramount importance in this round of discussion, though the iconic abbreviations of text messaging were not allowed because they seem to require translation for understanding by all. I reflected on changing the guidelines concerning writing in the future.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 8, 2009, p. 2021-2054
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15510, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 8:14:29 AM

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About the Author
  • Nora Flynn
    Chicago Public Schools
    E-mail Author
    NORA K. FLYNN has taught history and English in China, Switzerland, and her hometown of Chicago. She completed this research as a Teachers Network Leadership Institute Fellow while teaching history in a Chicago public high school. Nora teaches a course on assessment at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Education and develops history curricula at the Academy for Urban School Leadership. She has researched the aims and implementation of civic education programs in the United States, Australia, and China throughout her academic studies, first as an undergraduate at Yale and later as a graduate student at the University of Chicago (the latter degree supported by a James Madison Memorial Fellowship).
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