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Facilitating Productive Discussions: Tools for the Classroom or Remote Learning

Posted by Nicole Lanoue on Jul 30, 2020

At home learningDr. William Glasser, a renowned 1960s American psychiatrist, said, “We learn 10 percent of what we read, 20 percent of what we hear, 30 percent of what we see, 50 percent of what we see and hear, 70 percent of what we discuss, 80 percent of what we experience, and 95 percent of what we teach others.”

Discourse is powerful. And in the science classroom, it’s essential.

This fall, many students will not only experience the usual “summer loss of learning” but also have to catch up on unfinished learning from disruptions due to COVID-19. Teachers must develop a strategy to facilitate the kind of productive discussion that promotes engaged learning—whether in a classroom or a remote or blended learning environment.

So how do you get there?

Fortunately, Judy Higgins, a veteran fifth-grade science teacher in Lawrence, Massachusetts, has shared some of her tools with you. Borrow some of her techniques to take your classroom discussions to the next level. The strategies she shares can easily be applied to help your students meet Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), as well as fill the gaps in unfinished learning.

Find out how she creates a culture of discourse for her science classroom using tools that are easily adaptable to any lesson plan. Click here to watch the 45-minute webinar.

Highlight #1: Deciding What to Teach

Every year science teachers face this challenge. But 2020 is not every year. In addition to determining what to teach, you must prioritize where to start, accounting for potential unfinished learning from the spring.

Instead of subjecting students to endless pre-assessments (that you then have to grade), consider discussion instead. “When we are listening, there are so many opportunities for formative assessments,” Judy says.

Before deciding which discussions to have, Judy spends time on her own and with the fourth-grade teachers to survey the curriculum her fifth-graders should have learned. Together, they identified critical concepts—not so she could reteach them, but so she could be prepared to bring those concepts into the learning sequence as the year progressed. “I found that science, in particular, is easy for this because we were teaching many of the same concepts, just at different levels,” Judy says.

Highlight #2: Tools for Using Discussion to Diagnose

When diagnosing unfinished learning, Judy learned this key principle: “Don’t assume they know concepts—or that they don’t know them.”

How can you find out? Talk provides an ideal window into student thinking. Don’t underestimate the value of asking questions in a NGSS curriculum, in which curiosity is a prerequisite for investigating and hypothesizing.

As students learn the valuable skill of supporting their reasoning with evidence, you’ll learn where they are in their learning progression. Here are a few tools that work best when diagnosing through discussion:

  • Draw Talk – The idea here is that students draw and label anything they know about a concept. “For example, I might ask them to write down everything they know about the water cycle,” Judy says. This provides a chance for kids to be creative, and for you to assess the depth of understanding, judging from their diagrams, explanations, and labels. As they present their drawings to one another, students can learn from each other, and teachers can sit in on these discussions to ask questions and dig deeper.
  • Concept Maps – This tool provides a graphic organizer for students to formulate their thoughts before, during, or after a unit. When you allow them to complete this in groups, students have meaningful discussions about their understanding of how different concepts are connected to prior learning.
  • I Used to Think/Now I Think – Using this inquiry activity at the end of an investigation before students began to write their conclusions allowed Judy to assess whether they “got the big idea.” It also revealed if her students’ thinking had changed, or if there were any misconceptions that should be discussed. This tool can also be used before and after a reading, or after a group/partner or whole class discussion.

Highlight #3: Tools for Using Discussion to Accelerate Learning

Judy studied what other school systems did to cope with unfinished learning, specifically systems affected by Hurricane Katrina. What she found was that though those teachers taught units that had been missed at the beginning of the year, the learning was not accelerated.

It’s more productive to address learning gaps all year long through discussions that promote critical thinking. But creating a culture of discourse takes practice.

Judy uses “Sentence Frames” to steer discussion. This KnowAtom discourse tool for grades 3 through 8 is helpful for them to lean on to start sentences. This activity provides students with incomplete sentences that focus on areas such as “supplying evidence to support their views” or “building on others' ideas,” for example.

One example frame is as follows: “Does this connect to __________ that we already learned?” This sparks the higher-level thinking that’s necessary for deeper learning. Judy shares that it’s also helpful to English learners, who often know what they want to say, but are just not sure how to say it.

Highlight #4: Tools to Support Academically Productive Talk

There’s talk and then there’s academic talk. With an intentional focus on scientific discourse, KnowAtom’s curriculum supports the kind of discussion that deepens concepts and builds critical thinkers.

Here are some “Talk Moves” that elevate the quality of discourse:

  • Time to Think – The idea behind this tool is to provide a low-risk entry into discussion and not rush it. As students have time to think, they can turn and talk with a partner or write to organize their thoughts. Make sure you give them enough wait time.
  • So are you saying? – Asking this question gives students the opportunity to clarify. “It's so respectful to show a student that you are listening carefully—it's also a great place to gently correct a misconception,” Judy says.
  • Asking for Evidence or Reasoning – This activity gives science students the kind of language to talk about data and form hypotheses. “It really helps them understand that science is looking at something, testing something, and drawing conclusions from data,” Judy says.

Get More Tools and Learn How to Implement Them

Check out this video for more Talk Moves and other discussion tools that you can easily apply to your own lessons to facilitate producing discussions. In the webinar, Judy delves deeper into her own experience using these tools and techniques with her students.

With KnowAtom’s resources, students take ownership of their own learning. Eventually, they can even begin to facilitate the discussion themselves. “It’s so much fun when I feel like my biggest job as a teacher is pointing out that you just taught someone something so important. That’s worth more than all the chatter coming from me at the front of the room,” Judy says.

Sign up to request full video access and start planning your discussion strategy today.

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