Blessings can cause problems. When we started Omnibus at Veritas Academy, for many years I had 5 students in my discussions. Only 5! It was really easy to have superb discussions and it was impossible for students to hide from the discussion. Those were great days. Of course, very few schools can run with only five students per class. Thankfully, we have been blessed to see growth over the years. Now we often have 15 to 20 students per class. What a blessing! But with that blessing came a challenge: the discussions were larger and sometimes the quality suffered. Students who were shy participated less; others who were gregarious dominated to the detriment of the group. It was challenging. We have spent a lot of time thinking through how to improve the quality of discussions in larger group settings. I will not lie. It is still a challenge, but if you use these methods and techniques you can improve the quality of your discussions in larger group settings.
Here are four ways to foster great discussion in large classrooms:
1. Dividing the Class into Discussion and Scribal Groups
This is one of my favorite ways to improve the nature of the discussion. If the group is too large, often students do not participate in discussion, but if you take half the class and make them sit in a smaller circle you can usually require better, fuller participation by everyone in the discussion. When you take a class of 15, 20, or 25 and divide it in half you get a very manageable number of students. I hold these students accountable with a scoring sheet and give them credit when they participate positively, when they take the discussion question to the text to find the answer, when they ask a provocative question, and when they make a connection to the scriptures or some other reading that we have done. To earn full credit in my discussion you have to do all of those things. This pushes students, even quiet ones, to jump in and try. It also rewards preparation and careful reading, which is the very behavior that we as teachers desire.
But what do you do with the students who are not in the discussion? I have them take notes on the discussion. They have to listen and write down the content of what we talk about. I hold them accountable to produce copious, organized, and legible notes. I grade these notes for a low-level homework grade each time. Grading them does not take long but the accountability of the grade focuses the students’ attention.
I am indebted to Bryan Lynch from the Veritas School in Newberg, Oregon for parts of this method.
2. Use the Name Plate Trick
Often, one of the biggest reasons that a large discussion does not work is because people keep talking over each other and too often much of the value of the discussion is lost. Here is a little trick that might keep your discussion away from chaos if you choose to have a large group discussion (I will define large group as anything above 15). Pick one student who will help you manage the discussion (if you use this method often make sure that you are rotating the student helper). Everyone else creates a name plate and by taking some card stock paper and putting their name on it. Use sturdy paper that when you fold it into a triangle it can stand up on its end longways. As the discussion starts, when a student wants to make a comment, they simply stand their name plate on its end and the scribal student keeps a running order of the whose turn it is next. It is amazing how this little trick helps people stay quiet because they can be confident that they are going to get their chance to talk.
I first saw this method used in a church meeting run by a minister from Alaska named Jack Phelps. It is simply brilliant!
3. Interview Two “Expert” Students
This is a more extensive restriction than the simple division mentioned in the first method. This is sometimes good to use when you have a very challenging or a very sensitive topic, one which the entire class might struggle to handle well. When you do this, work with the two interviewees and have them work on having some real disagreements. This method has the downside of having few students involved but it has the upside of allowing you to pick the most mature students who can handle the topic well. They rest, of course, should listen and take notes.
You can even throw in a twist that will keep everyone on their toes by periodically switching the participants mid-discussion. This is especially interesting if you have a topic or question that leads to a discussion that is really more of a debate. Having a new set of students take over mid-discussion means that everyone has to stay engaged and has to be prepared.
4. Create Two Student-Led Discussions
One of the skills that we encourage you to work on during 10th through 12th grade is teaching students to be discussion leaders. One effective method to have a larger class discussion that encourages growth in this skill is dividing the class and having two students lead two separate discussions. If you do this, make sure that you have two groups as separate as you can in the room so that you can diminish the amount of noise distraction. Also, tell the student leaders that they need to manage the noise in a way that allows the other discussion to be effective. See students grow in their ability to lead discussion can be very encouraging. Make sure that you give them clear standards for what leadership looks like.
I judge leaders on five different skills. I want them to cover most of the questions, officiate the discussion helping all to participate and none to dominate, manage conflict by showing the class disagreements or contrasting statements that need to be worked out, bring In reticent students by finding ways for them to interact and gain confidence, and, finally, stay out of the discussion as much has possible. Make the others do the work. Their job is to guide and facilitate.
As I said at the outset, there are no silver bullets. You are going to have to continually work to assess the quality of your discussions no matter what the size of the class is. With larger classes this becomes even more challenging, but with these techniques you can increase the quality of your large group discussions.
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