How to Foster Collaborative Discussion (and the tools to do it!)



(EAL Seventh Grade Collaborative Discussion-Video Courtesy of Danielle Richert)

The above video is a pedagogical model of how a number of teachers are using collaborative discussion in our school. This can be used many ways, such as:

  • Discussion of a section of a book or assignment
  • Sharing of ideas and debating about essential or guiding questions in a unit
  • To reinforce understanding of a homework assignment

What I love about the above video is that students are so engaged in discussing the assignment and although you don't see all students in the round-table discussion, there are other skills at play behind the discussions. The jobs are:

Discussors- (About 8-10 students)
Their job is to talk about the task and respond to other's ideas, which are the main talkers in the video.

Microbloggers- (8-9 students)
Their job is to respond to what other's say and communicate in writing. In the above video, you can see a "Today's Meet" in the background that serves as evidence of listening and communication skills. Padlet or Google Docs are also great ways to visualize thinking. Their job is to agree or disagree with what the "discussors" say.

Assessors- (2-3 students)
The job of the assessor is to document how the group is communicating. Using a Harkness Graph, (Feel free to make a copy!) they monitor who is responding to whom by using "arrows" to record how responses flow among the group. The "blue arrows" are when a question or statement is posed to the group as a whole. See example below:


The Flow of Communication Using a Harkness Graph (Image Courtesy of Andrea Coffee)

Pedagogical Implications

We often tell students to communicate on issues, and we tell ourselves that we want our students to be better communicators. We often tell them things like "mind your air time" or "speak up" but usually, we don't have a record over how much someone spoke up or didn't. From the example above, it's very apparent that Sophie and Forrest were the main talkers in this group and that Greg was practically silent. This diagram serves as a good lesson from a cooperative learning perspective and can visually inform students about their contributions. Other implications:
  1. Having 3 assessors gives three pieces of evidence of the discussion. If someone thinks they were minding their airtime (like Sophie) having not 1, but 3 pieces of evidence to rebut this can make students more self-aware and garner more evidence about their amount of collaboration and listening skills. 
  2. Mix and match groups to help communication opportunities. If for example someone like Greg is very quiet, putting him with a group of other quiet students may give him more of an opportunity to "speak up" in the absence of alpha discussors. 
  3. Rotate jobs. Give students the chance to be a discussor, micro blogger and assessor. They'll develop a better awareness of how groups cooperate and listen to others. 
  4. ALWAYS have time to debrief the experience. Although this is a means to a greater understanding, ask students to share what they read, wrote and heard to help them build a better understanding of the question or task at hand. 
To Educators
If you have a moment to try this model of "Collaborative Discussion" in your class within the coming weeks, I'd love to hear about your perspectives following this activity. Feel free to respond to any of the following questions:

  • How did you use this activity in your class?
  • How did the activity "work"?
  • Did you notice any patterns with your students?
  • Golden Ticket Question: Did this help your students collaborate? How?

About the Teachers
The harkness chart was developed by Paula Ginto, who is an Educator at United World College. You can follow her blog at "Negotiating Meaning". Andrea Coffee is a MS Language Arts teacher at Saigon South International School who writes about her experience using collaborative discussion at her blog "Realistic Non-Fiction". Danielle Rickert is a MS Language Arts teacher and Literacy Coach at Saigon South International School and you can follow her educational portfolio here

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