One of P.S. 96’s educational goals is to increase and strengthen student discussion in order to promote and support critical thinking on the part of the students. One of the Advanced Literacies Hallmarks is to use talk and discussion to build language and knowledge. When I came across the book, Questioning for Classroom Discussion by Jackie Acree Walsh and Beth Danker Sattes, I decided it would make a rich resource to support my literacy work with the teachers at P.S. 96.
The authors suggest that a shift needs to be made from questioning for recitation to questioning for discussion. Questioning for recitation (IRE) follows a pattern – the teacher questions, the student responds, and the teacher evaluates the response. This frequently used approach does not promote an exploration of and a building upon ideas. Questioning for discussion, as proposed by the authors, encourages analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of ideas by the students and leads to enriched student discussions. Questions for discussion are open-ended, calling for the student to come up with different interpretations and draw various conclusions.
The authors tell us that “This book is for teachers who wish to change student outcomes by changing their conversation – their own and that of the students.” (Acree and Sattes, 2012). The book provides teachers with a structure, the strategies, and the tools for changing teacher and student discussion in the classroom through questioning. The book talks about four practices that lead to quality questioning.
The first practice is framing a focus question by identifying an issue, writing the question, and predicting possible student responses which in turn helps the teacher to make questioning moves that encourage divergent thinking.
The second practice calls for equitable student participation and establishes guidelines and a structure to ensure all students take part in the discussion. Each student needs to be prepared to contribute to a conversation. What does this mean to the English Language Learner? The building of prior knowledge, language, and vocabulary becomes important to help these students construct meaning from the text and then enables them to confidently join into discussions. Reading body language and active listening become invaluable assets to the reader as he or she decides when and how to enter into a conversation without having to raise a hand. Interestingly enough, younger students have no problem joining into a conversation when they want to make a point. So why not capitalize on this trait by using body language and active listening signals to support student discussion at this age.
The third practice involves framing questions and anticipating students’ responses. Teachers’ questions and comments in response to students can either support or shut down students’ thinking during discussions. Different types of discussions dictate different questioning practices. When concepts are first being learned the teacher guides the discussion more closely. During peer discussions, when concepts are being developed and strategies and skills are being practiced, the teacher and students ask questions that support peer collaboration.
Finally, the fourth practice calls for creating a culture of thoughtful discussion in which the students encourage and challenge each other as thinkers. Responses to questions are supported by textual evidence thereby promoting responsible conversations. Students learn to use think time before responding. They actively listen to each other, share their thinking and learn from each other, and motivate each other.
As the teachers at P.S. 96 \and I work toward supporting students’ learning through discussion, we will work to implement these four practices. What practices do you use to encourage learning through discussion in your classroom?