Student-Led Discussions Develop 21st-Century Learning Skills

"All we do is read a few chapters and do worksheets. No discussions. I hate worksheets. I want to see what my friends think about Nothing but the Truth. We never talk about anything much in class."

Recently, I surveyed students in my area’s middle school English classes asking them to tell me about their reading, and what motivated them to read and write. This response from a seventh-grade student expresses the frustration most of his classmates were feeling. 

At the end of the day, when the teacher and I debriefed her lesson, she explained that throughout the year students completed novel-based packets that she had purchased, which basically require students to read the book and answer vocabulary and comprehension questions.

“That’s the only way I can keep 30 students working and quiet,” she explained.

When I shared some student responses, the teacher said that she encouraged discussion on some days, but because students seemed disengaged, she didn’t do it that often. In this class, as in other teacher-centered classes, students sat in rows, worked alone, and weren’t interested in working hard.

I believe that administrators, literacy coaches, and lead teachers have the responsibility to help teachers like this one transform their classrooms into 21st-century learning environments. And we need to start now!

What administrators can do

We live in a rapidly changing world and in a global economy, so it’s crucial for teachers to rethink and change their instructional practices.

For students to develop the 21st-century skills that prepare them for further education and a job market that requires strong literacy, they need the 4 Cs: collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. And teachers need to participate in professional learning experiences they can transfer to their classes—teacher-centered experiences that will inspire them to create student-centered experiences.

Change can occur when school administrators transform faculty meetings from stand-and-deliver-information forums to discussions in which teachers learn in groups, choose materials, collaborate, and communicate. 

Moving from a teacher-centered to a student-centered approach

So how do we do that? Start by changing the format of department, team, and faculty meetings. Here are some suggestions.

Ask teachers to: 

  • Read and discuss articles about the benefits of student-centered learning and the 4Cs.

  • Watch videos of student-centered classes and discuss them at faculty meetings, inviting teachers to consider students’ engagement, motivation, and behavior.

  • Study professional books and journal articles. 

  • Work with a colleague so they can celebrate their successes and dialogue about their frustrations with integrating the 4Cs into lessons. 

  • Share their teaching experiences at full faculty meetings so colleagues learn from one another as well as provide feedback.

What teachers can do: student-led discussions develop the 4Cs

Everything students do at school should equip them for developing collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.

I recommend starting by implementing student-led literary discussions. These discussions can be about your read-aloud text, instructional reading materials, a short common text, video and movie clips, or texts your students are reading independently—any text as long as it is high quality.

High-quality materials encourage multiple interpretations and nudge students to reflect on characters, themes, conflicts, and information. In addition, they encourage the social talk that students enjoy as they collaborate to analyze informational texts and step into characters’ shoes to think creatively and deepen their understanding of the character and his or her world. 

Get started with student-led discussions

Take the plunge by starting with two- to three-minute turn-and-talks during your read-aloud, and have pairs discuss the question you posed; limit sharing with the class to two to three students so you avoid interrupting the flow of the read-aloud.

Once you and your students are comfortable with turn and talk, introduce small-group and paired discussions.

Small group discussions

A group of three to six students discuss a common text or different texts in the same genre using open-ended questions that they composed. (See Tip 1 below.) To explore multiple meanings of a text, these discussions can take 10 to 30 minutes, with possible follow-up discussions, depending on students’ levels of engagement and interest.

Paired discussions

Paired discussions permit students to explore layers of meaning in texts, as well as multiple themes, and make inferences. Partners can discuss a video, blogs on the same topic, or a common text. Lasting from 5 to 30 minutes, these discussions might extend over several class periods because students need the time to analyze and think critically.

I’ve developed seven tips that can help you and students as you collaborate to develop productive and meaningful discussions.

Seven tips for implementing student-led discussions

The tips that follow will help you to adjust and refine your role as facilitator and enable students to take charge of discussing a range of texts.

  1. Teach students to write their own open-ended, interpretive questions. Open-ended questions have more than one answer and ask students to arrive at multiple interpretations supported with text evidence. Tell students that when they can find two answers to a question, the question is open-ended and they can turn to composing another question. 

  2. Have students choose a leader (students can take turns) who keeps the discussion moving forward by using prompts such as:

    Does anyone have a different idea?
    Can you offer text details to support your position?
    Can you explain that term?

  3. Invite students to negotiate the amount of time they’ll need to complete their discussion. Tell students that if they need extra time, you’ll consider it as long as they have been using time productively.

  4. Decide on a signal for closing a discussion. I like to flick the classroom lights to get students’ attention and let them know they have about a minute to finish. 

  5. Listen to discussions. Sit in on two different sessions each time groups or partners meet. Notice what students do well, and close with a positive statement such as: “I noticed that everyone participated” or “I heard students citing text evidence.” 

  6. Ask students to debrief after a discussion giving them two questions: What worked well and why? What can you improve and how? Then have students use their answers to set a goal for their next discussion.

  7. Have students write about their reading by summarizing it, answering open-ended questions, or composing a paragraph that explains an idea or argues for a position. According to Steve Graham and Karen Harris, when students write about books they can read, their comprehension jumps 24 percentile points (The Reading Teacher, January/February 2016).

Assessing student learning

Use students’ responses in their notebooks, paragraphs, and essays to assess their learning. Create an observation checklist to use as you listen to discussions that take into account preparation, participation, listening skills, citing evidence, critical thinking, communicating ideas, and collaborating to set deadlines.

Closing thoughts

Collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking improve as students engage in literary discussions and work on ways to express and receive ideas from peers. Moreover, when students lead literary discussions, they become engaged and motivated, listen actively, and respect the diversity of interpretations peers bring to the table.

Photo via K.W. Barrett