Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

11.21.13Inside the Box: On Disciplined Discussion–Part I

I spent some time observing classes in a school near me recently and one of the things that struck me was the difference in the level of “discipline” in the discussions I saw happening.

In some classes students made germane and insightful contributions that advanced the class’ shared understanding of the topic. In others, comments were perhaps equally “smart” but they were more solipsistic- interesting to the student making them but not as useful or thought-provoking to others.  They either didn’t engage the topic under discussion (and so posed a distraction) or they weren’t “legible”–ie they were about topics that other students in the class were  unlikely to know about and therefore couldn’t use to advance their understanding–or they vocalized what really should have been an internal thought.  The interesting thing is that it was pretty much the same kids in each of the classes.  So I started to wonder- Why were they focused and disciplined and aware of their peers’ perspective in one class and the opposite in another?

I kept coming back to something a 7th grade math teacher said. It was their first day studying rate of change, and he had just observed that time was almost always an independent variable when it appeared in a rate of change problem.  “99% of the time it’s going to be your independent variable,” he said, and clarified briefly.  A student asked for an example of a situation where time could be the dependent variable and the teacher said, “To think of an example I’d have to come up with something pretty obscure. Maybe we’ll do that later but for now let’s just assume it’s going to be the independent variable.” This made sense given that it was the first day they’d discussed rate of change.  Another student then raised her hand began talking/brainstorming about situations where time could be a dependent variable. It was a bit of a flight of fancy, and in some ways, it was great that she was asking herself this question so I think a lot of teachers would have encouraged it and responded to it, but the teacher was clearly trying to help the class come to a collective understanding of rate of change at a conceptual level.  His goal was not to make a major digression into an area he’d pretty much just said was not worth the time.  What he said in response was brilliant:  “You’re thinking outside the box, but I want us to focus on thinking inside the box right now, on really understanding rate of change, what it is and how it works. So let’s stay there right now.” Here’s what I liked about that response.

1) He acknowledged something positive about her answer (“Thinking out side the box” is positive), but he also intimated that it was the wrong time for a digression. And this is a key point- Her flight of fancy might have been good question for private reflection or even discussion in the right time and place.  But this was not that right time and place, and he said so.  You could call it a corollary to the key Right is Right skill, “answer my question”: “Discuss my topic.”  (or at least stay within the parameters I establish for the good of the class.)

2) He provided her with information to help her understand why her response was less valuable right then.  Essentially he said: “Here’s what we’re doing as a group right now. That’s something you should pay attention to when you speak up- what the group is trying to do and why.”  He was teaching her to read the audience.

3) And then he smiled very genuinely and sincerely to show it was fine to make that mistake and went back to talking about rate of change.  Many teachers, I think, would have engaged the question briefly so as not to make the student “feel bad”… thus distracting the class.  And part of his responsibility is to teach students when and how to participate in a discussion productively.  I had a b-school professor who would say, “How does that build off of what we were just talking about” when someone went totally off task in a self-absorbed way.  It happened to me once and, man, did we learn fast to be respectful of the shared purpose of classroom discourse.  This teacher’s response was the kindler, gentler, more humane version of that.

I noticed this because these things were not present in other classes I observed.  In one, a student chose the moment when the teacher was reviewing key parts of a cell and their role in cell reproduction to say, “A while ago my mother read this book.  This woman, her cells kept reproducing. And they couldn’t stop and so they took her cells and grew them and gave them a name and…”  He continued for several more sentences trying to summarize the story of the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I happened to know that was the book he was summarizing because I’d recently read it.  But no one else in the room had. So even if it had been the right time for an “outside the box” connection (it wasn’t) the comment wasn’t really legible to anyone else.  To them the story was unrecognizable- about his mom reading a book and suddenly cells are replicating all over the place.  The student didn’t know how to make his observation a question germane to others.  (Perhaps he could have asked: “Are there situations where cells multiply out of control? Is that related to malfunction of cell microorganisms?”) The reason he probably didn’t know how to do that was because teachers rarely do as the math teacher had done and help their students see when and how a comment builds productively on the class’ discussion or is an exercise in thought broadcasting.

The issue was even more evident in an English class I watched.  For almost every answer in their discussion students made random connections to trivial events.  “What is fairness?” the teacher asked.  “What does it mean?”  One student answered in an obscure allusion to a science fiction novel, something like: “It’s Palladin 464’s code to serve my mind and my soul.”  Another replied that it was like pizza, and the class started talking about round versus square pizza.  This was truly and deeply non-productive.  Soon it was an exercise in people speaking aloud near each other but not talking to each other in any substantive way. No one took someone else’s idea and developed it. No one spoke about things others were likely to know about also. It was what’s wrong with bad discussions in a nutshell.

In a few minutes, I realized why it was happening.  The students were doing it because the teacher was doing it!  During their discussion of a story he consistently veered suddenly into random associations with the text–it was, he said, like “that commercial on TV”; it was like that song you all know; it was like that X-box game.  He called these text-to-text connections but really they weren’t.  They were text-to-my private inner life connections  (and often, they were text-to-lowest-common-denominator connections. Even if they might have been interesting, the fact is that half the class had probably (hopefully!) not seen “that commercial on TV where…”)

In short, he was socializing them to make arcane and solipsistic comments and they were doing a very nice job of following his lead.

One of the things about a really productive classroom discussion though, is that it’s a discussion-  a group of people developing an idea or notion further by sustaining focus on it and entertaining a variety of view points.  That sounds obvious but what we often refer to in our classes as “discussions” aren’t that. They are often more a series of atomized student comments, some of which are illegible and not useful to other students; some of which are disconnected from the shared topic and pull the discussion away from a topic of sustained focus.

So how do you get discussions that meet that definition? In Part II of this post I’ll talk about some TLAC techniques that can help. But two things to immediately do are to model self-discipline and awareness of time and place in your own comments as a teacher and then to explicitly provide students with kind and supportive reinforcement to help them learn what’s productive to say to others and what’s not.


More soon.  Stay tuned.


9 Responses to “Inside the Box: On Disciplined Discussion–Part I”

  1. Keith Miller
    November 21, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    Looking forward to part 2. As a teacher, I find it difficult to shut down a discussion and move onto the next topic, but sometimes the questions/connections are becoming increasingly tangential and are contributing less and less to student’s knowledge. Looking forward to hearing more about productively responding to off task comments.

    • Doug_Lemov
      November 21, 2013 at 5:05 pm

      Yeah. it’s a really common problem. Sometimes we face it at the dinner table at chez lemov so i’m certainly throwing no stones! the thing i think i learned from the very wise math teacher was that it’s our obligation to give kids constructive feedback when they start going tangential but we don’t do it very much. ie: “Ok, our comments are getting pretty tnagential here. I’m really listening for people who can talk about what the previous person said and develop their idea before we introduce a new one.” etc

  2. Alma Velazquez
    November 21, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Thank you for this. I am absolutely struggling with this in my 5th grade classroom, and in fact, during group discussions with our staff. It’s so important to remember the benefit of a good group discussion, and the urgency of it really, for those kids/people who need to grasp the topic at hand before they can entertain any tangential topics. I’m forwarding it to colleagues. It’s especially important for those basic concepts in the core subjects — reading, math, in my case.

  3. April 24, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    Having taught in a socratic seminar format for over a decade, studied it, and trained people in it, I can say with confidence that the key to avoiding tangential, snarky, and illegible comments is to have two things in place: a crystal-clear product or performance goal for which the discussion is a means, and a set of norms, sentence stems, and other protocols that are made explicit and transparent. You can find numerous ideas for how to do this in our book on Essential Questions, the chapter on establishing a culture of inquiry.

    The first point is more important than most people realize. If there is no goal or point to the discussion, everyone quickly resorts to random commentary. (Think how often staff meeting discussions are pointless and random without an explicit agenda.) For example, if we preface the inquiry in your anecdote, Doug, by saying: Let’s see if in this discussion we can clarify the idea and oddities of rate of change, using examples and experience – in order to develop further inquiries/experiments/projects about rate of change. That makes a huge difference than if we just say: Let’s talk about rate of change OR Who has questions?

    That’s why I often made clear to students that the EQ for the unit was also the Essay Topic. In the DVD for ASCD on EQS, you can watch me do this with HS kids around a series of activities and readings centered on the question: Who sees? Who is blind? where the readings were The Emperor’s New Clothes and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The EQ guides advance note-taking and sets them up for writing.

    Anyone interested in further guidance and protocols on facilitating discussions and training kids in accountable talk, email me at grant AT

    • Doug Lemov
      April 24, 2015 at 1:42 pm

      thanks, Grant. you say it better than me and i heartily encourage readers here to reach out to you. i also try to touch on a similar topic (knowing your goal for discussion) in TLaC 2.0. if it’s half as good as what you write on the topic i am happy. 🙂

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