Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

11.21.13Inside the Box: On Disciplined Discussion–Part II

inside the boxIn the first part of this post I wrote about my recent visit to a school where students who participated in a productive and focused discussion in one classroom participated in another room in something that  wasn’t a discussion at all but a series of atomized students comments loosely connected to a stimulus- a Jackson Pollack canvas brought to life.

I promised to provide solutions beyond the very practical example provided by the math teacher who said, “Let’s stay inside the box for a while here,” and in so doing helped his students evaluate what to say when.

Here are four tools from TLaC or from TLaC 2.0, which comes out in June, or from the “Advice From Lemov” (i.e. “Best Ignored”) files for keeping discussion focused and productive:

Direct Intentional Feedback:  One tool you might use is to make a habit of providing students explicit feedback on their discussion points.  You could stop after four or five comments, for example, and say something like:

  • “I just want to pause you to point out how effectively you are building off each others’ ideas. You’re really sticking to the topic at hand.”
  • “I want to pause to observe that we can do a better job, I think, of ensuring that our comments show that we are listening to one another. Our goal is not to generate a new idea each time someone speaks but to add to the idea that came before.”
  • “I appreciate your trying to connect that to a book you enjoy but I suspect your comments would be more useful if you tried to connect to a book we’d all read, maybe even something we’d read in class.  Then it would be as useful to your peers as to you.”
  • “I’d like to go back to Alice’s comment and ask that the comments that come after are sure to develop or reflect on her idea. I’m not looking for a brand new thought here but for reflection on Alice’s”

Over time you’d probably have to do less and less of that. Or you could systematize it: you could score them on the cohesiveness of the discussion.  Or they could score themselves eventually.  Generally, though, I favor the idea of comments made right away in the midst of discussion versus systematic scoring and reflection after discussion.  (Both of these are from Practice Perfect, by the way).  1) Feedback works better when it comes faster- the closer the feedback to the event the more memorable it is and the more it shapes the behavior of recipients. 2) Feedback is best when people practice using it not just taking it.  So if i were giving midstream feedback to students I could say, “Can you make your comment again and make its connection to Alice’s previous point clearer?”  Then my student could do it over and hopefully do it right.

Habits of Discussion.  Though it’s productive to provide feedback to students on how effective their comments are for other students it might be more efficient to teach them how to discuss right from the outset.  This can be done through a tool called Habits of Discussion.  It starts with simple things like:

  • Making sure students track the speaker during discussions and
  • Making sure they direct their comments to the class (or a specific peer) rather than to you–ie they turn and face the majority of the room.  Message: I am speaking to the group.
  • Making sure they put their hands down when someone else is speaking. (If your hand is up you’re thinking about what you want to say and not listening to the person who is talking. And you’re probably thinking about something you wanted to say before you even heard them speak. So your point is increasingly likely to be disconnected from theirs.

But the core of Habits of Discussion is teaching kids how to develop ideas in a discussion by socializing them to use sentence frames that shape the way they interact and ultimately, as Paul Bambrick points out in Great Habits, Great Readers, how they think.

So you might put a chart of Habits of Discussion sentence starters like these on the wall:

  • I’d like to elaborate on Tashana’s idea…
  • I agree/disagree with Jason because…
  • There’s another example of what Tracey is talking about…
  • Another way you might interpret that is…
  • I think it’s more complex than what you’re saying, Katrina, because…

You might have students practice using these sentence starters in a practice discussion and then remind them during real discussions by saying things like, “I’d like to hear you using your Habits of Discussion when you reply.”  Over time as students began to use their own phrases to show they were building off each others’ ideas you could add their best phrases to your list of sentence starters…. though of course over time you’d be building strong habits and would need the sentence starters less and less.  But the power of the Habits of Discussion idea is that you are building off of the idea of “discipline” as defined by Ronald Morish: Teaching students the right way to do something–in this case to hold discussions–rather than assuming they know how to do it.  Lord knows there are enough models of fractious dysfunctional “discussion” in the popular media that it’s worth stopping to wonder what model of “discussion” experience has given rise to in most students’ minds.


Follow-ons and follow-on prompts are two other effective tools for causing students to build the habit of building off each others ideas.  They can be used with or without Cold Call though I am partial to the latter.  Let’s say you wanted your students to have a discussion of the Stamp Act.  You might start by asking: “Who passed the Stamp Act, Jason?”  “England passed it,” Jason might say.  If you used a follow-on you might say “Do you agree, Omari?” thus immediately bringing him into the conversation and asking him to practice building off of Jason’s idea. If you used a follow-on prompt you would use a non-directive follow up, ie one without a specific question.   “Can you develop that please, Omari?”  “Yes, it wasn’t just England,” Omari might say, “It was the English Parliament.”  Patrick Pastore, one of the best reading teachers i know, keeps his kids constantly on their toes–and constantly listening to each other–by responding to answers about a piece of literature with the short, fast follow on prompts delivered via Cold Call.

Patrick: “What’s Joanas afraid of? Kesia?

Kesia: “He’s afraid of pain.”

Patrick: “Develop… David..”

David: “He doesn’t really know what pain is, how far it can go…”

Patrick: “Evidence?”

David: “Well on page 63 it says…”

The idea is that Patrick hold his students accountable for listening carefully to their peers via cols call and adds on the non-directive prompts (“develop”  “evidence”) to cause them to practice responding with little inter-mediation from him.

Everybody Writes:  One reason students don’t respond to their peers is because they don’t always listen to them very well.  One reason they don’t listen to them well is because they are trying to remember their own answers. That’s a great reason to use Everybody Writes–Instead of asking a discussion question right away, you ask students all to write initial responses and then go on to discussion.  In Patrick’s class it might sound like this.  “I’d like to hear your thoughts on Jonas’ feelings right now. What’s he afraid of?” [Hands go up].  “Can’t wait to hear what you’re thinking but not til you’ve written about it. Two minutes in your notebooks. At least two complete sentences. What is Jonas afraid of? Go.”  Now when Patrick starts taking responses two minutes later, he’ll get more thoughtful answers and since everyone will have their thinking in front of them, they won’t have to worry about forgetting it, so when their peers are talking they can just listen.

Those are my ideas. What do you do to build disciplined discussions?


3 Responses to “Inside the Box: On Disciplined Discussion–Part II”

  1. Roberto de Leon
    November 22, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    The simple, yet incredibly important underlying skill in the Pastore example is that he knows precisely what answer he’s looking for. His responses of “Develop” or “Evidence” can’t happen if he doesn’t recognize that the first response wasn’t fully complete and the second one is lacking support. This seems so obvious, but it’s actually the keystone in all of this: the teacher knows what he wants to hear. I wouldn’t say he’s on a “hunt for the right answer” – those kinds of discussions are never good – but he’s painting a wall, so to speak: sands it down, put on the primer, paint the wall, and step back. In this example: ask the question, gather responses, gather support, evaluate the answer in its entirety. Does that make sense?

    • Doug_Lemov
      November 22, 2013 at 9:01 pm

      great point. you can’t steer a steady heading if you don;t know what it is… and have a strong gut for what’s the most important point to come out of the discussion.

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