Guided Discussions: How to Direct and When to Disappear

Fall 2018

By Patricia Lukacs

Graded or ungraded, guided discussions are usually centered around questions, or at least concepts, that have been introduced before the scheduled discussion, often in advance of the first reading. Establishing the announced structure in advance allows students at all levels to refine their focus and gather support for their responses in preparation for the discussion. The less experienced the group of students and the more demanding the text, the more helpful guided focus is likely to be. Advanced, confident students who are responding to a straightforward text can usually pose their own questions during a seminar class discussion.
 
Improving a class’s level of discourse is usually supported by providing students not only with questions and areas of focus but also—and maybe more importantly—with rubrics in advance. Ideally, class time early in the year can be devoted to defining and modeling the skills included on the rubric. For example, what is the difference between a substantially developed contribution and one that is undeveloped? In what ways do confident presentation skills differ from tentative presentation skills? Students can also be encouraged to develop specific listening skills, crucial to their role as discussion participants. Rather than assessing students on how often they speak, the teacher might want to encourage contributions connected to ideas introduced by others. Thus, the focus of assessment can include any combination of the following: critical thought (originality and insight), presentation skills, development and support of points, and evidence of engaged listening.
 
In terms of recording a grade and offering feedback, the individual teacher can determine the best method of assessment to match circumstances and goals. But if a grade (even pass/fail) is going to be assigned, I suggest making the criteria for assessment transparent. If a class is small, I might fill out an index card for each student, reporting the grade, greatest strength, and area most in need of improvement (I have to take notes throughout these discussions). This detailed feedback is especially helpful if it includes advice on specific strategies for improvement. This level of individualized assessment can rarely be a realistic goal in a class of 14 or more students, so each instructor must decide, on the basis of class size, how best to communicate feedback. Some form of holistic grading might also be a good idea—for example, simply indicating superior (95), acceptable (85), in need of improvement (75), and unprepared (58). The important point is to establish and publish the criteria for earning each rating (and its corresponding score). Clearly, not all discussions need to be guided, and not all discussions need to be graded. The teacher will undoubtedly rely on a number of varied approaches.
 
As mentioned earlier, the students’ ability level and the text’s accessibility will influence the format of a guided discussion; these same factors will determine the type of questions posed. Guided discussions can be used to reinforce prior knowledge, as when you ask students to identify literary devices, rhetorical strategies, or significant shifts; older students, in such situations, should also be asked to analyze the effect and purpose of the tactics they’ve identified.
 
Sometimes students can be asked to design their own questions, turning them in for assessment or for inclusion in a future guided discussion. Even when the teacher provides all or most of the questions for a guided discussion, he or she can ask, toward the end of the discussion, “What key question was omitted?” “What is the elephant in the room?” This open-ended approach can take the discussion in new directions. When I’ve asked these questions, the responses have usually resulted in my own expanded appreciation of the text. Another of my favorite open-ended questions is “What does the story NOT tell?” As a self-confessed relic of new criticism, I always ask my students to support their responses with proof from the text, but some missing details or intentional ambiguity—the holes in the story—can stand as their own evidence of open possibility, if not proof of closed certainty. Another approach can involve reading circles, formed after the entire class has received the same set of questions and studied the same text; small groups in reading circles collaborate to form consensus responses to a question (or set of questions) from the master list.
 
Two years ago, I taught one section of juniors who had little experience with critical thinking. I found that at first I had to ask these students “closed questions” and assign each student one or two questions on which to focus. But as time went on, the students expanded their skills somewhat, and the discussions became less choreographed. The better a teacher knows the ability and the potential of most students in a class, the better fit he or she can achieve in designing questions for guided discussions.
 
Open-ended questions are more appropriate for experienced critical thinkers. These responses require the reader to draw inferences and identify patterns, and—although they require more than comprehension—they must still be supported by specific sections of text read aloud and analyzed in service of addressing the question. The closed questions require comprehension but not necessarily sophisticated thought; closed questions are suited for younger or less experienced readers.
 
The sooner the teacher is able to diagnose how well the students in a class can draw inferences, develop and support an argument, the more effective the guiding questions will be. Of course, study questions at almost all grade levels will be some mix of closed and open questions (and the range of sophistication within each category is significant). When the teacher asks too many easy, closed questions, he or she stunts students’ growth. When the teacher asks too many sophisticated open questions, he or she will inevitably be forced to reshape weak responses during much of the discussion or, in an attempt to be encouraging, send the miscommunication that misguided participants are reading accurately and insightfully. There is, by the way, a place for reshaping weak responses in a guided discussion; this is an opportunity—for the teacher or, ideally, for classmates—to model critical thinking, responsible inferences, and reliable reading. However, if the bulk of the discussion is spent in reshaping responses, the class time might have been better spent on teacher-centered modeling: presenting and supporting solid and varied approaches to examining the assigned text.
 
Recently, my colleagues and I, teachers of grades six to 12 Language Arts, participated in an exercise that revealed the range of critical thought and discourse generated by preteens through high school seniors. As we gathered at the beginning of the new academic year, I asked my fellow teachers first to hypothetically accept a set of common assumptions about guided class discussions. Having agreed to accept these assumptions for one hour, my colleagues broke into teams representing each grade level, sixth grade through seniors. In advance of our meeting, my fellow teachers had reviewed Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill.” Each team of grade-level instructors was given the same set of instructions:
Assume there are 14 students in the class participating in an early November discussion of “Miss Brill.” (Katherine Mansfield’s three-page story features a lonely woman who, enjoying her usual Sunday outing in the park, is deeply wounded on overhearing a young couple ridicule her and her prized possession, a fur.1)
  • Reach a consensus on the format for their course’s guided discussion.
  • Reach a consensus on the method of assessment (if any) for their course’s guided discussion.
  • Design at least three questions: easy, medium, hard.
  • Identify challenges with accompanying solutions that are presented by guided discussions.
  • Identify other approaches for designing and implementing guided discussions.
The additional implicit challenge was to differentiate instruction in responding to my directions. Our curriculum involves no formal tracking prior to the junior year. Thus, teachers for grades six to 10 designed responses for the range of ability characteristic of an actual class. The junior and senior teams were asked to write three separate sets of responses to my instructions: one for the college preparatory classes, one for the honors-level classes, and one for the AP classes. In collaborating, these teachers of upperclassmen became more sensitive to the needs of all students in grades 11 and 12, rather than restricting their focus exclusively to their traditional specialty.
 
In completing the exercise, my colleagues and I became more aware of ways that, and the rate at which, a typical student in our program develops critical thinking and discussion skills as he or she travels through our curriculum from the beginning of grade six to graduation. Most of us also more fully recognized the importance of creating classroom discussion formats, not merely for the benefit of students as they now sit in our classrooms but for those future students who will be joining and initiating discussions, without us, throughout their academic and nonacademic lives.

Notes

  1. “Miss Brill,” was originally published in The Athenaeum on November 26, 1920, and later reprinted in The Garden Party and Other Stories (London: Constable & Co., 1922).
Patricia Lukacs

Patricia Lukacs (LukacPat@berkeleyprep.org) has taught honors American literature at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Florida, since 1992. In 1994, Ms. Lukacs founded the school’s writing center, a resource featuring trained peer tutors who work with students in grades six through 12.