Well, what do you think? This question and answer form a basic opinion exchange that is sometimes called a discussion. And it is, sort of. But just as a single decontextualized sentence is of limited use in understanding grammar, so too a brief opinion exchange does not have enough context–with all its intentions, personalities, and sociolinguistic depth–to really be called a discussion. A discussion is more complex, and ultimately more powerful, because it has a goal and requires input and interaction from multiple members, which should allow them to collectively generate better ideas (solutions, plans, etc.) than any one of the participants could have done alone.
This sounds good in theory, but it is difficult to achieve in classrooms–especially EFL classrooms where learners have a layer of linguistic difficulty on top of the conceptual and procedural challenges inherent in establishing a system of rich academic discussions. The first thing we must acknowledge is that academic discussion skills, like Rome, are not built in a day. As I mentioned earlier, they need to be incrementally developed, starting with basic conversation and interaction skills. Without basic conversation skills, discussion is not attainable. Students who are used to pairwork and are able to use the basic greetings, openings, and closings of common conversation “scripts” (Hi. How’re you doing? So, what did you do on the weekend? Well, nice talking to you!), and can react to each other’s utterances (Uh-huh, Really?! Oh, I love that!, Really? How was it? etc.) will find discussions accessible. Absolute speaking beginners will struggle and likely fail. Speaking must be taught, skills must be developed, and regular opportunities for fluency development given, or else activities like academic discussions, and the opportunities to flex critical thinking muscles that go with them, won’t be achieved. A little bit of speaking tagged on to the end of a lesson won’t get you there (as programs in high schools in Japan are slowly waking up to).
So now we know it’s difficult and requires a program of incremental skill development starting with a foundation in basic interactive conversation skills. One question we might ask is: is it worth the trouble. Given a limited amount of time, why should so much be devoted to conversation and discussion skills development? Well, the answer comes from sociocultural learning theory. As Daniel Siegel puts it in his forward to the wonderful Social Neuroscience of Education: “We evolved in tribes, we grow in families, and we learn in groups.” Walqui and van Lier (2010), in listing up the tenets of sociocultural learning theory for their QTEL approach, focus on some of the key points: “Participation in activity is central to the development of knowledge; participation in activity progresses from apprenticeship to appropriation, or from the social to the individual plane; and learning can be observed as changes in participation over time” (pg. 6). That is to say, we learn through active participation (engagement and collaboration) with others. “Language is primarily social”…and “…learning…is essentially social in nature” (pg. 4-5). This learning does not happen by chance, however. The really really hard thing to do is to get students into that sweet spot where they are developmentally ready and linguistically scaffolded up to the point where they can function and learn. Development becomes possible when “…teachers plan lessons beyond the students’ ability to carry them out independently” (pg. 7), but create the proper community and provide the proper scaffolding to allow for success with such lessons. To answer the question that started this paragraph, the potential benefits of learning in groups are great enough to warrant using this approach. Students can learn content and language, and collaboration skills, essential skills for the 21st century according to Laura Greenstein (who also helpfully provides a rubric and suggestions for assessing collaboration, as well as other skills).
One more potential objection to focusing on academic discussion comes from Doug Lemov. Actually, it’s not so much of an objection as request to rethink and balance your choices. In Teach Like a Champion 2.0, he suggests that both writing and discussion can be strong tools for “causing all students to do lots of the most rigorous work,..but if I had to choose just one, which admittedly I do not, I would choose writing. Hammering an ideas into precise words and syntax and then linking it to evidence and situating it within a broader argument are, for me the most rigorous work in schooling” (pg. 314). Writing is great, and cognitively more “precise” perhaps, and definitely needs to be part of the syllabus. Discussion is by nature more social. You can do both and you should do both; finding the time to do so is challenging, however.
So what do we teach? And what are discussion skills that students need to learn and develop? The best list can be found in Academic Conversations by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford. It needs to be said, however, that this book is made for L1 learners and you will need to adapt as you adopt. But the basic list and framework make it easy and intuitive to do so. Here is the list of skills:
- Elaborate and Clarify: Make your thinking as detailed and clear as you can, carefully explaining the rationale behind your thinking.
- Support Ideas with Examples: Use examples to illustrate thinking. It is a particular and powerful way of elaborating and clarifying ideas.
- Build On or Challenge Partners’ Ideas: Actively respond to and develop the ideas that arise, either by expanding on them or tweaking them, or pruning out the bad ones through well-considered disagreement.
- Paraphrase Ideas: As ideas arise, paraphrase them to both show your understanding and create a springboard for idea development and improvement.
- Synthesize the Discussion Points: Bring all the ideas you’ve been discussing to a conclusion. Produce a group decision or plan.
These skills need to be introduced incrementally. Some of them are more difficult to teach and practice than others, particularly with students who lack proficiency or fluency, but also for cultural reasons. Some students in Japan find it challenging to disagree, and may have trouble ranking or pruning some ideas from their synthesis. These can be trained and taught. In my experience, students are not used to making their thinking so explicit and considering ideas so carefully. Once they get the hang of it, however, they clearly become better listeners, better collaborators, and better thinkers. And after gaining some fluency with the formulaic expressions required to do academic discussions, they sound considerably more proficient.
Assessment is not as difficult as you may imagine. Ms. Greenstein’s rubric provides a nice overview of expected performance and can be used together with teacher observations, and peer or individual reflection and feedback. Performance tests are easy to organize because we can check several students at once in their group. Focusing on the success of the group in terms of process and outcome is actually not that hard to measure.
This post is part of a series considering ways to add more focus and learning to EFL classrooms by drawing on ideas and best practices from L1 classrooms.
Part 1 looked at the importance of goals.
Part 2 looked at using data and feedback.