Whole-Group Discussion Strategies

Back to school by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe DistrictYou’ve probably had days when it felt like you were the one doing all of the talking and getting students to answer questions, share thoughts, and ask questions of their own was like pulling teeth. Elementary teachers typically have an easier time of this than secondary teachers, but it is a common problem shared by teachers of all grade levels from one time to another. So, how do we get kids involved in whole-group discussions?

1. Make whole-group the last step

Students often hesitate to participate in whole-group discussions because they feel as though they are being put on the spot. The first step to whole-group discussions needs to be independent work. Students need to know that they are going to be held accountable for participating, even if it’s not in the whole-group situation, and you can monitor their independent work to see who’s on track and who needs a little extra help or explanation. Next, give kids a chance to share their independent thoughts, writing, etc. with partners or small groups. Sharing with others often gives kids a sense of validation, and they will feel more prepared and confident when it is time to share in a whole-group setting.

2. Give kids an “out”

If you are asking questions or asking kids to participate, you need to give them an opportunity to be “off the hook,” though it’s only momentarily. For example, if you are asking kids to share out and you call on a student who does not know what to say or who is hesitant to share, tell him that you will ask someone else, but that you will be back to him next, at the end of the whole-group setting, etc. Follow through and call on that student again, when you said that you would. Make sure that you model this with students and that you explain the procedure to students prior to using it. The worst thing you can do is spring something new on students and expect it to go swimmingly.

3. Get creative

One of my favorite things to do with students was to keep them on their toes (of course, I always modeled everything with students as I recommended in #2, but once kids knew what to expect, I made sure they didn’t know when to expect it). It helped to avoid the rut that educators often find themselves in after the first few weeks of school, and it helped the kids feel as though things were “fresh” in class. Even if you’re not an overly creative person, you can still handle this strategy. Think of ways to call on students without even having them raise their hands:

  • Number the lesson materials prior to passing them out and then announce that all of the number threes (or whatever number you choose) will be sharing their ideas.
  • Put a coffee can or other similar container in the middle of the grouped desks with marked popsicle sticks inside (mark them with permanent ink and be sure not to mark them with stickers, or kids may alter them in some way or remove the stickers). Right before you ask for a few volunteers, have students draw popsicle sticks. Those that draw the marked sticks are the ones who will volunteer for that round.
  • Assign kids a number, a letter, a shape, etc. and throw slips of paper corresponding to the categories into a hat. Draw out a slip of paper, and the students in that category will be the ones sharing.

There is a multitude of ways to get more participation out of kids in whole-group situations, but these are strategies that you can easily implement and use in nearly any classroom. Our other tried-and-true classroom management resources include suggestions for collaborative work environments with some tips for getting started, plus some strategies for getting students to engage during direct instruction. If you have some surefire methods for classroom management or whole-group participation, I’d love to hear about them. Email Bailey at bailey@truthinteaching.com.

Image via Flickr by USACE

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