Your Role as Classroom Discussion Facilitator
Depending on the type of discussion you are having, your role will vary. For instance, a discussion about an assigned reading will be more student-centered. You will want to remain more in the background than one in which you are introducing and/or explaining a new concept.
The role you assume will shape your facilitation strategy as well. And often, you will find that by tweaking your preferred role a bit, you will be able to use the same, or similar, strategies in more than one situation. Here are some tips that will help.
Creating Classroom Community
Decide what type of classroom community you would like to create. Will you require that all students participate in discussions? Do you mind if three or four talkative students dominate discussions? Would you like students to address each other (sitting in a circle) or would you like them to address you (sitting in rows)?
Often, this will depend on your students' participation. If you have a quiet class, you may decide that calling on students to answer questions is more appropriate than letting two or three students answer every question. The decisions you make about classroom community should reflect your style and your students' needs.
Accommodate Multiple Learning Styles
When building your classroom community, consider the various ways in which your students learn and try to accommodate them. Some can remember everything covered in a class discussion, while others need visuals to reinforce concepts. Some students respond well to lectures, while others have to participate in order to follow along. Try different approaches and see how well students respond.
Remain Objective: Focus on Student Contributions
It's best to remain objective on thematic issues discussed in class. If students pick up on your views, they might only contribute with what they “think” you want to hear. This obstructs critical thinking and keeps them from expressing their own views. Also, if you share too many opinions, students may refute these in class. This puts you in a position of having to defend your views.
Be Honest: Criticize Constructively
Validate students' comments, but be honest with them. Although it isn't easy, it's important to provide constructive criticism when a student misinterprets a text or provides an incorrect answer. You don’t want others to become confused about important concepts.
Keep in mind that providing criticism doesn't need to be awful and humiliating. There are tactful ways to be honest while still rewarding a student for participating in the discussion.
For example, when a student gets off track you might say:
"That's really interesting, but I'm not sure how your point addresses the question. Help me understand the connection you’re making?"
This provides an opportunity for the student to offer more of an explanation, or to concede that perhaps there wasn’t a connection after all. Either way, tactful comments and questions like this help place responsibility for contributing additional information, or making corrections to an original response, upon the student’s shoulders; not yours.
NOTE: For a more comprehensive guide on developing discussion strategies, please see Leading Classroom Discussions, a TILT Teaching Guide.