Keeping Classroom Discussions on Track
Regardless of the type of discussion, one of your most important facilitation goals is keeping it on track.
Picture this. During a discussion in which you’ve asked: "What are your views on urban sprawl?" One student says, "I don't like urban sprawl because it keeps me from riding my horse on what used to be country roads." Another student jumps in and says, "Did you know that dog food is made out of horses?" Another exclaims, "Oh gross!" Another, "I like dogs more than horses."
So, what do you do? You want your students participating, but you don’t want them going astray. It’s up to you to keep them focused. There is no single method that works for everyone. Much depends on your personal teaching style and how you structure your classroom community.
If you create a student-centered environment and require meaningful participation, the discussion will be productive and student involvement will not be forfeited. Here are a few suggestions to help you start thinking about ways to keep classroom discussions on track.
Plan "Goal-Oriented" Discussions
Have a goal. Know what you want to accomplish and have a plan for doing it. Making the plan "goal-oriented" makes it less likely that you will get distracted when your students start wandering astray. When they do get off-topic, you will find it easier to refocus their attention.
Ask "Goal-Oriented" Questions
Kick-start discussions with "goal-oriented"questions designed to move your students in a specific direction that focuseson your pre-planned objective. Try writing them out on the board while you are in the act of beginning the discussion. Should the discussion veer off course, the written question itself will serve as a prop to help you refocus everyone's attention.
Avoid Being Derailed
Don't allow unrelated questions to bump you off course. Whenever students raise concerns and questions that threaten to derail the discussion, ask them to see you after class, or later, during office hours. Addressing off-topic issues during class can cause your lesson plans and objectives to suffer, if not go unmet altogether.
You're the Conductor: Stay on Track
Solicit comments and questions directly related to the topic you're addressing. Avoid giving undue attention to students who interject irrelevant comments. Recognize the approaching derailment and take immediate steps to stay on track. In other words, head it off at the pass.
In the opening example, for instance, you might use humor, (i.e. "As interesting as dog food is to us all, we need to address the issue at hand."). When gentle humor fails, a firmer approach, (i.e. "I'm not sure how these responses relate to the question I just asked."), might be necessary.
When the Discussion Jumps Track: Write to Learn
When a discussion turns into a heated debate, or jumps so far off track that you're students have lost sight of the topic, refocus their attention with a calculated derailment of your own. Assign an in-class Writing-to-Learn (W.T.L.) activity.
Ask students to take out a sheet of paper and write down their personal views on whatever has gotten everybody off track. After five or ten minutes, instruct your students to save and post their writing to your online class forum. This way the "off track" conversation can be preserved and continued outside of class. You can then redirect everyone's attention back to the original discussion thread.
NOTE: For a more comprehensive guide on developing discussion strategies, please see Leading Classroom Discussions, a TILT Teaching Guide.