Field Note Friday: Adapting Classroom Discussion for Large Classes

My last Field Note Friday explained how I create a transcript for a classroom discussion.  This week I’d like to share how I have adapted a discussion method for a large class, which is unfortunately pretty much the norm in public high schools these days.  We rejoice when we see that the class doesn’t have more than 30 students.

Do class sizes make a difference in student learning and achievement? Yes, they do.  I am unequivocal about that.

But I have students in my classes right now, and right now my classes are large.  I want to use a discussion method that I believe promotes true learning, a method that is primarily used in schools that have class sizes of around 12-15 students.

So, what I have had to do is simulate a smaller class size.

I should mention that I had been thinking about doing this for a while but never really took any action on my ideas.  Then, on a professional development day this January, I was at lunch with some of my colleagues, and this idea came up. Quentin mentioned that he wanted to try splitting the class into smaller groups, and this was the motivation I needed to actually do something about my ideas.  I owe much of these ideas to Quentin’s initial work to make this happen and to our subsequent collaboration.  Here is Quentin’s post about this practice.

The Highlights

  1. Split the students into two circles: a discussing circle on the inside and an observation circle on the outside.  I know that this looks like inner-outer circle, but it’s really not the same.
  2. The inner circle (discussing circle) is always made up of 15 students.  I have experimented with different numbers here just to see what would happen to the quality of the discussion. 20 students was definitely too many; I can sneak 16, 17, or 18 in if I need to.  But 15 seems to be the optimal number. Because none of my classes are currently larger than 30, this works.
  3. All the students who are not called to the inner circle are the observing students.  Because I always choose 15 students for the inner circle, often this means that there are fewer than 15 on the outside.
  4. I choose students for the inner circle at random. The idea here is that every student must be at risk for being called every single time. There must not be a time when they believe they will be off the hook and not need to complete the reading assignment  (See “Digital Popsicle Sticks”).

The Roles

  1. Discussing Students: These 15 students discuss the reading assignment, according to our previously established rules of discussion. I notate their discussion on a transcript. I assess these students according to a previously established discussion rubric.

Discussing Students-001

  1. Observing Students: These remaining students are responsible for observing a) the text, b) insightful comments and questions from the group, c) the group’s discussion skills, and d) the comments and discussion skills of a particular classmate.  I assess these students based on their written observations.

Observing Students

The Benefits

  1. Each student can speak more.  In a discussion circle of 30 or more, assuming that comments last no longer than 15 seconds, each student can only speak 3-5 times in a 45 minute time period.  In a smaller circle, they don’t have to monitor themselves as stringently.  They can speak twice as often.
  2. Each student must speak more.  It’s much harder to hide in a smaller group.
  3. There are fewer classmates for students to pay attention to.  This means that students can more easily tell who needs to speak or who is trying to speak.  It also leads to less repetition because comments that simply rephrase the previous comment are quite obvious.
  4.  In general, the conversation can go deeper.  I find that the comments and questions become more insightful, and students can delve deeper into the text when they can speak more.
  5. I don’t have to allot as much time for the discussion.  Previously, I had to make sure that we got started as soon as the bell rang. With this method, I only really need about 30-35 minutes for a good discussion. That leaves me 10-15 minutes for announcements, debriefing, or mini-lessons.

I hope to share more details about this method and adaptations in coming weeks.  Stay tuned to Field Note Friday!  Let me know what questions you have about classroom discussion–I would love to see if I can help answer them. If I can’t, I’ll see if I can perform some action research in my own classroom to help answer the questions.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Jennifer,

    I found your blog through Amanda Goss’s recommendation, and we were at the Epic Summer Institute together, so “Hi!” I wanted to comment to say a few things.

    First, thank you for this blog. Your comments have reignited some ideas and passion in me and challenged me to just try a few things, namely, Harkness. I’d done Socratic seminars before and inner/outer circle, but they always left a sort of bad taste in my mouth–something not quite right, but I never gave them the time to evaluate what I didn’t like. I looked into Harkness when you mentioned it on your blog, and I liked it.

    With the approach of AP Lit, I wanted to squeeze in “just one more work” and trying Harkness sounded like a good idea. So I split my AP classes, having them sign up for either working with _Death of a Salesman_ or _The Glass Menagerie_. I turned them loose with the plays, telling them to come in with passages marked, discussion ideas ready, and that’s it. I did nothing else, wanting to sit back and see what happened. No background on the play, no notes on the author, nothing. A brief minute-long blurb about the play to help them pick. Normally, I wouldn’t just throw them the whole of a play with no direction, but here at the end of the year, I felt like I could try it.

    Each group had five minutes to ask me any plot questions they were still confused about, and then 45 minutes or so to discuss the play. My classes were split into two groups, with the non-discussing folks noting similarities to their play as they listened to the discussion of the other.

    I was blown away by the students’ comments and understanding these past two days. Most groups said that there was so much else they wanted to talk about. Some said they wanted to read the other play after hearing the discussions. Students who had said nothing in previous whole-class, teacher-directed discussions spoke passionately about their interpretation of characters and events. The organic nature of the discussion allowed ideas to be explored, not mechanically processed. The text was consulted for evidence. Even more than all of that, these kids demonstrated how they knew the text deeply, not merely a surface reading, understanding the humanity of the play. They showed me that they can handle text.

    So thank you for suggesting and sharing your ideas. And thank you for reading this lengthy comment.


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