Discussion Strategies for History Class


If you pair how often we all communicate via text message and social media, then you look at the debates that take place in the public sphere over political and social issues, it becomes clear how important it is to teach students how to debate issues in a respectful way. This brings me to my research and this post on how to teach discussions in a social studies classroom. What follows are a few strategies that will get you prepared to teach students how to discuss an issue and base what they say on facts.

Pinwheel Discussion

A basic pillar of a history class is to get students to see how different actors of society will have differing points of view based on their world views. A pinwheel discussion gets students to take on the values of a section of society and other students will act as provocateurs to keep the discussion moving. I have used this type of discussion in conjunction with the Choices lessons from Brown University, and wrote about the resource and process in this post.

Socratic Seminar

When students are tasked with reading a long text, a Socratic Seminar can be a way for them to digest and problematize the material. In preparation students need to all read the same text, and prepare points of interest and higher order questions that relate to the text. During the discussion students sit in a circle and one person will read a quote from the text and remark on it. The next student can respond to that remark, and use another part of the text as support. The discussion continues either because students become enthralled in the topic or because the teacher has a framework for evaluating students.

Spokane Public Schools offers this guide for students to evaluate each other in a socratic seminar. When students evaluate each other this also reinforces the skills that they themselves should be practicing, and it builds in a check to the lesson that will encourage students to participate and think critically about the lesson. This type of check can be done in a whole group discussion or when students are conducting the seminar in smaller groups. When in small groups, the teacher can circulate amongst the groups and observe student participation. During a whole class discussion, the teacher can participate in the discussion encouraging students to share their thoughts.

Fishbowl Discussions

A fishbowl discussion strategy can be a way for students to take turns participating in the discussion and observing while learning. This article from Facing History describes the resources needed and process for a fishbowl discussion. This strategy is useful for when you want all students to participate in the discussion. There will always be some introverted students in class who will be reticent to speak in large groups. With a fishbowl discussion, students have the opportunity to observe others speaking in a small group format before they participate themselves. As the teacher you should give the students time to prepare for the prompt they’ll speak to before they start the discussion. I like to use this strategy as a way to dig deeper into a topic that we’ve already spent some time looking at.

Paired Discussion

While whole class discussions that take up a large chunk of class can be worthwhile, students can also take away valuable lessons from a paired discussion. This strategy can be used at the beginning or end of class to briefly discuss a point of view. As the teacher, you can have students turn to their “elbow partner” and respond to a prompt. As described in this article from Stanford University’s Teaching Commons, a prompt can be a question that does not have a single correct answer. This allows students to share their opinion, and practice the important skills for respectfully disagreeing in a debate situation.

Snowball Discussion

A snowball discussion strategy is a way to level-up on a 2-person discussion. Cult of Pedagogy has a widely cited article on 15 formats of discussion in the classroom, where they explain how to do a snowball discussion. After discussing a topic with each other, the pair of students moves on to discuss the topic with another pair of students. Then this group of four student moves on to discuss their ideas with another group of four, and the process continues from there.

Practice for Real Life

Discussed in this post are only 5 ways to promote discussion in a history classroom. With these strategies cycled throughout the academic year, students are unlikely to get bored with the curriculum. However if they do, there are several resources linked above that provide additional support for classroom discussions. This is such and important skill to teach, because as referenced earlier, opportunities for discussion abound.

cultureBryn Hafemeister3, c