Whether at the elementary or post-graduate level, teachers everywhere often struggle with facilitating classroom discussion. You may have one or two students who are completely engaged, but too often you catch yourself wishing everyone would share their thoughts for a better overall learning environment.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to encourage meaningful discussion.

Understand the issue

 Classroom discussion can be a touchy issue. Some teachers claim they can’t get their classrooms to stop talking and have to work hard to curb side conversations and redirect attention to the subject matter at hand.

Other instructors can’t get their students to talk at all, which becomes frustrating over time and can adversely affect the overall learning environment.

For teachers who have difficulty facilitating conversation in the classroom, it’s vital to get to the root of the problem. In most cases, the source is fear, lack of interest, or an insufficient base of knowledge.

When fear is the issue, students are afraid they’ll be laughed at for their opinion, or embarrassed for stating something incorrectly. This may have more to do with the shyness of the particular student, but you can rectify this by leading a frank conversation about how to respect others’ opinions.

Lack of interest can be combated by making the content more engaging, incorporating more visuals, and avoiding mindless repetition. This is usually the easiest obstacle to overcome, but it can be frustrating for teachers who don’t want to go to the trouble of changing their approach or curriculum.

Finally, a lack of knowledge can lead to a quiet classroom. In other words, the students simply don’t know enough about the topic to offer any valuable insight. This is either a sign that they aren’t doing homework, but it might also suggest the content is too challenging.

Five tips for fostering classroom discussion

 Depending on the dynamic of your classroom and the underlying issues, any or all of the following strategies can help you foster better classroom discussion:

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  • Employ silence. One of the oldest tricks in the book, but one often overlooked, is to use silence to your advantage. Instead of filling the space with your views and opinions, offer questions and wait for a response. Look confident, use eye contact, and encourage participation. If nobody takes the opportunity to talk, ask a question about the question.

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  • Respect sensitivity. Depending on which subjects or courses you teach, it’s possible that you may encounter sensitive subject matter from time to time. In these instances, it’s critical that you respect all viewpoints and commit to learning, as opposed to descending into argument.
  • Never criticize individuals. As a teacher, you should always follow the mantra “criticize ideas, never individuals.” No matter how ridiculous an opinion sounds, you can’t take it personally. When you’re a teacher, any bit of criticism can evoke fear in students and kill your ability to facilitate conversation and classroom discussion in the future.

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  • Encourage group discussions. If students won’t discuss ideas in a large classroom setting, you may find it more productive to break students up into smaller groups and encourage them to conduct a discussion among themselves. This allows them to speak without the direct oversight of an instructor, and almost always enhances classroom discussion when students return from their groups.
  • Break the ice. Instead of jumping into the curriculum as soon as class starts, consider beginning each class with three to five minutes of casual conversation. Ask about other classes, current events, or other lighthearted topics. This can prime the class for more formal discussion and increases everyone’s overall level of comfort.

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