As a teacher for more than a quarter of a century, I have been intimately involved in trying to move education from the factory “assembly line” model to one that is more student-centered. One of my favorite experiences in the classroom has been to watch and listen as students interact during meaningful discussions – developing critical thinking, listening, and persuasion skills in the process.

From the simple strategy of Think/Pair/Share to the more complex approach of a Socratic Dialogue, conversations between students have become an essential part of the learning process.

What does a teacher do, then, when some or all of the students are online?

How to facilitate meaningful discussions in hybrid or virtual classrooms

Coaxing students to participate has become a different kind of challenge that many of us never anticipated. With the new distractions and complications of distance and hybrid learning, it may be tempting to return to the “sit and get” lectures of long ago.


Read more: Teaching students how to manage digital distractions


But teachers around the world are demonstrating ways to engage their students in conversations using creative methods. Although specific strategies may have changed, the basic framework of successful discussions has not: setting a good foundation, thoughtful preparation, accountability, and reflection.

  • Setting a good foundation

    Thoughtful preparation includes community building as well as modeling and communication of expectations. The biggest mistake that can be made in conducting meaningful classroom discussions is to expect students to instantly make themselves vulnerable by sharing deep opinions with complete strangers.

    Developing rapport with your students is a priority before you can call for them to take risks. Prior to breaking students up into smaller groups, model discussions with the whole group, and work on creating a shared set of expectations for listening and speaking.


    Read more: 7 Tips on how to adapt teacher-student rapport while teaching online


    You may want to incorporate hand signals into your live sessions. Once the class has agreed on and practiced the ground rules, you can phase in fun conversations in small groups for brief periods of time (2-5 minutes) by using light-hearted topics like “Would You Rather” questions or this “Frayer a Friend” activity from @SarahJTeacher.

  • Thoughtful preparation

    As relationships begin to strengthen in the class and students become more comfortable with sharing their voices, you can begin to plan for deeper conversations. This part of the procedure should include selection of high-interest topics and careful consideration of the discussion method to be used.

    The more connected students feel to the conversation’s purpose, the more likely they will be to stay engaged. For example, instead of prompting students to analyze the characters in Tuck Everlasting, ask them, “Which character would you choose to have as a best friend today and why?

    To encourage layered thinking, TeachThought offers these ideas for meaningful essential questions. In addition, consider allowing students to generate the discussion questions, which will give them even more incentive to participate when theirs are chosen.

    When deciding upon a discussion method, your primary considerations will be the environment and available tools. With some or all of your students joining in online, you will have the choice of doing discussions in real-time (synchronous) or at student convenience within a specified time frame (asynchronous).


    Read more: Adopting the asynchronous mindset for better online learning


    Synchronous activities can pose challenges, but creative teachers have found many ways to make these work using virtual breakout rooms. If you find yourself in a hybrid situation or with large groups of students, fish bowls, and panel discussions allow students to take turns as listeners and speakers.

    Some teachers also recommend that it helps to “even the playing field” by putting all students online – even those sitting in the classroom – for whole group discussions. Another option is to create virtual rotation stations like these, so the teacher can guide small group discussions while others perform independent assignments.

    In Higher Ed, asynchronous online discussions are often done on discussion boards, but K-12 students may be more inclined to collaborate on Google Slides such as these EduProtocols, which even include digital models for Think/Pair/Share. Equally as powerful are using Google Slides for Visible Thinking Routines and for Hexagonal Learning.

    Flipgrid is a popular tool for asynchronous responses to prompts, allowing students to record their own answers to a prompt, and to respond to each other’s videos. Some educators also like to use programs designed specifically for online debates, such as Kialo and Parlay.

  • Accountability during discussions

    Students will be more likely to take part in conversations that are valued, so it’s important to agree on how they will demonstrate their participation and learning. With synchronous/whole group exchanges in a classroom, teachers can use tools like the Equity Maps app to record participation. However, this is not practical in hybrid or distance situations.

    If you are using virtual breakout rooms, you may want to assign students roles in their small groups, including a note-taker who will fill out a specific Google Slide. By toggling Google Slides into grid view, you can keep track of which groups are completing their tasks. Google Jamboard is another alternative, allowing you to assign a different page to each student group so you can watch as they draw, attach sticky notes, or type their responses.

    Color-coded conversations in Google Docs, as described here by Ashley Bible, are also a good method for monitoring a virtual discussion. In addition, Google Docs and backchannel apps (like YoTeach!) are also useful in situations like fishbowl and panel discussions, where students need to take turns listening to others speak.

    Finally, if you want to motivate all students to speak about a topic, you can try A.J. Juliani’s Discussion Game (which incentivizes students to use different sentence stems), or a Score Card from the podcast Smash, Boom, Best (which emphasizes debate skills).

  • Reflection

    Anyone who has sat with extended family around a dinner table during the holidays knows that even well-intentioned discussions can go awry. We also know that we can have intense conversations with people, and forget them hours or days later. These are the reasons why it is so important to bookend classroom conversations by asking students to think about what worked and what didn’t and to synthesize their learning.

    Using Visible Thinking Routines such as “I Used to Think… Now I Think…” and “Connect, Extend, Challenge” are excellent prompts to encourage students to verbalize their experiences. A short Google Form can be used to debrief students on how the process worked, asking them to what degree they felt the expectations agreed upon at the outset were met and what improvements might be needed. Some more ideas for reflection questions can be found here.

Summing it up

The role of classroom discourse should not be diminished due to our current circumstances. It is vital for students to process their learning by speaking about it, listening to different perspectives, and using academic language in context. It is also essential for students to participate in conversations that make safe spaces for opposing voices so that they can carry those critical thinking skills into their future as citizens, employees, parents, and leaders.

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