3 Strategies to Help Students Value All Voices in Class Discussions

We’re continuing our series on the Four Stages of Group Development in Touchstones with a closer look at Stage 2: Cooperation. In this post, we’ll dive deeper into the goals of the Cooperation stage and offer strategies to help you support your class in building Essential Skills. While no group’s progress is simply linear, you’ll have a good idea that your class is moving into Stage 2 when students are primarily speaking directly to each other, rather than to or through you and when you consistently see maximum, balanced participation in the whole group discussion: a rotating group of about 60% of students speaking, with 90% exhibiting other behaviors of engagement each time. If you’re not seeing this yet in your class, head back to our previous post for strategies to help you address the barriers to Participation.

The goal in Stage 2 is for every student’s voice and opinions to come into the discussion knowing that their perspective is valued by the group. In Touchstones, as in life, a discussion is about much more than an interpretation of a topic or an analysis of a text. It is also a space that allows us to practice more empathetic engagement with others and to reflect on the actions that can help or hinder shared learning for each of our group’s members. Oftentimes, the dynamics that hinder learning are so subtle they go unaddressed or are solved by a teacher’s intervention. These might include some students’ ideas consistently being ignored by others, students only responding to contributions made by their friends, a sustained argument between a few students, or many students talking over each other. Participants recognize the difference in a discussion when these dynamics are present, versus when they are not, and Stage 2 sets the foundation for students to have greater agency in addressing them. They practice making sense of how these interpersonal dynamics can affect the goal of bringing in all voices and begin learning how to address any issues that arise together. This goal is even more vital coming out of the pandemic as we all relearn how to interact in communal settings. Discussion leaders in Stage 2 are beginning to focus more on the entire group’s needs, rather than the needs of individual students and are practicing turning over more responsibility for the discussion process to students. 

If this sounds like an ambitious set of goals, the strategies we offer below can help support both you and your students in building these Essential Skills.

Strategies to Support Essential Skill Building in the Cooperation Stage

  • Timing and Transitions

As in any classroom activity, transitions are where students can most easily lose focus or fall into conflict. One easy way to ensure that transitions flow quickly and smoothly is to use a timer or music to mark different types of activities. Intentionally choosing the tone of the music can provide an auditory cue for how you want students to engage. For example, up tempo music can support moving chairs back to the circle quickly or soft, slow music can support individual reflection. You can also consider adjusting the timing for different activities based on your class’ needs. If students become off task in Small Group Work (SGW), shortening the suggested lesson timing for that part can support your learners in staying on task. Instead, you can devote that extra time to a longer discussion evaluation.

  • Focus on Small Group Work

Cooperative learning requires a different set of skills than learning as an individual, and focusing on the SGW is an excellent way to scaffold those skills for students as they practice navigating any challenging group dynamics and feel supported as they work toward group tasks in a smaller setting. As students build their skills, small groups become a place where all learners can actively participate, diversity of thought is celebrated, and all contributions are valued. Over time, this translates to all parts of the Touchstones lesson, as well as other classroom and school contexts. When first moving into Stage 2, intentionally planning the makeup of small groups can accelerate this process. You probably already group students intentionally during core instruction, but you may not have thought to do so during Touchstones. Intentional grouping not only supports greater access to the ideas in the text, but also gives your students the opportunity to learn from a variety of their classmates – both those they may see as similar to themselves and those they may view as different. When deciding on groups, consider factors like social dynamics, splitting up any subgroups that exist, giving more reluctant students space to share, student reading level, or academic achievement. How you employ these different factors to create groups may change throughout the year. For additional support you can also strategically assign students to take on specific group roles. As an example, you might ask a quieter student to serve as Chairperson, giving them the additional structure or affirmation they might need to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts. You can easily assign groups and roles by projecting a slide at the start of the Small Group Work that lists all group members’ names and their assigned roles. Another option is to strategically assign seats in the circle according to the groups.

  • Use Evaluation Tools to Set Goals

The individual and group evaluation tools in your Touchstones volumes aren’t just for reflecting on the group’s work after a discussion. They can help students take an increasingly active role in evaluating the class’ progress toward inclusive discussion. Individual evaluations can help them explore their own strengths and areas for growth, while group evaluations and using student observers can aid in identifying the strengths and challenges of their class as a whole. Clearly defined goals can be used as a guide for growth. At the end of each discussion evaluation, set 2-3 concrete goals for improvement as a class for future discussions. Students can also create individual goals for themselves and keep them in Touchstones folder or portfolio to refer back to. All goals should come from the students and be related to group dynamics. They can include things such as asking more questions or referring back to the contributions of peers in SGW during the whole group discussion. Be sure to remind students of their goals at the beginning of the next lesson so they can practice enacting them.

The ultimate goal in Touchstones is shifting responsibility for learning from teachers to students. As your learners actively participate through these strategies they will learn skills for resolving conflicts when they arise and become more invested in their own learning.

In the comments, tell us about how you support students to become more aware of group dynamics that help or hinder learning. If you’re interested in adding more strategies to your toolbox, join us for an upcoming workshop or our Summer Educator Summit.

This post is the second in a series on The Four Stages of group development. Check back later in March for the next post focusing on Active Listening.