Often one of the best signs of an engaged classroom is having a loud classroom. Loud in a good way of course. As a teacher, there are few things better than when your students are fully engaged in class discussion, leaning towards each other, learning from listening, finding ways to make their points clear and concise. Class discussion is not only fun for students, it’s also one of the most effective ways for them to learn.

However, getting your class to discuss in a rich and meaningful way is not always a simple task. In order for students to participate in rich class discussions, the discussions must fit the following criteria:

  1. They are safe.
  2. They have a clear purpose.
  3. They are owned by the students

Today, let’s talk about making discussion safe.

Students will not, and I mean kindergarten to PHD students, will not engage in class discussion if they feel they will be attacked for expressing their views. No matter what a student says aloud during a discussion, the teacher has to ensure the environment is safe for them to do so.

This sounds easy enough, just don’t laugh at or shame a student and the environment will be safe, right? However, even small moments can be enough to send a message to students that the class is not safe to discuss, and as a result class discussions will become a place where students are afraid to dive in and contribute beyond the surface level.

For instance, one time my class was discussing as a whole group a novel we were reading. One boy kept raising his hand to talk, and when I called on him for the fourth time, I blurted out, “Okay, we’ve heard enough from you on this! Let’s hear someone else.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized they were the wrong ones.

Immediately that student put his hand down, feeling slightly shamed, and I could feel the energy pulled from the room. No one else wanted to contribute to the discussion because they believed they could be called out next. I should have said something like, “I’m loving what you have to say, but I want to hear what everyone else thinks as well.” Unfortunately, that’s not what I said, and I had to rebuild some of the culture in the room to get students to discuss again.

Speaking up in class takes courage, especially when it is a new skill. We have to create an environment that doesn’t impede this skill.

Along with monitoring yourself, this also means facilitating class discussion to ensure other students keep it safe as well. This is why it’s beneficial to have discussion ground rules that are on display and reviewed before every discussion. These rules can be something that you develop with your class, asking them what guidelines should be followed during class discussion. Here’s an example what the ground rules can look like:

Classroom Discussion Ground Rules

  1. Listen respectfully when someone else is talking
  2. Be critical of ideas, not people
  3. Allow everyone a chance to speak
  4. Ask for clarification if you are confused
  5. Always work toward a shared understanding
  6. Collaborate, don’t compete
  7. If you are offended by something, call it out immediately

The ground rules are non-negotiable, for yourself and students. Part of your role in facilitating discussion is ensuring they are followed and you follow them to keep the discussion environment safe.

When students feel safe to discuss, there is no limit to where the discussion can go and what it can accomplish.

Here is a free poster of the discussion ground rules as well as other amazing free resources in the New Teacher Toolkit.