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Guided Practice: Building the muscle of civil discourse in the classroom

By: Tim Morris on June 21st, 2022

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Guided Practice: Building the muscle of civil discourse in the classroom

Personalized Learning  |  Teachers

If you lead a district, school, or department, or if you are a teacher yourself, then you may have seen that civil discourse that relies on evidence is increasingly under attack. We might experience this, at times locally in our Board meetings, and nationally in the broader conversation.


Seeing this we might ask: what can we do in order to move towards principles that value critical thinking, skills for evaluating source material, and navigating complex problems? Often, the answer includes teaching to the state standards!


But we also believe that educators should continue to make space, and promote collaboration and creativity as ways to encourage students to contribute uniquely, to solve novel problems, and to learn about their classmates and themselves. Through these efforts, students can push one another to make connections, synthesize multiple viewpoints, and identify differences in reasoning. 


Here are three specific strategies to do this:


Socratic Seminars

Socratic Seminars are traditionally rooted in a text, but can be applied to any topic that might have multiple perspectives or a complex solution. 

    • The discussion starts with the facilitator (this can be the teacher or a student) asking a question rooted in some sort of information that can be cited or referenced. 
    • For example, in a systems of equations unit in math, the facilitator could ask questions like “How can you solve a system of equations or inequalities?” or “Can systems of equations model real-world situations?” 
    • Students in the circle then begin sharing ideas based on content from class, a text, or both. 
    • Once a member of the discussion responds, it is a requirement that members contribute only by referencing and responding directly to each other members’ response. 
    • This strategy takes practice and for a successful discussion, the facilitator should continue to encourage students to respond to each others’ ideas and keep responses rooted in the facts, primary sources, or class content. 


Chalk Talk

Chalk Talk can function in several different ways and is a non-verbal alternative to the Socratic Seminar; students respond to each others’ ideas in writing. 

    • Chalk talk can build off of a gallery walk - in the first round, students might write down questions or responses to the content in the gallery. (In a gallery walk you can present new content or student work on the walls). 
    • To build the walk into a discussion, in the second round, students are tasked with exclusively responding to each other’s thoughts or questions using a sticky note. 
    • You can follow the same format by adding your own prompting questions to start the discussion or instead of content! 
    • In the first round, students respond to the question or solve a problem and in the following rounds, students can respond to each others’ solutions. 


Assigning Group Roles

We can assign students group roles that not only mimic those they might find in real-world project teams, but truly encourage students to interact with each others’ unique ideas and personalities.

Here are some example roles: 

    • Facilitator - You make sure everyone’s voice is heard. If someone has not been able to add to your work yet, ask them questions to find out what they think works well for your solution.
    • Manager - You make sure that your group stays on track to finish your task, in the time that you have for it. To do this, you must check-in with other group members on their progress.
    • Source Control - You make sure that your group is using the data, evidence from the text, or a provided resource. (Ask: how does what we created relate to the primary source?)
    • Accountability Lead  - You make sure everyone in the group knows what to do next. If you have finished your assignment, check to see what your group members will take from your work and use in the future. 


The idea is that each role has a unique angle on the work, so that, as the group makes decisions and progresses, each member is encouraged to take on a different critical lens to evaluate or provide additional meaning to that progress. For example, not only does the source control need to reason through the connection between group decisions and primary sources, but they also need to develop the skills to be able to encourage their other group members to do so also. 


By adding structure to student-to-student interaction, you are more likely to develop students who can push one another, interact in dynamic ways, solve problems together, grow and learn more about themselves. 

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