Resource Library

Academic Discussions — Part I

Sharing our thoughts and discussing concepts and content help us integrate new information into personal knowledge. When we explain and develop our thinking, learning becomes more meaningful, memorable, and established in our minds. Unfortunately, however, academic discussion amongst students doesn’t happen as frequently as it could and should across classrooms, and in working with instructional leaders through the pandemic I’ve noticed that, in virtual classrooms, it happens even less. This is quite concerning, as without student voice, in the absence of discussion and collaboration, the responsibility for cognitive lift relies primarily with the teacher. This is antithetical to the environment necessary to facilitate student engagement, thought, and, as a result, deep and meaningful growth.

CT3 academic discussionsIn an effort to increase engagement and student voice across schools, one particular district in which I coach a number of principals set the expectation that teachers will provide opportunities for academic discussion within every lesson. School leaders were tasked with tracking both the frequency and effectiveness of those discussions and a significant amount of data was gathered in a matter of days.

While reviewing school data with one principal, I noticed that practically all teachers that were observed engaging students in academic discussion were identified as “effective”. This raised the question for me, “What criteria are these leaders using to determine effectiveness?” As I visited with each leader and questioned how they were determining the effectiveness of discussion, I began to notice a common trend in regard to their instructional lens. Although each was keen to identify key determining factors in guiding effective discussion, they were looking in the wrong direction. That is, their sights were focused on teacher performance (inputs) when it should instead have been toward student performance (outputs).

For example, some of the more common criteria leaders were using to determine effectiveness were…

  • Are questions aligned to learning expectations?
  • Are questions rigorous?
  • Did the teacher set a clear purpose for discussion?
  • Did the teacher provide precise directions and check for understanding?
  • Did the teachers use universal prompts to guide discussion?

Certainly, each of the above listed are essential to ensuring conditions for effective discussion. They are all very important teacher moves. However, the planning and facilitating that goes into delivering a lesson are simply inputs. For evidence of effectiveness you have to look at outputs, and those outputs can only be found by observing for evidence of students’ engagement and demonstrations of learning.

So, what are the outputs one should focus on?

Below I offer the following as key criteria in determining if what is observed is actually on PAR with effective discussion:

Participation: Did all scholars have an opportunity to engage in discussion?

Achievement: Did scholars move towards mastery of learning expectations throughout the course of the discussion?

Rigor: Did scholars meet or exceed the academic expectation with a grade-level response?

By focusing on these three outputs, and relying on student performance rather than teacher performance, you can more reliably determine if your classroom(s) are indeed on PAR for effective discussion.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Read Part 2 with downloadable resource here.

By Richard Frank, Managing Associate, Partnership Manager, CT3

CT3 transforms the quality and culture of education for youth, especially those in traditionally disenfranchised communities.

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