Habitually Socratic

TECHNIQUE #42: Habits of Discussion

discuss16Habits of Discussion #42 Essentially, is a means to standardize discussion activities in the classroom by “…normalizing a set of ground rules or “habits” that allow discussion to be more efficiently cohesive and connected.”¹.

Chapter 9, ‘Building Ratio Through Discussion‘, delves into the participation ratio of lesson activities.  I love the fact that coincidentally, I just watched the film ‘The Paper Chase‘, (1973), staring John Houseman, as the quintessential Harvard Law professor hammering his students, not with lectures, instead mercilessly leading his classroom with the Socratic Method.  In a less strict and pedantic mode, Teach Like a Champion® methodology, regarding discussion, replicates the structure and expectations of a Socratic pedagogy.  Moving away from disconnected verbal interactions, rather, “…developing and expanding ideas through a series of connected comments…sometimes requires keeping a discussion “inside the box”…participants who make discussions effective will often tacitly reference preceding ideas in their own comments, offering a bit of implicit context for them.”,(p.319,321)¹.

Well, not this regimental and punishing….Habits of Discussion requires that students learn to regularly validate and build off of the preceding statements made by classmates, using the names of and making eye contact with classmates, speaking loudly enough to be heard well, and framing comments articulately.  Students benefit from establish the following Habits of Discussion:

  • Discussion fundamentals: voice, tracking, names
  • Follow-on, and follow-on prompting
  • Sentence starters
  • Managing the meta


Discussion Fundamentals: Voice, Tracking, Names

speakThe simple and yes, fundamental, skill of speaking loudly, I feel, is an essential skill that all students should be encouraged to develop.  Time and time again, in the video clips available to view through the Teach Like a Champion® website, teachers consistently and unemotionally ask students to “speak up”; of import, they do NOT say “speak up”.  Simply by stating “Voice” or “So we can hear you”; the practice is unapologetic and in my opinion a critical life skill.

seeThrough the consistent use of Habits of Discussion, students are redirected to look at the student they are responding or reacting to; again, in the sample video clips, the teacher consistently say, “Tracking” and or use the hand signal of using the fore finger and the second finger to point to the eyes and out toward the person to whom the speaker should make eye contact.

Encourage students, not only to pick up on the trailhello16 of the student that spoke before them, but also to use their name.  I like this; is gives discussion more eloquence, it’s very Socratic, and it disciplines the students to “lock in” on the people they should be listening to and acknowledging.  “…an often overlooked detail that improves discussions is the practice of of expecting (and reminding) students to use one another’s names.  Subtle interruptions, steering students toward this habit, “Great; turn to Michael” or “OK, turn to Susan and repeat”. 

Follow-on, and Follow-on Prompting

 images.jpg Follow-on prompting is a means to train students in discussions to listen and pick up on the previous speakers statements.  Habits of Discussion asks the teacher to use simple phrases before calling on the next student, such as: “Develop“, “Evidence, please” “Add on, Michelle” or even “Follow-on” are effective and, after a while, about as directive as you need to be; the goal is to eventually move toward an discussion un-narrated by the teacher.  Promotion of peer-to-peer listening is a key component when the expectation is that the students respond and build upon each others comments.  This critical habit, “”Always listening”…teachers promote to help build a culture of peer listening and discussion. “,(p.319).

Sentence Starters

Encourage students to begin their reflections in a discussion, agreeing or disagreeing with pean16the previous speaker by framing or linking their comment with the following Habits of Discussion example sentence starters:

  • “I understand why you say that, Julia, but…”
  • “I was thinking so something similar, Mike…”
  • “There was another example of that Susan…”
  • “I want to add to what you just said John…”
  • “That makes sense Lily, however…”

These opening phrases lets the students’ classmates know that the speaker was listening, validates previous comments and establishes a “linked” discussion, creates flow.  The text¹ suggests that teachers post these example discussion sentence starters on the wall or board at the beginning of planned discussion activities.

Managing the Meta

group16Habits of Discussion is really designed to emulate the principals of Socratic discussion. “…developing and expanding ideas through a series of connected comments…sometimes requires keeping a discussion “inside the box”….We tend to valorize “thinking outside the box”: it smacks of creativity, cognitive leaps, and the raw stuff of insight.  In classroom discussion, however, keeping it inside the box-staying focused on a specific topic; maintaining steady, deep reflection on one idea-is often more valuable.”,(p.321).  The teachers goal is to frame the expectations of the discussion and set brief, strong parameters within which the students elaborate.

wisegrasshopper216It is interesting to note that of all the “Ratio” chapters: Building Ratio Through Questioning, Building Ratio Through Writing, and now, Building Ratio Through Discussion, Doug Lemov communicates that ‘Questioning’ and ‘Writing’ are far more important and should take prevalence over discussion activities in the classroom.  “Minutes in a classroom are finite, and there is always opportunity cost to any activity…the power is in the equilibrium between writing, questioning, and discussion rather than in the choice of one.  But, if I had to choose just one, I would choose writing. Hammering an idea into precise words and syntax…”, (p.314)¹.  One might argue that in a Modern Language classroom, the need for discussion, actual use of the target language is perhaps the predominant skill to develop; shifting the focus from writing to conversation.  However, post-secondary oriented training and goals, more often than not, lead to the college bound student to aim more toward perfecting writing skills.




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