Discussion in an Age of Distraction: Helping teachers engage today’s students in deep conversation | 4 Min Read

By Katherine Burd, English teacher, The Chapin School (NY); and Liza Garonzik, founder, R.E.A.L. Discussion, & a former English teacher, The Westminster Schools (GA)

Student-led discussions are harder than they used to be. Adults cite well-publicized reasons for changes in student engagement. We blame video games and TikTok; lack of civil discourse in families and in government; fake news and news feeds. We bemoan age-old teenage tendencies toward extremes — belligerence and antipathy, sarcasm and generosity — but what really catches our attention are the newer behaviors: heightened anxiety, restless distraction, and polarizing self-righteousness. When faced with these new concerns, even experienced teachers struggle to facilitate classroom discussion that equitably engages all students in the essential task of forging new understandings from separate perspectives. Why? We argue that for the first time in generations, expecting a group of children to converse on a single subject, in-person and for a sustained period of time, means asking them to do something entirely new.

By now, the student-led discussion is old technology in independent schools. Even as they are incubators for best practices in education, independent schools, and especially Humanities departments, have employed student-led discussion and models like Harkness, Socratic seminars, and the Fishbowl for decades. The discussion itself is a tradition well-rooted in research: from Parker Palmer and Grant Wiggins to Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck. These renowned educational theorists have linked impressive academic and socio-emotional outcomes to discussion-based teaching and learning. For this reason, schools and educators are right to continue to cherish student-led discussion as a best practice.
Yet, where teachers see the discussion as a familiar practice, today’s students, by contrast, find it to be as foreign as any new technology. Although cognitively speaking, today’s students are certainly as capable of deep learning through in-person discussion, their starting point is different from students even 10 years ago. Gen-Z students are digital natives with well-honed instincts for navigating iPads, design labs, and STEAM spaces (resources into which schools rightfully invest significant time and money), yet they are at a loss when asked to engage in a sustained, in-person conversation with classmates. The solution? Schools can challenge their educators to re-calibrate their classroom discussion practices ­— with the same enthusiasm as for a teacher integrating 3D printing or coding into their curriculum. The reality is that no amount of classroom experience or earned wisdom could have prepared today’s teachers for the conundrums presented by Gen-Z students — and the stakes are high: the world needs independent school graduates to be ready to engage one another through empathy, evidence, and inquiry.

Today’s students deserve to be held accountable for developing robust discussion skills and can benefit from a scaffolded approach. Instead of assuming that discussion is an inherent competency for Gen-Z students and something they see modeled daily on the news and around dinner tables, teachers must actively teach what it takes to have a “good” conversation. They can use frameworks to approach the discussion as a discipline: a set of practices that structure students to share their own connections to classroom texts, attend with rigor to the specific elements of stories and sources, ask authentic questions, listen deeply to classmates, and reflect with a growth mindset. Schools can consider investing in and engaging with models and programs designed to enhance the use of student-led discussion as an intentional teaching tool alongside flashier, trendier technologies. In so doing, teachers will explicitly equip students to counter the trend towards vague, contentious, and lazy discourse in the “real world.”

As any Design Thinking expert would remind us: we can begin this work with empathy, by investigating and listening with compassion to the reasons why students find sustained discourse challenging. Perhaps the students, their families, their communities, or their governments are to blame for this discomfort, but rendering teenagers victims of the age in which they live ignores our adult capacity for action. Instead, acknowledging this odd “newness” of classroom discussion allows teachers to explicitly build a case for why discussion matters. It’s an opportunity for teachers to demonstrate how the work of the classroom is, in fact, real, organic, and as relevant as demonstrating the correct answer on a test. Students will quickly learn that discussion is not only a context for demonstrating knowledge but also a tool for building understanding in the community: a skillset and mindset that will stand them — and our society — in good stead for years to come.

Katherine Burd teaches English at The Chapin School (NY) and writes about all things education. Liza Garonzik is the founder of R.E.A.L. Discussion (www.REALdiscussion.org) and a former English teacher at The Westminster Schools (GA).

Editor’s Note:
A similar point made by the authors of In Search of Deeper Learning (Mehta & Fine) is the feeling of equity that empowers students rather than renders them defensive:

The goal of the class was to wring everything there was out of a given piece of text, and this was something the group could do better than any individual, including the teacher. Mr. Fields saw this as part of his own growth as a person — realizing that his perspective was as colored by his background and experiences as anyone else’s — and thus trusting the wisdom of the crowd would lead to richer understandings of the text than he alone could provide. (pp. 318-19)

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