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Creating an Environment for productive discussions

How to make classroom discussions impactful

A productive classroom discussion allows every student to participate. Increased participation benefits both individuals and the entire activity. The more points of view that are contributed to the discussion, the better.

A classroom discussion is meaningful if learners take something away from it. These principles will help you to host an inclusive discussion that everyone can contribute towards:

  • Being heard — Contributing to a class discussion can be scary. If learners feel they aren’t listened to, or their input is overlooked, they won’t feel comfortable taking a risk.

  • Being advanced — The outcomes for a session must be beneficial to everyone involved. Learners must feel they have something to gain from the activity.

  • Being valued — It’s important for students to feel that their contributions to the discussion are valuable. Take the time to explore “wrong” answers as much as “right” ones.

  • Being given time — Deep thought and consideration cannot be rushed. Learners need to feel they have the time to consider their ideas.

  • Being given space — Our environment has a huge impact on our state of mind. It’s essential to provide a safe space for learners to explore their ideas.

Everybody will prioritise these principles differently. As a discussion leader, you need to provide all your learners with the right support. Try to find out the different priorities of your students, to best support them in your discussions.

Creating an effective environment

How will you create an environment that encompasses the principles above? How will you encourage your students to participate actively in a discussion?


Your discussion topic or question should be relevant, exciting, and open. If it meets these criteria, you have set up a good environment for a productive discussion.


A topic has relevance for an individual if they can relate to some aspect of it. Something about it must feel familiar or close to home. The subject matter should line up with the topics covered in your classroom. It also needs to be accessible. Students need to feel they can approach the topic with some level of aptitude.


A thought-provoking subject will get your learners excited to explore the topic. “Exciting” can be subjective, but in general, we find things thrilling if they are important and impactful. Humans love communicating, so conversations flow easily when we see why we should talk about a topic.


Learners enjoy subjects that are still open for discussion, with multiple viewpoints to consider. Select topics that have meaning for a wide demographic of people.


Consider the environment your discussions take place in. Successful discussions require thought and preparation, and the environment is essential.


You can encourage discussion by opening up the room. Make sure no one is crowded, and that there are lines of sight between all participants. Try setting up chairs in a circle, with space between each seat so that people can move in and out; or get smaller groups to sit around tables to discuss their ideas.


Create an atmosphere where your students feel physically and mentally at ease. Open, honest communication is key to creating a comfortable space.


Learners should feel safe in their contributions and in their environment. Discussions should be open to all and be as inclusive as possible. Not every student will feel comfortable expressing themselves in front of their peers. Consider active-learning activities and breakout sessions to encourage quieter students to contribute.

Make the boundaries of a discussion clear and set up shared rules for discussions with your classes. Refer to the boundaries throughout the discussion to keep it on track. Make sure to look out for signs that a student is bullying another student in a discussion and deal with it immediately.

For some more guidance on creating a safe learning environment, see this article. It focuses on university teaching, but the principles also apply to discussions in GCSE classrooms.


Consider how the principles we have covered apply to you and your classroom:

  • What are you going to try and implement in your classroom?
  • Which discussion principles will you prioritise?
  • How will you set up your classroom to encourage more students to contribute to discussions?
  • What topics do you think have the most relevance and excitement for your students?

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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