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Formats for Discussion

Formats for in class discussions

There are advantages and disadvantages of each style of discussion. I hope that the examples in this step will help you to plan your own classroom discussions.

Dialogic teaching: the key points

Professor Robin Alexander developed the practice of dialogic teaching in the 2000s. Effective across many subject areas, it has a few basic requirements:

Requirement Explanation
Interactions These should encourage students to think, and to think in different ways.
Questions Questions must invite more than simple recall.
Answers These should be justified, followed up, and built upon, rather than merely received.
Feedback Feedback can inform and lead thinking forwards, as well as encourage.
Contributions These should be extended rather than fragmented.
Exchanges Exchanges chain together into coherent and deepening lines of enquiry.
Discussion and argumentation Discussion should probe and challenge, rather than unquestioningly accept.
Professional engagement with subject matter This liberates classroom discourse from the safe and conventional.
Classroom organisation, climate, and relationships These make all this possible.

These principles provide a guide for choosing a format for discussion. By making sure these things are present in your format, you can promote great learning through your discussion activities.


Debates can take many forms, and we’ll dedicate a whole step to them later. Here are some examples:


Two opposing factions take turns to present a point to the class and offer rebuttals to the other side’s points.

“Stand where I stand” debate

Have students pick a stance from the following list in relation to a particular question or topic: agree, partially agree, partially disagree, or disagree. Ask for explanations from a few, then allow students to move if their viewpoints have changed.

Hot-air balloon debate

Pick a topic that has more than two components. Have groups research and provide evidence in support of their component; vote to eliminate one of the groups at the end of each round.

Advantages and disadvantages

Debate-style discussions share many of the same advantages and disadvantages:

Pros: They encourage deep thinking and evidence-based arguing; they can teach rhetorical and logical skills.

Cons: They require high levels of preparation from both the students and the teacher, and can require a lot of teacher guidance to keep them on track.

Large-group discussions

Group dialogues

Place question stations around the classroom. Have small groups of students visit each station and discuss the question. They write their thoughts on Post-it notes, or on the reverse of the question paper, and move on to the next one. At the end each group will have looked at each question.

Pros: This discussion method provides a structure that involves the whole class.

Cons: It requires careful management to ensure that groups think of their own answers and don’t lean on the previous ones too much.

Smaller-group discussions

Jigsaw activities

Have individual groups cover topics and then swap to another group to explain their findings. Jigsaw activities like this are a good way of encouraging peer instruction.

Pros: This method creates a dynamic classroom environment and allows for a thorough exploration of a topic.

Cons: How well the original groups work together will have a huge effect on how well the second part functions. Managing the initial discovery activity is also important.

Informal collaborative tasks

Have each group examine a news article or another piece of evidence around an impact, with the goal of explaining the piece of evidence to the class. Assign roles within the group: an explainer, a questioner, and a scribe.

Pros: This gives important roles to all students and makes them feel included; it encourages different personalities to excel.

Cons: The roles must be clearly defined and explained. The effectiveness of each member of the team is vital to the success of this discussion.

Think, pair, share

Pose a question to the class, and have each individual think about their opinions and thoughts on the question. Have students pair up and discuss before sharing their combined ideas to the class.

Pros: This allows even the most introverted of pupils a chance to participate.

Cons: The depth of the question must allow for a variety of opinions. If all the groups have the same thoughts, this format can stagnate.

Writing activities

Thoughts, questions, and epiphanies

Give the students some pre-reading to do before class. Have them spend five minutes writing their thoughts, questions, and epiphanies on the piece, then discuss their findings with the class.

Pros: This allows individuals to present their views in a structured way, and can be used to address misconceptions that are shared across the class.

Cons: It relies on the completion and comprehension of the pre-reading.

Time to share

How will you use these discussion formats in your classroom? What topics or questions could you use? What other forms of discussion have you used or been a part of?

Share your thoughts with your fellow learners in the comments below.

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