How to Lead Discussions
Rolling eyes, rustling newsprint, relentless shuffling of feet...many of us have encountered such manifestations of disinterest in professional development meetings. To minimize these responses, we must present relevant content and engage our participants in meaningful activities and discussion. Our discussion activities should be strategically structured to help participants:
- Explore and express their beliefs
- Consider multiple points of view
- Think critically
- Formulate and solve problems
By clarifying our goals for discussion, setting acceptable parameters, and skillfully crafting our professional development activities, we will affect more change in the instructional practices of our participants.
What is a "good" discussion?
The term "discussion" is used to describe several forms of communication: conversation, debate, argument, and informal chat. It is very important to be clear about the type and purpose of discussions, and we must ensure that our discussions are safe, focused, and balanced.
Facilitators must provide an environment that permits participants to express their points of view without fear of humiliation. Facilitators must be very clear about their expectations, and they must demonstrate a lack of tolerance for any behavior which embarrasses individuals.
Discussions must be focused. Leaders must ensure that participant conversation and debate contribute to the objectives of the professional development session. Whenever the discussion gets off track, facilitators must gently redirect the conversation so that it contributes to the achievement of the stated goals.
Good discussion is also balanced. Facilitators must solicit multiple points of view and encourage tolerance for differing ideas. Without this type of intervention by the facilitator, a few loud spoken individuals can control and limit the breadth of consideration by the group.
Society expects teachers to have answers. Consequently, many educators are afraid to acknowledge that they do not know. Consequently, facilitators must work to create a trusting environment where teachers can comfortably say,
- "I do not understand."
- "I am confused."
- "I have trouble teaching that concept."
Trusting environments are more likely to develop when the rules of discussion and engagement are clear and enforced. Facilitators should engage the professional development participants in a discussion about the importance of trust. They may delineate their expectations or solicit "rules of discussion" by asking the participants to explain how they develop trusting, safe environments for discussion in their classrooms.
Once the rules are clarified, the facilitator must clarify how they will be enforced during the professional development session.
In summary, facilitators should do the following to encourage meaningful discussion:
- Be clear about the purpose of the discussion. Clarify whether the questions should stimulate the participants to synthesize, rate, or compare ideas.
- Identify key issues and formulate provocative questions in advance of the professional development sessions to achieve the stated objectives.
- Avoid answering their own questions.
- Wait for responses.
- Welcome disagreement.
- Challenge participants to provide evidence for their statements.
- Identify the context the speakers are referencing.
Evaluation of Discussion
Sound evaluation begins with the end in mind. Facilitators must clearly identify the specific evidence that they will accept as indicators that the professional development goals are achieved. The facilitator must also delineate how this evidence will be collected and what will be done if the participants do not meet the expectations.
Gottschalk, Katherine K. "Facilitating Discussion: A Brief Guide." John S. Knight Writing Program, Cornell University. http://instruct1.cit.cornell.edu/courses/taresources/leadisc.html#anchor45458
Lewis, Karron G. "Evaluating Discussion." Teachers and Students, A Sourcebook for UT-Austin Faculty. www.utexas.edu/academic/cte/sourcebook/discussion3.pdf